My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cultural Appropriation (Mailbox)

Artists and Cultural Appropriation

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And I'm not above not REALLY answering your question but doing about ten paragraphs of changing the subject.]   

Eric asks:  

I know better than to call you names, so please don't take this the wrong way, but I'm honestly curious if you diverge at all from the usual social justice positions in the way I've seen other artists do. Is there any topic you find yourself on the other side going "man those guys are crazy!"? I agree with most feminism stuff, but the far left makes me nuts with their "cultural appropriation" police, especially as a writer who wants to write about other cultures. How do I do that if it's not appropriation? Should I be feeling guiltier? Asking for a friend.

My reply:

Relax, Eric. Unless you write anonymous entitled screeching nast-o-gram hate mail, you're probably safe. I'm always going to be snarky because that's just who I am, but I'm not going to order a full salvo of B-5000 Snark-O-Tron artillery batteries to target your face unless you richly deserve it. Which usually means snotty and anonymous.

A lot of folks who discuss social issues quite often. QUITE OFTEN. Oh Em Eff Gee do we disagree quite often. Anyone who thinks we're all lock armed and singing Kumbaya in the name of equal equality hugging is either not spending enough time actually listening to us talk to each other or is some unrepentant, overt racist who has actually gotten us all to agree on the fact that they suck (and not in the eye-contact, lots-of-enthusiasm way).

I'm not saying that's you, Eric, but if you find yourself disagreeing with the left even though you are on the left, you're in good company. I'll buy you an Otter Pop and we can commiserate with bitter, pagan/atheist tears.

To answer your question, yes, I do sometimes get hit from the left and don't always agree with the person doing the hitting. There are issues I don't agree with (the cheering of extrajudicial execution or cruel and unusual punishment of those on the wrong side of certain issues), issues I do agree with but have trouble with in practice (I'm a basically a democratic socialist, but I don't think scorched earth on the DNC over neoliberalism is going to be a particularly useful tack in praxis within the US), issues of marginalized group vs. marginalized group who are both trying to silence the other where it's better for this white guy to stay in his lane and listen, and just topics I'm not going to speak of openly (because people bring their unhealed trauma to the table every time they come up and I have to be willing to die on a hill in order to bring it up at all).

Just a week ago there was considerable Facebook infighting over the Grammys and a lot of good, thoughtful, smart people disagreed. Some did so reasonably. Others decided to mount their war-steed drama llamas and ride them hard onto the fields of battle. Plus, if that's not bad enough, just about every discussion around here involves someone attempting to crown themselves the Lord of Words™ in order to demand contrition that their definition of certain terms (and no other) be used.

The noble steed of the "Teachable Moment Knights"

Like most groups made up of humans, folks who write and think and care about social inequality break down into complexity and nuance upon closer examination. People are vast and complicated and every single one of us has years of back story, so there's pretty much no chance that any generalizations are going to hold under scrutiny, certainly not anything as absurd as all agreeing about every approach to even what the battles are, never mind how to best achieve them.

I find I have a profound unwillingness to be morally absolute–a commonality I notice among artists.

Maybe part of my compassion is because I know I'm going to make mistakes in my writing and in whatever public persona exists, and I hope that no one decides never to read me again because my first novel fell into the pitfall of a sexist trope or because my satire didn't come across and someone thought I was serious. We're all going to step in dog shit, and unless we unapologetically live there, it seems like everyone will also create beauty, be on the right side of other issues, have admirable causes, grow and evolve, and rise to their potential if they care about being better. We seem more willing to forgive characters for murder in our favorite books and shows than real people for thoughtless words. (Often I hear this expressed as "They do more harm than good.") If we only allow ourselves to like artists who are always "right" about every issue, we will never really be able to enjoy anything.

Often artists are willing to see the humanity in someone who holds some sort of repugnant point of view, and that seems to greatly upset others who want to declare them persona non-grata. It is easier to declare an enemy an irredeemable evil monster. Artists tend to know everyone has evil and good in their hearts--that the best people are some stripe of asshole, and the worst people are sometimes sublime. I hold to moral ambiguity and nuance when it comes to humanity far longer than most, and very few aren't distinctly troubled if I voice that lack of black and white. Even when I have my mind firmly made up about the ideas involved or that the behavior just has to be stopped, my judgement rarely falls on humans in an absolute way.

It might sound noble, lofty, and perhaps a bit romantic in theory to be such a non-judgemental  artist about people's humanity ("oh how DEEP he is!"), but it isn't in practice. In practice, I lose friends. I don't fit in.

As an artist, in particular, I probably have some pretty complicated ideas about cultural appropriation seeing as all art is theft (but that that slogan is dangerous and irresponsible if used to justify anything). Wearing cultural clothing in an affront to its sacred context (like Native Indian headdresses) or dressing up like an ethnic stereotype for Halloween is pretty clear cut asshole appropriation behavior, but enjoying ethnic food because you like it (not because it makes you look cosmopolitan or as part of a quest for a "genuine" ethnic experience) is pretty clear cut okay, but in between those two points is....well, everything else. Everything from music to a personal style to art. And those middle points are pretty tangled and complicated.

Context is vital and I think it's one of the reasons it's so hard for even the best meaning people to come up with a code of conduct that always applies. Pretty much nothing always applies. The best anyone can do is listen, be sensitive, and try to understand how colonization works and the power differentials between cultures. An artist who is incorporating other cultures into their arts in a way that perpetuates a legacy of theft and monetization of that culture is very different than an artist who cites their influences explicitly and makes sure that any collaborating artists get some limelight and even money.

Don't even get me started on belly dancing. Lord, I'm not even touching that one.

I have a friend named Kwame who is a psych professor at an HBCU and has a pretty good starting definition: "The use of someones culture for gain, while simultaneously robbing the people who created it or have to live it from benefiting from it, or simply being oblivious to that." Though even Kwame admits that it's only a starting point and that there are exceptions.

You almost have to feel the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation, but white people aren't the ones to make that call. There's just an honesty and a sincerity and a generosity toward the culture being exchanged. It's analogous to a neighbor with "just-in-case" keys borrowing your lawn mower. If they bring it back, knock on the door, tell you they would have asked but you weren't home, and fill the tank, you're probably not going to be upset. If they just swipe it and never say anything, leave it out in the rain, and get pissed when you mention it, they're assholes. Same action. Same mower. Same borrow. But the vibe is just totally different.

While I would never (ever) say that any use of cultural icons (or worse, people) is acceptable merely as a prop that "ethnicifies" the performance, that simply stealing X culture's art and making money off of it isn't skid-mark move, or that an empathetic understanding of the cultural implications of something one is using isn't a better way to honor humanity than simply stealing what you like, I will say that I think that word often gets used a little prematurely when it comes to something an artist finds exciting, compelling, inspiring and is driven to recreate, build on, juxtapose intentionally, or incorporate into a synthesis of new creative energy.

We wouldn't have Les Demoiselles d’Avignon if Picasso had not been fascinated by African masks. We wouldn't have Van Gogh or Monet's impressionism if not for their fascination with Japanese art. We wouldn't have Toni Morrison's works if she hadn't been compelled by the African tradition of telling stories from one's own cultural point of view...which was an emulation of the the writer Achebe (and which was an utterly radical idea at the time, and completely alien to British and American Lit). Entire movements of art would disappear if it were not for their exchange with other cultures. Entire generations of artists would never have become phenomenal if they didn't syncretize what they found compelling from their own culture and others.

Perhaps worst of all, we wouldn't have the Batman/Joker Scream.

The idea that we should all stick to our own cultural back yards when we create something completely new leads to its own constellation of problems. White people just doing "white people shit" in their art is problematic for other reasons. (Not the least of which would be other than maybe Celtic music and Riverdance, what does that even fucking mean? Even country music has Aaron Nevile and Cleve Francis.) Then we would have a lot of people (correctly) pointing out that white people's art was whitewashed, and "Why can't those white artists incorporate some diversity?"

It's better to understand how the levers and pulleys of privilege and systematic racism work than to try to deem certain art forms as unavailable for exchange. So while I think that Eminem winning a Grammy has more to do with his popularity among an affluent white audience (and the Grammy's weakness for commercially popular music) than the absolute quality of his album, I wouldn't go so far as to say that white people should never rap, and I get a little itchy around those who do.

If white people are influenced by black artists and seek to create their own music of that genre, that's awesome. If their creation of that music is given more attention by whitewashed gatekeepers, that's a big, big problem, but not necessarily the artist's fault. If those same artists deny their influences, steal music without attribution, or act in a completely inauthentic way by adopting ethnic mannerisms as a way to seem more legitimate, yeah that's epic awful.

The problem isn't that cultures syncretize–that basically can't be helped. The problem is that the power dynamics so often go one way and artists who are at the top of social hierarchies have more leverage to injure without repercussion, and white people who care about the cultures they consume should be aware of that. Elvis got rich because white DJs would play him but not the original artists, and he should have been paying royalties to Big Mama Thorton (among others). We should never ever forget that. But I get that "Never fit in"/"Don't hate the right things" vibe when I start questioning whether Elvis should never have sung what his heart clearly burned to sing, what inspired him, what moved him.

I will say this though:

If a whole community is telling you en mass that you appropriated their culture, you just "left the lawnmower out in the rain," and you need to apologize.

I don't want to get too much more specific because like I said, there's definitely shitty and there's definitely okay and everyone draws the line at different places in the wide chasm between. The more specific I get, the greater chance that someone will take umbrage. It's complicated. And seeing it as complicated isn't always welcome.


  1. Thoughtful as always. Would love to hear more of your thoughts on our "culture of outrage." I read a really good article on how shaming people is a tactic that works. (http://www.contralbum.com/blog/2015/2/5/political-correctness-is-more-reasonable-than-jonathan-chait). I've also been seeing a lot of follow up pieces on Justine Sacco, especially by those who have come to realize that what happened to her can happen to them. More food for thought on cultural appropriation: http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/

    1. Yeah, I think I read a NYT piece on Sacco, and liked that it was more nuanced. I'm not the right person to weigh in on whether she "deserved" what she got, but I don't think that the culture of internet shaming knew the sort of it was capable of wielding.

      That DF article was part of my research for this. It's definitely a good one!

  2. I wish that cultures were on even footing, so that swapping back and forth would be as casual as swapping with your friends, rather than an act of intimidation and appropriation. Like head scarves- I would love to wear a head scarf since I hate my hair and the ones they have floating around here (Minneapolis) are gorgeous and full of sparkly things. But I can't take an object that is somewhere between "holy symbol representing my humility before god" and/or "thing I am forced to wear in order to exist in my community" and just stick it on top of my head because it's shiny.

    But then I wonder if it started to become a thing that mainstream cultural people just wore, would that make it easier for the local women Muslim population or harder? Would it take away it's spiritual significance if it was a fashion statement, or would it take the pressure off because then they wouldn't be immediately identifiable as Muslim and have less people instantly suspicious of them? Would there be less of a debate in the whole "head scarves- sexist or not" if there wasn't the underlying racism that you can't disengage from*? The three Muslim women that I'm friendly with said they don't care if non-Muslims wear it or not, but of the three of them: one flat will not wear it unless Grandma's in town; one will wear it but make sure it is the brightest, most patterned, most sequined non-humble thing on the planet; and the last one wears it because she doesn't have a compelling reason not to. So I can't really call them a representative sample of the Muslim community at large.

    *I fall down on the "If you are forced to wear something because you're a woman, it's sexist. If you're not forced**, it's not. Clothing should be an act of self-expression.

    **I realize "Forced" can have different levels that can be hard to split. Are you "forced" to wear makeup when it means that people will treat you worse if you don't? If your community is going to treat you like you love god less if you don't dress "modestly" is that being forced? But for an internet comment I'm sticking to that standard.

    1. I'm not sure how Muslims feel about hijab for fashion. They might be thrilled with the idea, and my experience that that's not actually something they care about tracks with yours. Then again that may be an American experience since here there's a lot of personal choice in the matter.

  3. hey I am muslim, I am so comfortable with my hijab, and I swear I don't care who wears it..Id rather wear my hijab.. and often I have been asked by my husband to just let go of it if it makes my feel targeted. But darn, it is so convenient and I don't have to bother about my hair and it is just the way I have been feeling for years ..like to not be bothered about how I look. So yes a matter of convenience for me apart from the basic idea that my God would be pleased is a big add on.
    But really I wonder if anyone would mind if the whole lot of women ended up wearing hijab, I would definitely feel more close with people around me, and no I would never feel as if my culture or identity has been approppriated in anyway.