Wednesday, July 23, 2014

White-'splained!: cultural appropriation and white privilege

(Before I get into it, let me clear up a common misconception inherent to 'white privilege' - it's not about being 'white' in any ethnic or skin-color sense. It is about a state of social, political, and cultural power which places a preferred group of traits above others. No one cares if you're ethnically a Euro-mutt. Many people care if you have power and ignorantly act like you don't.)

I've become increasingly interested in the condemnation erupting in the American mainstream (primarily funneled through articles in Salon) aimed at various white folks (mis-)appropriating the cultural traits and memes of backgrounds not their own for personal benefit.

Such was my interest that I started feeling a deeper treatment – at least deeper than a Facebook post could deliver – started to feel like the right way to go. So, I penned some thoughts over the last few days:
The hot topic of cultural appropriation has been very interesting to me of late. Twenty years after I studied the confluence of race, class, and gender in the context of Women's
Studies in college (in which I minored, thank you...), these themes are getting a broad and prickly discussion in the mainstream. 
White people have a hard time understanding what constitutes cultural appropriation, let alone why it's problematic. Cultural appropriation is a function of white privilege, so
understanding it requires an examination of that concept, first. White privilege is like a shopping basket. There are a lot of privilege-items (male, wealthy, Christian, of northern European descent, heterosexual, sensorily and bodily-abled, even owning an automobile) that can go into that basket, but most white people focus only on which privilege-items aren't in their basket when considering and responding to charges of cultural appropriation. They don't consider the basket itself to be a thing that confers privilege and gives them a leg-up by default over those who don't have the basket. 
I can say I grew up in poverty, and that my life as a teenager and young adult was one marked by alienation from the Mormon (we'll detour for now around the topic of whether that faith is 'Christian' or not) mainstream around me. I can say I'm the first generation of my family to have a college education. I can say the only real advantage I've had is my intellect. On a certain level, that's all bullshit. I could *decide* to go to college. I could *decide* to take an unorthodox career path. I can and do *decide* to walk down a city street alone at night. I got and get to choose. I have the basket, and it's filled with more privilege-items than it's not. 
Yes, some non-white people have some privilege-items but, without the basket to carry them, they are often an unwieldy and awkward collection. The basket is intrinsic to a
privilege-item's meaning, and so those without a basket may have to put them in the backpack or bag they brought, leading to questions and even accusations of theft. If you don't have the basket, how can you legitimately have the items identified with it? 
Cultural appropriation happens when you borrow from a cultural background that's not your lived experience, and is easily identified by whether that which is appropriated confers the same social or economic esteem on the originator as it does on the appropriator. This is the common thread connecting Iggy Azalea and her "Blaccent" with gay white men and their stereotyped repurposing of female "blackness". 
Some may confuse cultural appropriation with code-switching. If you are code-switching as the participant with greater privilege, you understand you're risking some of that privilege by doing so, but are willing to take that risk to connect more deeply with the experience of another. Code-switching is adaptation in the service of relationship (or simple survival for the person of lesser privilege) across boundaries. If you are appropriating, you are dishonoring and stealing from a heritage of suffering and sacrifice for your own financial and social profit. Cultural appropriation is taking from others with only yourself in mind, an alchemist's trick that transmutes another's survival skill into a new kind of privilege-item.
I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do know (and believe) that it is the job of in-group members to explain why other members of their group are screwing up. Men need to teach other men why abusing women is wrong. White people need to teach other white people why ignorant and power-blind appropriation of what others created for their own survival is at best dishonest and, at worst, fueling continued oppression of the group from which they just thieved the material of their success.

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