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    Sunday, May 28, 2006

    On "Cultural Reappropriation"

    There is a discussion going that originated on Reappropriate about a month ago and has since found its way to Sin Titulo, Fable, Inqk, Cthulhu-Cult, Debunking White, Sex_and_Race, and Feministe, among others. Fascinating discussions all around, but especially on gaudior.

    It reminded me a bit of this comment on Slant Truth by Scott Eric Kaufmann in response to Kevin's post about the awesomeness that is Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory (which, by the way, is the first hip-hop record I ever owned):

    As a Jew (nominally “white”) from the South, I’m loath to comment on this topic, but let me just say that were it not for the long history of white “appreciation” of black music, I’d give this post a “HELL YEAH!” ...

    And, not to scapegoat Kaufmann (of whom I'm actually an admirer), because I think I understand where he was coming from, but his comment just made me ... sad. I thought about how fucking sad my life would be if I couldn't listen to another black artist ever again. Or if I had to do so in secret in order not to offend. If I couldn't put on Tribe at my own party. Yes, the feeling is selfish and comes from privilege; my life has been bettered by having this music in it and I wouldn't want to go without it. My selfishness and privilege owned up to, my real question is 'Who does it hurt if a white person likes good hip-hop?" (Other than Lauryn Hill's kids - just kidding.) Is something lost if Kaufmann puts on "Buggin Out" when he gets home from work in the evening and it makes him happy?

    So, it's easy enough for me to ask who's hurt and what's lost and to find my answer: well, no one's hurt and nothing's lost, of course. But that's apparently not so. People are hurt by it. Jenn on Reappropriate is deeply angered and hurt by white people drinking green tea and watching anime, etc. Now, I feel like I must be missing some nuance here, but that's how I read it.

    I remember a few years back with Eminem that some folks were upset he was "appropriating" a "black art form" and it seemed that the response was to try and prove that Eminem wasn't "appropriating" it because he'd been so poor and that's equivalent, of course, to having been black. The Village Voice had an article by R. J. Smith, pointing out that Class Trumps Race in 8 Mile where he didn't make my point directly, but alluded to it- poor = black-enough-to-rap. Therefore, Eminem was authorized and no longer "appropriating" something that didn't belong to him. Now, let's get real: Eminem was too good to blacklist for being white. And he was being helped up by arbiters of hip-hop authenticity, to boot. And, finally, the irritation never completely died down. But then I think to myself: Would the world be a better place if Eminem had chosen not to rap because he was white? I don't think so. We'd have missed some incredible art. Not just his work either, but also the work (some of which was produced by black artists) that was in some manner inspired by Eminem's style. (You can't tell me that Jay-Z's "99 Problems" doesn't have some shades of Em or that some of the wails coming off that POS track don't nod in his direction.) Because good artists learn from, borrow or steal from, work in dialogue with, riff off of other artists. Just think: we'd miss the rap battle with Cannibis. (Well, that might be the good thing about Eminem never having existed. :) ) I think the hip-hop world and, yes, the world at large, is better off for having known Eminem.

    The other day I linked to Sad Billionaire's consideration of racial politics and indie rock. He postulates that the very "white-sounding-ness" of today's indie rock is intentional, a way of responding to the common "appropriation" of "black sound" in 1960s and 1970s classic rock. Now, a certain amount of the white folk's "usage" of "black sound" ended up being clumsy and embarrassing, but some of it was awesome. Do we wish Led Zeppelin never existed? Where does Jimi Hendrix fit? At the same time, I don't mean to argue that only "hybrid" musical forms or "black" music forms have value. I have plenty of music that "sounds white". I mean, I love country and classical and plenty of folk and rock that are low on the blues and jazz influences. Which is kind of my point. I don't want to be limited to one sound or aesthetic movement and I don't want anyone else to either. Akeelah should be able to win her spelling bee.

    Another thing happens: once you decide to preserve the "authentic", you nail a culture down and you essentialize it. Like with black women writers. It has come to a point where Octavia Butler, Zadie Smith, Claudia Rankine are not on the list. The list is made up of Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and such. Even black women writers don't count as Black Women Writers.

    But what I notice is that everything I've mentioned above relates to my overall privileging of some idea of "artistic license" over anyone's political aims. I'm fairly consistent on that. Let them sing about bashing queers or beating their wives; let them use a rosary (just to finger my own issues equally) - but they have to earn it by being pretty fucking good. And it has to have a point. Gwen Stefani isn't off the hook for using Asian women as accessories because the act was superfluous. The way John Updike's descriptions of female characters often are. Just don't.

    I am very interested in Jenn's critique of what she calls "transracial casting", Japanese actors playing Chinese characters, etc. It reminds me of an interview I read with Adam Goldberg right around the time when The Hebrew Hammer came out. He said that, even though he was raised Catholic and didn't particularly identify himself as "Jewish" before he got into acting, he'd basically been unable to get cast as anyone who wasn't Jewish and it had caused a lot of difficulties for his career. At the time, I thought, "That's terrible. They shouldn't typecast him as a Jew!" I still think that it would be pretty bad if we only let Greeks play Greeks, Irish play Irish, etc. Would accents be considered some variation on blackface?

    Which brings me to another point: would the people drawing lines themselves be fully accommodated within these boundaries? If you are Asian-American and have lived in the US all your life, are you allowed to start an anime club? What if you were born in Japan, but now live in the US? At what point does one become "authentically" anything or lose that "authenticity"? If, like me, you have doubts that anyone can claim authenticity (which doesn't even mean I won't, from time to time), anyone staking a claim on it looks suspicious and kind of threatening.

    Which brings me to the phenomenon of "gentrification". I've yet to find a satisfactory all-encompassing definition of the term, but basically we're talking about when a bunch of usually lower-middle-class white folks (often very young and often gay, but neither exclusively) move into a non-white neighborhood in a not
    organized, but nonetheless critical-enough-to-change-things, mass. Usually, these folks do this so they can afford to live in a particular urban area.

    "Gentrification" is a problem because not everyone can live in a finite space and, under capitalism, if your product or service becomes worth more, you're going to charge more for it. It's also a problem because of ideas about cultural, and sometimes spatial "ownership" and "authenticity".

    Before I go on, it's not that I have no sympathy for people who are faced with rents to high to remain in their favorite or long-occupied neighborhoods. I know that every time my lease comes up for renewal (or not) I cross my fingers and hope and pray that the increase won't make it impossible to stay. But I also don't feel that I'm entitled to live in that neighborhood any more than someone who just happens to want to move here. Maybe I feel this way because, as a kid, I was always, always moving. And sometimes it was really sad. My mother, to this day, attributes various mental health problems to leaving one particular place, though I think she greatly exaggerates. I guess I feel like change is life. The other thing is probably that I grew up in a non-urban area in what felt like "the middle of nowhere" and I had to make a lot of sacrifices, sacrifices that still hurt everyday, to be able to live in NYC. I'm sure it seems like I "had a choice" to move here, but I sure as hell didn't feel that way. And, honestly, it makes me a bit jealous of folks who grew up here and simply want to stay within the same 10-block radius and keep everything just the way it's always been.

    Part of what makes cities great is the cyclical nature of neighborhood-building. Many of the neighborhoods in NYC, the pasts of which we so romanticize and long for the return of, were developed as a result of the constant revision of these urban neighborhoods. For example, we now think of Harlem as a place for poor (and increasingly middle-class) black folks, but the boom in Harlem for blacks took place as a result of a real estate scheme by a black agent with his eye on the money of the black middle-class. (For more info on that see David Levering Lewis's AWESOME history, When Harlem Was In Vogue.) The Lower East Side is now thought of as this mecca for Jewish culture, but there were a lot of angry people when Eastern European Jews began moving into their neighborhood and ruining it with their stores, their foods, etc. What made the Lower East Side then become such a radical outpost was not the "purity" but the mish-mash that took place. Is it less radical now? For sure. But you can take the radical and make it part of your new neighborhood, which could very well become the new radical outpost. By locating ideas like "Latino culture" or "radicalism" or "gay" in one particular neighborhood, fighting tooth and nail to keep that thing that you treasure in that space, rather than bringing it with you where you go, you substantially limit what it is, does, and can mean.

    And don't forget the flip side of gentrification. When the middle-class white folks move in, the lower-income people of color move to neighborhoods that were once white and middle-class but have trended downward economically. Then come the whines and moans because the blacks and Latinos are "invading".

    Yes, some of the people who "gentrify" are selfish asshats. There is no question about it. There are people who do nothing but take up space in a building in a neighborhood, but refuse to patronize the local grocery in favor of Whole Foods. These people don't vote in local elections or get involved in the community. And that sucks.

    But there are also a whole lot of "anti-gentrification" asshats. People who feel such entitlement that they try to make it as difficult as possible for any new neighbor. The neighbor is paying rent, same as you. It's a strong possibility that that person is living here because they don't have money, same as you. If they're actually doing something to you, then fine, but, if they're minding their own business, why hate? I'm sure the reply is, "They aren't minding their own business, they've moved into 'other people's turf'."

    The neighborhood interaction is complicated: the "gentrifiers" are chastised for not patronizing local business or being involved in local community, but, when they choose the local grocery over Whole Foods, it is not uncommon to be made to feel unwanted. Angry Brown Butch discusses "gentrification" from the opposite point of view. I highly recommend checking it out for the other side; Jack is especially convincing when discussing the use of the word "discovery". Anyway, Angry Brown Butch quotes this guy who admits he moved to some neighborhood for the best Mexican food. He is seen as being a "cultural tourist", yet it is equally a problem in another thread on gentrification that gentrifiers don't participate in the neighborhood by supporting local business.

    In NYC, this is all complicated by Rent Control and Rent Stabilization which often make relationships between long-time tenants and landlords very hostile. Landlords, who are trying to make money, are in a position of having to let people live in NYC apartments for $200/month just because they were there first. Don't think for a second that that person's savings doesn't turn into other tenants being pushed out. It's also complicated because owning anything, even a closet, in NYC is prohibitively expensive for probably 99% of us living here.

    Jenn talks at length about the fetishizing of a particular "culture" and its artifacts. I can't disagree on that. It's bizarre when white people go around saying, "I should have been born [fill in non-white race or ethnicity here]." I remember this girl I knew in junior high and high school, white working class Colorado gal, who was always saying that she "felt black".

    But, if we limit people's interest in things we've designated "Japanese" unless they are "authentically Japanese" or knowledgable about what is 'authentically Japanese", we're going to be in for a lot of fetishizing. We're going to be saying that you can't take pieces separately, but must take culture as a whole. You can't just take Kendo. You can't just be into anime. You can't just love sushi. In order to explore your interest in one, you must smash all your interests and education into the things that will qualify you as "authentic Japanese". In other words, if we expect to people to "prove" their worthiness (by knowledge, when they are without the authorized birthplace or ancestry), we are asking people to fetishize, rather than simply entertain their interest, without essentializing and romanticizing and then claiming.

    To go back to Scott Eric Kaufmann and his wariness about admitting his love for Tribe, I think that complete avoidance of other "cultures" or people who identify as belonging to other cultures (and I don't mean to say that Kaufmann does this, I'm just taking his quote as a jumping-off point), is really a form of pedastalizing and condescension. "We have to protect that little precious culture from our oafish white aggression," seems awfully strange, when we don't seem to have a problem mashing up, trashing, taking pieces of, indulging in, obsessing over "organic white American culture". Why? Because we haven't essentialized it to the point that we feel we are doing that.

    What's funny is that this whole discussion is going on when I'm so fascinated by this Stephin Merritt thing where this white indie rock guy is considered racist because he doesn't like hip-hop. Well, good thing he didn't like it too much.

    I feel this way in general with guilty white people who tiptoe around everything to do with race/ethnicity/culture. I think that you are frankly more racist when you simply genuflect to whatever the people of color say and go, "I'm so sorry for what you've suffered. I feel so terrible. Flog me - wait, I have no right to ask you for anything. I apologize again, it was my privilege speaking." A lot of "well-meaning" white folks go through this phase, but it's totally dehumanizing to the people you're talking to. If you respect someone, you engage with them. Part of engagement is starting from some opinion and ending with some opinion. If you wouldn't agree with it when a white person said it, don't think you're doing some person of color a big favor by going along with whatever they think.

    How does that relate to the topic of cultural appropriation? Well, real engagement with any culture is going to introduce hybrid cultures. California rolls. Rock rap. As you can see, it's not always good. But it is the product of honest interaction. To try to stop this is to ask for separatism. Which is your right. But I hope most of us aren't that ideologically conservative that we find that the only way to deal.

    Finally, if you are concerned when you see people taking on pieces of a "culture" you feel belongs to you and yours, and they are doing it disrespectfully, or just trying to look cool, take heart. They usually look like utter asshats.

    9 Comments:

    Anonymous Rachel S said...

    I really disdain people who take people to task for enjoying elements of other cultures or subcultures. This ultimately reinforces the notion of essentialist racial/ethnic categories, and there is something about cultural hybridity that really scares people.

    Many Whites use this fear of being labeled appropriators or wannabes to actually learn more about other cultures. Certainly, many Whites(and many people of color, for that matter) feel this way more generally, and don't need any potential labels to avoid taking any interest in any other cultures.

    I had more than one student ask if White students could take my African American sociology course, or if straight people could take my sexuality course. Which is even funnier given the fact that I am straight and White.

    The example of the rock critic that you wrote about is good. A person can't be too pro-rap because you might be appropriating, but the same person may be labeled anti-Black if they don't like rap. I guess that's a bit of an over simplification, but there is something to this.

    The real question is how does a person show his or her appreciation for other cultures or subcultures and art forms from those cultures in a way that is respectful to the culture and not racist.

    Personally, I might just regurgitate the next time somebody suggests that I enter the field of Whiteness studies, instead of African American Studies.

    PS-I'm not really commenting on reappropriate's post. I need to go back and read Jen's piece in its entirety before adding my two cents on the specificities.

    8:52 PM  
    Blogger EL said...

    The real question is how does a person show his or her appreciation for other cultures or subcultures and art forms from those cultures in a way that is respectful to the culture and not racist.

    That is the real question, which I wish I were smart enough to answer here! :)

    I had more than one student ask if White students could take my African American sociology course, or if straight people could take my sexuality course. Which is even funnier given the fact that I am straight and White.

    It seems like you're actually doing a good job then!

    8:55 PM  
    Anonymous Rachel S said...

    oops, typo alert. Second paragraph first sentence should read, Many Whites use this fear of being labeled appropriators or wannabes to AVOID actually learn more about other cultures.

    9:00 PM  
    Anonymous Rachel S said...

    EL said, "That is the real question, which I wish I were smart enough to answer here! :)"

    I'd say it should be done on a cases by case basis. For example, I think Justin Timberlake is a pretty bad appropriator, but someone like Jon B or Bonnie Raitt doesn't bother me at all.

    Sometimes people get mad because these White artists get more attention because they are White. I think that is a problem, but I think this is reflective of the audience's racism, not necessarily the performer's appropriation. It is sad, when you see Black, Asian, or Latino performers struggling in obscurity, and then the great White hope comes along and gets all the love. But I think this should be disentagled from the artists vision for her/himself.

    9:06 PM  
    Blogger Thin Black Duke said...

    Personally, I might just regurgitate the next time somebody suggests that I enter the field of Whiteness studies, instead of African American Studies.

    It's the pigeonholing that really bugs me. I'm doing a research project in Whiteness Studies right now, and everytime I mention it to someone, there's this long, uncomfortable pause. I always imagine that scene from one of the Lethal Weapon movies where Danny Glover pretends to want to immigrate to South Africa. I just know they want to say, "But you're Black!"

    As for Sasha Frere Jones, I have to say I lost a lot of respect for him after the whole Stephen Merrit thing.

    All of this has really started to peak my interest, and I think I have a post in my as well concerning this topic. I'm sure you've read the recent discussions about the Conservative Top 50 Rock songs. Well, Don Surber asked why there were no Black artists on the list. I admit that I didn't look at the list that closely in favor of reading people's analyses, but a friend of mine pointed out that *there is* a Black group on the list--Living Color. May have been an oversite on Don's part as well, but it got me thinking about *what* people consider Black. Y'know, the whole authenticity thing (which I dispise). Is TV on the Radio a Black group? Were Bad Brains a Black group? Is Thee Michelle Gun Elephant (a Japanese Hardcore band, in case I'm getting too obscure) a Japanese group? On the surface, these questions are ridiculous. But I think a lot of people would argue that since these groups have gone outside of what is considered *authentic* to their cultures (and even worse, commiting the sin of making *White* music), that they in fact aren't.

    2:02 PM  
    Anonymous Radfem said...

    Which brings me to the phenomenon of "gentrification". I've yet to find a satisfactory all-encompassing definition of the term, but basically we're talking about when a bunch of usually lower-middle-class white folks (often very young and often gay, but neither exclusively) move into a non-white neighborhood in a not
    organized, but nonetheless critical-enough-to-change-things, mass. Usually, these folks do this so they can afford to live in a particular urban area.


    Not always "lower middle-class". In many instances, the people moving in, though predominantly White, are middle-class or even wealthier(i.e. when they tear down old apartments and small businesses which they obtain sometimes through Eminent Domain and replace them with artsy lofts(some time with fairly hefty rents) and ritzy shopping districts)

    That is happening and has happened in my city.

    Gentrification is basically in most cases, the displacement of individuals and families who are predominantly people of color and providing housing, economic opportunities, increased security and recreational opportunities for White, usually middle-class people.

    I was gentrified out which is probably why I don't get teary eyed with nostalgia over the experience but I was lucky. Most poorer families who were Black and Latino had no other place to live in my city unless they could afford higher rents or purchase housing(with some of the fastest increasing prices in the state). Usually, they moved in poorer, defacto segregated neighborhoods in other nearby cities.

    Those that were middle-class or wealthier had already left the neighborhood FTMP and moved into others nearby.

    It's amazing how if a neighborhood is comprised of poor people of color that basic city services like street cleaning, garbage removal and street light repairs can be neglected but as soon as the Whites start moving in, the city's employees trip over themselves providing these same services. It's just the whole idea that people are worthy of basic services based on race and/or class that bothers me. Cities often neglect certain neighborhoods to drive property values down so that they can take them cheaply, then sell them at a higher price to private developers.

    Grocery stores which were previously under-sized and overcrowded with limited food choices suddenly expand until they more closely resemble designer grocery stores. They also start hiring from the "new" neighborhood residents. More bigger chain businesses squeeze out older neighborhood businesses.

    Before I go on, it's not that I have no sympathy for people who are faced with rents to high to remain in their favorite or long-occupied neighborhoods. I know that every time my lease comes up for renewal (or not) I cross my fingers and hope and pray that the increase won't make it impossible to stay. But I also don't feel that I'm entitled to live in that neighborhood any more than someone who just happens to want to move here. Maybe I feel this way because, as a kid, I was always, always moving. And sometimes it was really sad. My mother, to this day, attributes various mental health problems to leaving one particular place, though I think she greatly exaggerates. I guess I feel like change is life. The other thing is probably that I grew up in a non-urban area in what felt like "the middle of nowhere" and I had to make a lot of sacrifices, sacrifices that still hurt everyday, to be able to live in NYC. I'm sure it seems like I "had a choice" to move here, but I sure as hell didn't feel that way. And, honestly, it makes me a bit jealous of folks who grew up here and simply want to stay within the same 10-block radius and keep everything just the way it's always been.

    Well, maybe people who are already struggling to stay in the neighborhoods and raise their kids there don't want to be forced to move to an even poorer neighborhood in another city, so that the neighborhood that their grandparents raised their parents becomes yet another tailor-made neighborhood for Whites, in a society that caters to Whites and their needs and wants usually at the expense of people of color.

    They'll work hard to make that new neighborhood a better, safer and more rewarding place to build on and then THAT neighborhood could face the same fate as their last one did. That is one thing that can be cyclical.

    And don't forget the flip side of gentrification. When the middle-class white folks move in, the lower-income people of color move to neighborhoods that were once white and middle-class but have trended downward economically. Then come the whines and moans because the blacks and Latinos are "invading".

    Well, then the Whites will fly on out of there, not due to inability to afford rent or because of gentrification but because they don't want Black or Latino neighbors.

    7:10 PM  
    Anonymous Chana said...

    Many Whites use this fear of being labeled appropriators or wannabes to AVOID actually learn more about other cultures.

    That's funny, because although you're right that people use fear to avoid expanding their horizons, I think the sentence could be true in its original form, too: people try to educate themselves so as not to seem like they're disdaining or trivializing a culture.

    I read Memoirs of a Geisha last month, and though I found it interesting and educational, I would feel like a fake if I acted like I knew very much about Japanese culture. In fact, even having read it sort of makes me feel that way. Well, I can't un-read it now, so the only thing to do is try to educate myself more, so I'm not just a typical outsider who acts like reading a book makes me some sort of expert.

    5:45 AM  
    Blogger alley rat said...

    radfem-

    thank you, thank you, thank you. I was going to say something similar, but I couldn't have said it as well.

    Who is indulging a sense of entitlement? The people who don't want to be forced out of their neighborhoods by a process that benefits people who already have money and class privilege, or the people whose money and class privilege makes them see other people's neighborhoods as investment opportunities?

    6:42 PM  
    Anonymous Radfem said...

    I had a discussion today with some other women about a "redevelopment" project which goes before our city council tomorrow. I hadn't seen the report because it's been a fairly clandestine project. Out of state "consultant" does research project in a neighborhood but only meets with rental property owners and no tenants.

    It's a gentrification project set to get landlords to identify and push out undesirable tenants, mainly residents who already live in this area about a square mile in area and replace them with more "desirable" tenants, read university students. The study was poorly done and biased in its focus and scope, the conclusions classist and racist(as any I've seen lately) and it's just awful.

    It will probably foster a lot of discussion and debate especially from residents living in the area targetted who so far have been excluded from the process, but the backroom deals have probably already been made. .

    9:00 PM  

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