There is a discussion going that originated on Reappropriate
about a month ago and has since found its way to Sin Titulo
, Debunking White
, 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.