Friday, April 1, 2016

Cultural Appropriation, Racism, and Oppression

Recently this video has been in the news, showing a black student at San Francisco University, telling a white student, he cannot have dreadlocks because it's not his culture. She basically threatens, intimidates, and physically attacks the student who tries to walk away.

What is going on here?

The term being thrown around is "cultural appropriation," and it has been in the public and societal lexicon for some time, recently.

What is "cultural appropriation"?

Here is an article called "What is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong?" by Nadra Kareem Nittle.

"The United States has long been known as a melting pot and, more recently, as a salad bowl. Because people from hundreds of different ethnic backgrounds make up the nation’s population, it’s not surprising that at times cultural groups rub off on each other. Americans who grow up in diverse communities may pick up the dialect, customs and religious traditions of the cultural groups that surround them.

Cultural appropriation is an entirely different matter. It has little to do with one’s exposure to and familiarity with different cultures. Instead, cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions.

Defining Cultural Appropriation

Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, told that it’s difficult to give a concise explanation of cultural appropriation. The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defined cultural appropriation as follows:

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

In the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority groups. African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and indigenous peoples generally tend to emerge as the groups targeted for cultural appropriation. Black music and dance, Native American fashions, decorations and cultural symbols and Asian martial arts and dress have all fallen prey to cultural appropriation.

Examples of Cultural Appropriation

“Borrowing” is a key component of cultural appropriation. In the 1950s, white musicians borrowed the musical stylings of their black counterparts. Because African Americans weren’t widely accepted in U.S. society at that time, record executives chose to have white recording artists replicate the sound of black musicians. This led to musical forms such as rock-n-roll being largely associated with whites in spite of the fact that black musicians were pioneers of the art form. This move also had financial consequences, as many of the black musicians who helped pave the way for rock-n-roll’s success never saw a dime for their contributions to the music.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, cultural appropriation remains a concern. Musicians such as Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Miley Cyrus have all been accused of cultural appropriation. Madonna, for instance, popularized the form of personal expression known as voguing, which began in black and Latino sectors of the gay community. Madonna has also used Latin America as a backdrop in a music video and appeared in attire with roots in Asia, as has Gwen Stefani who faced criticism for her fixation on Harajuku culture from Japan.

In 2013, Miley Cyrus became the pop star most associated with cultural appropriation. During recorded and live performances, the former child star began to twerk, a dance style with roots in the African-American community. Writer Hadley Freeman of The Guardian particularly took issue with  Cyrus’ tweeking at the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2013.

“On stage as well as in her video she used the tedious trope of having black women as her backing singers, there only to be fondled by her and to admire her wiggling derriere,” Freeman pointed out. “Cyrus is explicitly imitating crunk music videos and the sort of hip-hop she finds so edgy – she has said, bless her, that she feels she is Lil' Kim inside and she loves ‘hood music’ – and the effect was not of a homage but of a minstrel show, with a young wealthy woman from the South doing a garish imitation of black music and reducing black dancers to background fodder and black women to exaggerated sex objects.”

Why Cultural Appropriation Is a Problem

Cultural appropriation remains a concern for a variety of reasons. For one, this sort of “borrowing” is exploitative because it robs minority groups of the credit they deserve. Art and music forms that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they “borrow” from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity. In addition, when members of a dominant group appropriate the cultures of others, they often reinforce stereotypes about minority groups.

When singer Katy Perry performed as a geisha at the American Music Awards in November 2013, she described it as an homage to Asian culture. Asian Americans disagreed with this assessment, declaring her performance “yellowface.” The Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Yang said that her performance did not celebrate Asian culture but misrepresented it entirely. He found it particularly problematic that Perry dressed as a geisha to perform the song “Unconditonally,” which describes a woman who pledges to love her man no matter what.

“The thing is, while a bucket of toner can strip the geisha makeup off of Perry’s face, nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women — a stereotype that presents them as servile, passive,” Yang wrote, “and as Perry would have it, ‘unconditional’ worshippers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy.”

Nico Lang, a guest blogger for the Los Angeles Times, pointed out in a post that cultural appropriation highlights the power imbalance that remains between those in power and those who’ve been historically marginalized. As such, a member of a dominant group can assume the traditional dress of a minority group for a Halloween party or a musical performance. Yet, they remain blissfully unaware of the roots of such dress and the challenges those who originated it have faced in Western society." -2015.
Recently I heard about cultural appropriation when musical festivals decided to ban the use of "Native American headdresses"at festivals, after they were noticing it had become a fashion trend, one primarily employed by non-Native Americans. 

The reason behind the ban was because they were deemed to be "culturally insensitive" to Native Americans. The headdresses, they claimed had "deep spiritual and cultural meanings in Native American communities," and the use of the headdresses as a fashion statement was culturally insensitive and inappropriate. 

Well considering the holocaust that happened to Native Americans on American soil, I can say that I kind of understand, and don't really have a big problem with the ban. 
I mean I don't think it was the intention of the kids who wore the headdresses to be intentionally mean or racist. I think they simply thought that headdresses looked cool. That's it. No real deep thought, or some conscious intentional ill will. 

Back to the scenario of the kid with dreadlocks:

I first came into contact with a similar scenario that I interpreted as ignorant, like this in 2007, when I was a freshmen at my "extremely progressive", liberal arts university. As students, we were required to go through a simulated experience called "The Tunnel of Oppression"
The event has many different scenarios and examples of racism, with the intention of allowing anyone to feel what it's like to be oppressed because of their race, sexual orientation, etc. 
Afterwards, we were required to meet in small groups of students, led by one student volunteer, and talk about these issues. 
I didn't have any fundamental problem with the program, but I do realise that it can create the very ignorance that it was set out to combat against, considering this next scenario:
My group leader was a black woman, and two things she said really stood out to me: "Black people can't be racist," and "All white people are racist."
Keep in mind, that this was an "extremely progressive" liberal college, and she was essentially employed by the university, teaching this to the students.
I wanted to argue with her, but I was only 18 at the time, with still a very young and fragile mind, and I probably would have made things worse. So I just sit back, and like everyone else in the group, I didn't argue with what she said, I just listened.

But here's what I wanted to argue with her:
"All white people are racist." 
Well, that's a racist thing to say. Because I'm white, and I know for a fact that I am 100% not racist, because I don't hate anyone for the simple fact of having a different skin color than mine. And with bias, you are assuming something is true of ALL people in my race.

Fittingly, I would have brought up Bob Marley.
It's like Bob Marley said, (or more truthfully the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie said in his speech to the United Nations on 1963, but later used as the lyrics for Bob Marley and the Wailer's song "War")
"Until the colour of a man's skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes..." 
I don't hate anyone for a simple fact that they have a different eye color than mine, so why would I hate anyone for the simple fact of having different skin color?

Bob Marley "War" (lyrics below:)

"Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
And another
Is finally
And permanently
And abandoned -
Everywhere is war -
Me say war.

That until there no longer
First class and second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man's skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes -
Me say war.

That until the basic human rights
Are equally guaranteed to all,
Without regard to race -
Dis a war.

That until that day
The dream of lasting peace,
World citizenship
Rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued,
But never attained -
Now everywhere is war - war.

And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
that hold our brothers in Angola,
In Mozambique,
South Africa
Sub-human bondage
Have been toppled,
Utterly destroyed -
Well, everywhere is war -
Me say war.

War in the east,
War in the west,
War up north,
War down south -
War - war -
Rumours of war.
And until that day,
The African continent
Will not know peace,
We Africans will fight - we find it necessary -
And we know we shall win
As we are confident
In the victory

Of good over evil -
Good over evil, yeah!
Good over evil -
Good over evil, yeah!
Good over evil -
Good over evil, yeah!"
Emperor Haile Selassie, of Ethiopia

"Black people can't be racist"
Let's look at a video that shows how Paul Mooney responds to the comment "black people can't be racist":
"A black person can't be racist by definition"

Well, this is logic that I think most who argue that "black people can't be racist" use. 
But let's look at the actual definition of racist:

Essentially, what racism by definition means is thinking that another race is inferior or superior. 
It basically, means having a bias against another race. 
Ironically, what the black woman at the Tunnel of Oppression was saying was racist, because it assumed "the belief that ALL members of a race" possess certain characteristics, in her example, "All white people are racist." 
Secondly, it could be argued as even more racism, because it was "institutionalised" considering that she was an employee of the university. 

"If I never kill anybody am I a murder? When I kill somebody what does that make me...a murder. You can talk about it all day long. All we do is talk, white people DO."
Sure, if you never murder someone, you are not a murderer, but if all you do is talk about murder, I think it's safe to assume that you would do something if you had the chance, or opportunity.
Similarly, I think if you all you talk about is racist hate towards another race different than your own, but you never do anything, I think it's safe to say that you would do something if you could. 
Look at this horrible example: if you knew a person who all they did was think and talk about violently raping people, but never raped anyone, would they still be a rapist? 
By definition, no. But that doesn't make their thoughts or speech, any less ugly or harmful. 
What Paul Mooney argues above, and what similar "black people can't be racists" proponents argue, is that because, historically and without a doubt, in the United States the black people have been the main oppressed group. He argues this with facts that in the United States there have been and still are laws that oppress black people. 
He's saying that because of being their position of being the oppressed group, they have no power to oppress the dominant group. Therefore, "can't be racist."

I would argue that racism, without action or oppression, is still racism.
Racism is hate.
And hate, without action, is still hate. 

What we are getting lost in translation is the concept of "racism" and "oppression," which are two entirely different concepts.

The fact of the matter is, historically, in every society there always has been a dominator group, and an oppressed group. Even today.

Racism fundamentally is about hate and bias. Oppression is about power, and can be racially fuelled, but is not necessary. 

The fact of the matter is if you have racist hate or biased towards another group different than your own, and whether or not you do anything oppressive or not, YOU ARE STILL A RACIST.

Having racist, hateful thoughts and never doing anything still makes you racist and hateful. 
Racism, I would argue is fundamentally thought based bias. 

Let's explore the thought and psycholgy behind racism in an article titled "Should Racism Be Called Mental Illness?"

When Buford O. Furrow Jr. turned himself in after shooting up a Jewish community center in Los Angeles two years ago, he explained his actions as a "wake-up call to America to kill Jews."

Furrow was a member of a white supremacist group and an avowed racist. But he had also had mental problems: a year earlier, he had tried to commit himself to a psychiatric hospital, saying he wanted to shoot people and kill himself.

Furrow's case — and other recent incidents of "extreme racism" — have reopened debate about whether racism should be considered a mental illness.

Advocates say psychological treatment could prevent some people from committing violent acts. But opponents say it would open the way for violent racists to plead insanity to avoid punishment for their crimes.

Official Classification

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not list racism in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of psychiatrists worldwide. Most psychiatrists believe that racism is a cultural and social problem, not a matter of individual pathology.

Harvard University psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint thinks that's a mistake.

"Extreme racism is treatable, and sometimes even lesser forms of racism are treatable because they have psychodynamics to them," he told Nightline. "They don't exist as a social problem, they … exist as psychological problems inside the individual."

Poussaint, who is black, believes that racism — like other human behaviors — exists on a continuum, and that racism's extreme forms, in which a person has racist delusions that can lead to violence, should be considered a serious mental illness and be listed in the DSM.

However, The association's officials disagree:

"Brutal, violent hate crimes are usually committed by mean, not sick, individuals and groups. We must not provide the convenient excuse of mental illness for those who are not genuinely ill," APA President Daniel Borenstein wrote in the association's newsletter last September.

Borenstein also wrote that an APA work group had considered including racism in the DSM, but declined because there was not sufficient scientific research on the issue to meet the manual's strict criteria. He said that some racists might have psychological illnesses which are in the DSM, but that racism is too broad a phenomenon to label as a single mental illness.

Poussaint and other critics of the APA's position say that Borenstein and the APA have shown no willingness to devote funding to research on racism.
-Michel Martin, ABC

Back to the Native American headdress: I don't think there was any hate or bias in the kids who wore the Native American headdress to the festival. I think it was completely innocent (they just thought it looked cool). However, that still doesn't make it any less culturally insensitive or inappropriate. 
The main foundation of the  "cultural appropriation" argument is one based on "dominator- oppressor group" categorisation. 
In the case of the Native American headdress, the Native Americans are the oppressed group, and because these festivals are mainly white kids, the group of the dominator group will be white people, who historically committed genocide against Native Americans.

Let's take a hypothetical example about another dominator group and oppressed group, and the dominator group taking symbols that having "deep significance" to the oppressed group, as "cultural appropriation."
What would happen if there was a trend at German musical festivals, where festival goers decided that the yellow badge worn by Jews during the holocaust was suddenly a "fashion statement"?

Doesn't feel too good, does it?

Well, to be fair, to some sense, this is what was probably happening in the mind of the black student who saw the white student wearing dreads. 

What she doesn't understand is that culture doesn't belong to anybody. 
Especially, now, because of globalisation and the internet, we are more connected than ever. 
We have the gift to share each other cultures, and in doing so we can learn. 

I don't think there is anything with a white kid, having dreads because there is no hate in his heart when he is doing it. I think, actually just the opposite.
Similarly, I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong with wearing a Native American headdress, and nothing fundamentally hateful.
But regardless, you have to understand how people will interpret it, and I think that you have to fully understand the symbolism of something that fundamentally does not belong to your culture. 
I think what the difference is: intention.
Are you trying to learn about another culture through a symbol you are "appropriating" from them, or are you borrowing it with hateful or ignorant intention?
Appropriation is fundamentally not a bad word. 

Since this a blog about Japan, above, there was an example of Katy Perry dressed up like a geisha that was considered culturally inappropriate, because it "reinforced negative stereotypes about Asians."
Now let's take a look at another similar example and how it was interpreted differently: 

"Avril Lavigne has been cited as appropriating Japanese culture in her song "Hello Kitty," co-written with her husband and Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger. The song and music video depict Asian women dressed up in matching outfits and Lavigne eating Asian food while dressed in a pink tutu. Its depiction of Japanese culture was met with widespread criticism, which has included suggestions of racism. Lavigne responded by stating "I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video...specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan."

Ironically, "A lot of the feedback Lavigne received on Twitter was favorable, and those who blamed her for racism were non-Japanese."

Here's what people need to understand about "cultural appropriation". If you are borrowing a symbol from another culture that is not your own, you WILL be met with criticism from somebody and your motives will be questioned. 
But I do not think "cultural appropriation" is fundamentally bad. 
It all comes down to the intention of the person borrowing the symbol. 
Is the intention one out of love and tribute, like Avril Lavigne? 
She loves Japanese culture, and frequently interacts with it, and sees nothing wrong about sharing cultures.
Or is the intention one of intentional hatred, or downright ignorance? 
This is when I think "cultural appropriation" is bad, because fundamentally I think hatred and ignorance are bad. 

We need to live in a global society, share and learn each other's cultures. 
Instead of oppressing, or allowing yourself to be oppressed by culturally appropriated symbols, we need to educate others on what these symbols mean, out of love. In doing so we can share and learn, instead of propagating further division and xenophobic tribalism.

This photo was taken by my friend from Germany, of a Japanese man (yes, that is a man), wearing, ironically, a Nazi swastika, and a peace sign.
Do you think, this man is wearing the swastika, because they belong to a German socialist party that wants to kill Jews?
Do you think this person hates and wants to kill Jews?
Judging by the peace sign simultaneously worn by him, I'm guessing not.
I don't think there was anything fundamentally hateful about them wearing the swastika (maybe though....but then, this brings into question the peace sign).
No...but there is ignorance. 
And because of the symbol, and the history behind it, it will be interpreted negatively by many people. 
If you are going to borrow another symbol from another culture, ("cultural appropriation"), I would ask that you check your motivation behind your use of it, and try to educate yourself fully, and see what you can learn from another culture that is not your own. 
I don't think "cultural appropriation" is bad because it allows for sharing. 
It irks me, to see a video like this:
...because telling someone what to not do or not do, in regards to cultural appropriation is a slippery slope. I think cultural appropriation in fact, is good, if the motivations are pure, and it is done in the spirit of sharing. 
What is sad about this video, is that the black woman, because she feels oppressed by the white man's use of dreadlocks, actually oppresses him in the end, by telling him he can't wear them and also, literally, physically. 
Cultural appropriation is not the enemy. Oppression is the enemy. 

I will reiterate what I said previously:
The fact of the matter is, historically, in every society there always has been a dominator group, and an oppressed group. Even today.

Racism fundamentally is about hate and bias. Oppression is about power, and can be racially fuelled, but is not necessary. 

The fact of the matter is, if you have racist hate or biased towards another group different than your own, and whether you do anything oppressive or not, YOU ARE STILL A RACIST.
Racism without action, is still racism.

Having racist, hateful thoughts and never doing anything still makes you racist and hateful. 

Oppression is the problem, but you can't deny that hate is the root of oppression.

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