May 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments
Recently, a video on Vimeo by art:broken called “P.A.M.: it’s a white thing too” caused a social media ruckus, mostly in parts of Melbourne, Australia. It’s a video critique of an exhibit in the National Gallery of Victoria by fashion label Perks and Mini (P.A.M.) who the video says “freely use African textile patterns and traditional ornaments, put on performances using didgeridoos and dot painting and casually deface images of Black people” yet are “as white as their $150 t-shirts”. A forum held at a Melbourne contemporary art institution* with other people of colour presenters to a majority white, middle class crowd was the context for which I put together this piece. Pausing throughout my presentation, I briefly projected a series of culturally appropriative artworks with quotes from the artists, their exhibiting galleries or reviewers of their work .The quotes in this piece link to the images with image descriptions for those with vision loss who use screen reading software and so people of colour who don’t want to see intense images of anti-blackness, anti-Indigenous expressions and cultural appropriation can avoid them.
Rather than discuss P.A.M. or the individual images, I would like to focus on cultural appropriation’s context and its’ repercussions. I don’t want to pick out P.A.M. as a blemish on top of an otherwise ‘culturally sensitive’ art scene, but instead label them as a currently prominent example within an art scene which embodies, as bell hooks named it, the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that we live in.
‘Cultural sensitivity’ often seems like a term for white people to feel like they’re consuming people of colour responsibly, while they’re usually still the main benefactors of any ‘cultural exchange’. The conversation around cultural appropriation often seems to focus on how white people can be more ‘culturally sensitive’ in their creative appreciation rather than about prioritising people of colour’s creative expressions un-mediated by whiteness.
“Shields from Papua New Guinea in the NGV collection.. provided an aesthetic catalyst for the artists to develop their own shields…The installation meditates on the form and function of shields from the perspective of a type of reverse ethnography, and allows the artists ‘to incorporate a wide range of responses to making art and being alive now’.”
As an artist practising in the contemporary art world, who is brown, and raised and perceived as female, I don’t experience many others who share these experiences represented between the walls of art institutions. Even if I can engage aesthetically and conceptually with the work of many artists, it is rare that I see work that resonates with my racialised, raised and seen as female, experience. This is not surprising given that the majority of artists’ prominent in contemporary art are white cisgender males.
For the majority of artists in the contemporary art scene, white privilege invisibly influences and benefits their work and career yet their work will not be seen as examples of their race nor culture. As a racialised person seen as female, my creative work is thought of as intrinsically related to those identities even when my work doesn’t explicitly explore them. White privilege, especially in conjunction with male privilege, construes to artists a more ‘universal voice’, the work able to be engaged with only for its’ aesthetic qualities and intellectual intentions. When white artists appropriate people of colour, their assumed intellectual intention or observational distance lends them greater art world credibility and exposure than the appropriated people of colour.
“It’s a melange of ancient and modern symbols superimposed over epic, colonial-style portraits of “exotic” women. Islamic stars, deaths heads, crucifixes. I know what you’re thinking. But he’s not making a statement on behalf of anyone, or judging colonialists. The women are as much symbols as the other elements are. Everything is laid out on flat planes of meaning. I think it’s voodoo! Or at least documenting the empty vessels of our visual culture that have no will of their own.”
In related contexts where people of colour artists illustrate our racialised experience or reference our cultural forms, our work and our person are subject to an exotifying and anthropological gaze seeking to negate our intellect. This dynamic is amplified the closer our work, and if known, our personal appearance and upbringing, resemble an ‘authentic’ representation of our relevant race. Our subjectivity and often supposed instinctual creation of cultural forms seems to make our work less valued than that by white artists who have ‘explored’ outside of their experience to learn, adopt and imitate these forms. The link to colonialism should be obvious when ‘discovery’ seems more valued than lived experience and heritage.
“______’s heavily decorated, highly marketable blue and white paintings borrow from multiple cultures. Traces of imagery lifted from Persian carpets, Islamic tiles and European tapestries all jostle for position with his cross-hatched marks*”
*actually not ‘his’ marks – appropriated from specific Indigenous art
This power dynamic is active throughout the creative arts, though some examples of cultural appropriation get more attention than others. The recent art:broken video critiquing fashion label P.A.M., has engaged many people via internet discussion, with many white people finding it a fascinating and stimulating controversy. I feel it’s important to recognise that, if you’re a white, class privileged person, new to this kind of discussion, it’s not because these discussions haven’t happened before nor that the impact of cultural appropriation hasn’t been felt before. It is likely because your privileges have shielded you and that perhaps the art:broken video was made sufficiently on your terms to be noticed by you. My presence here is as someone who has had access to university education and is class privileged, well schooled in white-dominated, middle class social scenes to translate my experience as a ‘model minority’ person of colour. Not everyone who is impacted by cultural appropriation (and other forms of racism) is able to enter this discussion and translate their experience to people in this privileged space.
I suspect that for many people of colour, these discussions are very far from ‘fascinating’. It is draining to have to articulate how something has resonated negatively with our life experience to people who haven’t thought deeply before about this ‘interesting topic’. Already impacted by the event, we are expected to become even more vulnerable, detailing exactly how what has been done is hurtful and oppressive. Whether the acts are articulated as being done with intention or in ignorance is unlikely to make much difference to their impact.
“With the dots.. I just cant help myself actually”
More likely, we’re reminded of how white privilege allows people to justify de-centring and trivialising the experiences of people of colour– whether that’s through intellectual discussion using academic language that further alienates people of colour with less education and class privilege, or with a ‘Hey, it’s just for fun, lighten up!’ attitude. Focusing on the good intentions of white people makes the act of racism about white experience. There is a long history of good intentions having devastating impact on people of colour, and there is a system that conditions us to prioritise white people’s feelings even when their actions have oppressed us. When white people make art that denigrates our cultures, it reminds us of our position as ‘exotic other’, how our heritage has been affected by colonialism and white supremacy – yet we’re still expected to calmly educate them.
“_______’s sculptures, so suggestive of fictitious primitive artifacts (sic) or future relics of reverence, illustrate her interest in tribal influences as seen through the use of Navajo jingle cones, Maasi (sic) beads and other reconfigurations of ‘tribal aesthetics’”
“infused with voodoo sensibilities, fetishism ideologies and employing an intimate, personal and emotional framework”
So please, white people – don’t ask people of colour to ‘play nice’ and ‘calm down’ about cultural appropriation. This is trivialising of the impact of these violating acts and of what it is to live as a person of colour under white supremacy. It is white people’s privilege to stay calm and supposedly ‘neutral’ in discussions of race. It is easy to stay ‘balanced’ when whiteness is assigned the ‘normal’ position.
Other white artists in an art show, or represented by a gallery, where appropriative art is shown, have privilege to appear ‘neutral’ and not validate the appropriation in the same way as the presence of a person of colour artist. The stereotypes for South Asians are relatively positive and less threatening than those for Indigenous people and Black people from the African diaspora with their heavier legacies of genocide and slavery with colonisation, and as a non-Indigenous person I benefit from the colonisation of Australia – so I have often felt that my invited presence is ‘safer’, ‘less complicated’ proof of white people’s non-racism. I have relative race privilege compared to some, and so I want to be aware that, even when it’s not my heritage being pilfered, my silence condones the appropriation. I left my Melbourne gallery representation because I didn’t want to condone Indigenous art appropriation by a non-Indigenous artist. It should be enough that the Indigenous people whose culture he stole and denigrated called him out to de-validate this artist in the art world.
However it seems that the way systems of privilege work is that it is not until those of us who are more privileged express concern about the exploitation of those less privileged that it becomes an issue to those with power. A recent reminder of this dynamic is the attention on the Biennale of Sydney over sponsor Transfield’s operation of offshore mandatory detention centres. A letter expressing concern about this arrangement signed by participating artists has seemingly received more media attention and leftist commendation than the continued resistance of people detained inside the centres and the years of lobbying and refugee community support by ex-detainee-run organisation RISE. This can be a disheartening dynamic for marginalised people – to witness the amount of space given in the public sphere to the relatively small efforts by privileged people to speak about others’ exploitation compared to continuos efforts by those resisting their own exploitation. I’m of course not intending to parallel the effect of cultural appropriation with mandatory detention, though they are each different symptoms of white supremacy. Only that, in the context of cultural appropriation, and considering the relationship of capitalism to the arts, it seems that it is privileged people’s responsibility to stop endorsing and consuming culturally appropriative art and fashion.
At any rate, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of people of colour to educate white people about their racism, especially over our own self-care. We are dealing with the effects of white supremacy that manifest in our daily lives far beyond art and fashion, without having to remind individual white people of how they benefit from and exploit the system that oppresses us.
I witness white people sampling whatever they value as ‘cool’ from ‘other cultures’ to spice up their whiteness and transcend their ‘normality’. They may claim they are being ‘transgressive’ and will be rewarded for their ‘counter-cultural edginess’.
However, when I make reference to my own cultural heritage my explorations may be seen as ‘natural’ to me and therefore unremarkable or provoke resentment, seen as signs of a failure to assimilate. Yet I was raised in Australia amongst a dominant culture centred on whiteness that encouraged aspiration towards white Australianness over Indianness. After a lifetime of being pitied, bullied, demeaned and exoticised for my brownness, connecting with my heritage comes with complicated emotions and the burden of other people’s expectations of authenticity.
We are so often expected to be representatives of our cultures as if they have been unchanged by the colonialisations of our various homelands, even though we all live on land so obviously changed by colonisation. Witness events labelled ‘multi-cultural’, so often facilitated or funded by white-dominated organisations, where we’re expected to present samples of our traditional dance, music, art, and food, available for consumption by cultural tourists as well as community. Though many of us maintain traditions, there is little room to acknowledge how connection to heritage has been affected by colonialism, let alone for us to be the multi-identitied people each of us are beyond our races.
Witnessing cultural appropriation by white people is re-traumatising of the loss of what colonialism and white supremacy has stolen and altered. When white people indulge in our cultures as if they’re untouched by this reality, as if our heritage has just been ready and waiting for the favour of their post-modern re-hash, they choose to act in denial of their heritage as white people – their connections to colonialism and white supremacy. Like their colonial ancestors, they uproot what they value from its cultural context, without benefit to people connected to that heritage. Yet they often seem to believe, whether ‘celebrating other cultures’ or showing people of colour the same disrespect they show everyone else, that they are proving their ‘post-race’ distance from history and their transgression against structures of power.
“Nothing is sacred, and shouldn’t be treated as such. We believe that as soon as it’s put out there, it opens itself to interpretation, criticism, cynicism, appropriation, ridicule, praise, whatever.”
Free from acknowledgement of their privilege they believe they are ‘ruffling feathers for fun’, rebelling against ‘political correctness’ or engaging in their own ‘freedom of expression’. When people of colour ruffle feathers, the consequences are not usually fun. We are not choosing to be ‘politically correct’ when we are affected by cultural appropriation, we are responding to having our experiences of oppression reinforced by others’ ‘freedom of expression’. Cultural appropriation does not equal counter-cultural cleverness, it enables the commodification, de-validation and de-politicisation of people of colour’s creative forms of expression, and of resistance, in the face of racial oppression.
*If you are a white person who learnt something from this post or were at the forum at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces (GCAS), and remember that several POC couldn’t fit in because of your presence, please consider donating some money to the link below because people of colour shouldn’t have to continue to educate for free. The donation bucket, to raise funds for a group of people to get to the World Indigenous People’s Conference and for RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees, stayed empty throughout the event. By the way, the panel was conceived and mostly organised by Javed de Costa of art:broken, not GCAS, including the selection of the panelists who agreed to participate unpaid i.e. there was a lot of free POC labour involved.
 The title is a reference to Richard Bell’s “BELL’S THEOREM: ABORIGINAL ART – It’s a white thing!”
 I have deliberately not named most artists featured for several reasons – so as to not give them more space than they already take up in the world; because by naming them they may gain more cultural capital for the ‘controversy’; because when people of colour are appropriated, consent is not often sought / the cultural source is often not credited, and it is rare that individual credit is given; and because this piece is not about naming individuals as sole culprits but about illustrating exploitative dynamics that exist widely throughout contemporary art. To my knowledge all artists are white Australians except for Sun City Girls who were a USA based white cismale performative musical trio whom I have named partly because they had been brought up by a white artist as ‘mind-blowing’ ‘cross-cultural fertilisation’ in a post about P.A.M. and the art:broken video.
 Obviously I don’t speak for all people of colour ie non-white people. I acknowledge that within ‘people of colour’, some races experience relative structural privilege, and benefit from and often enact anti-blackness and anti-Indigeneity, including myself as a ‘model minority’ brown person. Though all people of colour experience cultural appropriation, the relative severity of structural violence that Indigenous people and Black people from the African diaspora experience is reflected proportionately in their cultural appropriation.
 Hennessey Youngman : How to be a Successful Artist http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNXL0SYJ2eU Warning: gender essentialism (biology=gender myth)
 For people not Australia-wise – many Indigenous people in Australia also reclaim the word ‘Black’ so I have written ‘Black people from the African diaspora’ for the Australian context.
 Please don’t contact me with praise for leaving the gallery. When non-Indigenous people call me such things as ‘brave’ and give focus to my personal repercussions I feel it minimises the experience of the Indigenous people whose culture has been thieved, and enforces the racist idea of non-Indigenous people as saviours of Indigenous people. And of course Indigenous people don’t need to thank me for doing what should not be a remarkable choice. If you are non-Indigenous, please spend that energy you might have directed at me on holding accountable the artists and institutions who stay complicit in the exploitation of Indigenous art and artists.
I’m new to making images accessible. If the image descriptions (thank you Grace) or format they are in are not appropriate, I’d appreciate feedback, preferably efforts from people without vision loss. Thank you.
Minor changes have been made and footnotes added since the original presentation and more small edits may be made. Thanks to Takiaya Reed for reading the quotes aloud during the presentation.
I currently have chronic repetitive strain injury in hands and other health problems so please don’t expect timely responses or quick comment approval.
LISTEN TO THE RECORDING OF THE PRESENTATION AT GERTRUDE CONTEMPORARY HERE…
November 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
with a line from my poem “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Kreayshawn?”
[image: hand holding the earth, the word “IMITATION” is visible across the earth in a thick letters with images of different pop stars from history. on the bottom are the words “IS THE WHITEST FORM OF FLATTERY.”] (thanks fabian romero for reminding me to caption (and writing this one) for people with vision loss who use assistive technology)
March 24, 2013 § 3 Comments
I support myself as a professional artist and I recently left my gallery representation in Melbourne when I realised they had begun representing a white artist whose work has appropriated Indigenous Australian art. I’m not going to discuss that specifically, but what it’s brought up for me – ideas about my own cultural identity and how I’m affected by cultural appropriation.
The newspaper reporter who interviewed me about leaving the gallery decided she needed to racialise me for the article. Part of our phone conversation was this:
“What’s your cultural background?”
“You can say I’m a non-Indigenous person of colour”
“I can’t say that! We can’t say ‘colour’!!!”
“It’s a term people who aren’t white use to describe ourselves sometimes. It’s not usually an offensive term”
“But where are your parents from? Were you born in Australia?”
“Er, India. Um, yes. But you don’t need to say that. It’s not relevant here”
But apparently she did need to say it. She described me in the article as an “Australian born Indian artist”.
Why does this make me feel so uncomfortable?
Perhaps because it implies that my art is somehow inherently ‘Indian’, that I somehow represent India in my art, and as a person. Possibly because it implies that I am culturally Indian, and only Australian in terms of location.
I rarely ‘out’ my racial background to people, especially white people. This is largely because of assumptions that happen with that disclosure, including the perception that I am a link to ‘authentic Indian culture’, an expectation that I can only disappoint.
My extended family can better fulfil expectations of Indianness. My mum has danced as an extra in a Bollywood film. My parents grew up as part of large, close-knit families in small dwellings, several siblings to a bed. My nana wore bindis and saris. My mum makes mean pickles and curries. My dad is an engineer. My grand dad was a rupee-less orphan. My parents are industrious, thrifty, polite, religious and other stereotypes associated with our model minority.
My parents are proud Goan Indians. My dad is secretary to the Goans of Australia, the GOA club, in Perth. I went to their family functions and camping trips as a child, the only environments where I was around people who looked like me. These events aside, all other trips to the shops, fetes, school or church, weren’t ‘diverse’ in the 70s and 80s in Perth; they were very white. The government’s White Australia Policy limiting immigration to white people had ended only a year before my parents’ arrival. My sisters, cousins and I were the only children of colour in our entire school or suburb that I can remember. Television and the media were dominated by whiteness, even more than today. My ‘cultural upbringing’ includes being socialised mostly in these very white environments.
I’m not sure the kids at school knew my specific racial background because their daily racial slurs towards me were those used for Indigenous people. My racial otherness was defined by my skin colour to them. And in many ways I feel most comfortable defining myself as ‘brown’, though not meaning it only in reference to skin tone. I’ll proudly say that I’m a queer person of colour or a brown genderqueer rather than specifically disclosing that I’m Indian or South Asian.
I question my Indianness as my Indianness has felt questioned by others my whole life. I’ve felt the tangible disappointment of white friends and acquaintances in my lack of connection to their perception of ‘my culture’. People have pitied me for not speaking Hindi. Culturally, my parents’ regional dialect is Konkani but their first language is English. People have lamented my lack of connection to their idea of Indian spirituality. My family is Catholic, which is typical for Goa. I rarely make curries, though white people have tried to woo me with their own. I’ve felt my queerness, feminism and sex-positivity to be perceived as counter to my Indianness. I’ve been racialised in nearly ever yoga class I’ve attended, expected to “be natural at it” or told “yoga is in your blood” by the teacher. To which I wish I’d replied to her German self, “Well if yoga is in my blood I guess that would mean fascism is in yours”.
My brownness made me a target for abuse at school and elsewhere, but growing up being visibly brown or Indian also brought other kinds of attention from white people. Some of the attention wasn’t overtly ‘negative’, but still seemed to carry out a power dynamic. I have been the passive subject of their curiosity, our interactions an outlet for their expressions of their ‘tolerance’; their benevolent acceptance of and attraction to my difference. Whether brownness is perceived as ‘bad’ or ‘exotic’ and intriguing, it’s been a way I’ve been ‘other-ed’, been seen as different from ‘normal’ where normal seemed to start with being white.
There is guilt and shame in claiming my Indianness that comes up when others interrogate or even label it. Perhaps some of the shame comes from my own internalised racism, gathered from a lifetime of receiving pity and negativity for being non-white. I feel guilt that I am disconnected from much of the culture my parents grew up in, and that I’m removed from the relative poverty my parents were raised in compared to my reality, though not compared to so many in India. My parents say they left India for “a better life for our children” and I feel shame that the privilege they have given me doesn’t feel like it counters what I culturally may have lost, and what they sacrificed.
This perception is partly formed by others’ appraisal of me and my Indianness. I am not ‘Indian’ enough and I am too ‘Australian’, but also I am Indian and therefore not Australian. I am ‘really from’ somewhere else, even though all non-Indigenous Australians are ‘really from’ somewhere other than Australia. My brownness negates my Australianness. I cannot easily claim ‘Australian culture’, even though that dominant culture centred on whiteness shaped my life, encouraging aspiration towards (white) Australianness over Indianness.
These feelings of loss are part of why cultural appropriation affects me so deeply. When I see a white person wearing a bindi or Indian ‘hippie’ clothes, white people running a ‘Holy Cow’ chai tent or hosting nearly every yoga class, it is a reminder of my own disconnection from cultural heritage. My ‘Australian’ life can’t be simply blamed for this. It’s not like my parents had a pipeline to ‘authentic’ ancient Indian culture either. They grew up with the legacy of colonialism there. Their language, religion, culture is affected by four hundred years of Portugese colonisation and English imperialism, other influences of the port town of their ancestry, and their parents’ relocations to Mumbai. My mum says she didn’t know Hindi, or the Portugese-influenced dialect of Konkani, well enough to teach me. I doubt anyone else in my extended family, other than my sister, has ever practiced yoga. I’m ignorant as to the factors other than colonialism that contribute to why yoga does not seem a typical activity of my family’s religion, region and class.
Yet it does often seem that white people appropriate what they perceive as Indian culture as if it’s a timeless and homogenous entity. They often seem so pleased with themselves, so content that they’ve found this way to temporarily transcend their ‘normality’, a way to spice what they may see as their dull dish of whiteness*. Whereas for me, referencing my cultural heritage, even by wearing anything seen as Indian, comes laden with my own complicated emotions and the burden of others’ perceptions. While they’re probably being rewarded for their ‘counter-cultural edginess’, my explorations aren’t remarkable because they’re supposedly ‘natural’ to me and I’m further racialised and exoticised. I’m looked to with expectations of authenticity, and then I’m pitied when I fail or feared when I challenge these expectations.
Seeing cultural appropriation by white people is re-traumatising of the loss of what colonialism and white supremacy has stolen and altered. It seems that they indulge in ‘my culture’ as if it is untouched by this reality. They choose to act in denial of their heritage as white people, which includes their connection to colonialism and white supremacy. Much like their colonial ancestors, they uproot what they value from its cultural context, without benefit to people connected to that heritage. Yet they often seem to believe that these very acts prove their distance from this history and their critique of these structures of power.
White appropriators act in denial of the benefits their heritage still gives them. Their whiteness, especially when in combination with class privilege, gives them greater access to the time, money, energy and opportunity to be able to investigate ‘other cultures’; to do such things as travel to India to ‘find themselves’, to market their organic chai, or to study to become a yoga ‘guru’. White people may personally profit from what they see as ‘appreciation’ and ‘celebration’ of ‘other cultures’ with greater ease than those of us ancestrally from the cultures they investigate, affirmed in their appropriation by others with similar privilege who prefer their ‘exotic’ presentations mediated by whiteness. Whereas I am consistently reminded where my inescapable Indianness places me within white supremacy and how my connection to and understanding of my Indianness has been affected by imperialism, colonialism, racism, exoticism, capitalism, migration, and other factors.
Cultural appropriation reminds me of what has been taken from my cultural heritage via the act of stealing it again. What I do know about my heritage is that it includes this legacy of theft, erasure, distortion, and alteration. It’s part of what makes up ‘my culture’ as an ‘Australian born Indian’.
First published at Asian Australian arts and culture blog, PERIL as “Australian born Indian”
*from bell hooks’essay “Eating the Other”
March 7, 2012 § 38 Comments
Kreayshawn is a white girl rapper from Oakland, California who sloppily slings misogynistic, hedonistic rhymes and whose crew “White Girl Mob” throws about the n-word for extra charm. This post isn’t specifically about her, but more generally about cultural appropriation and racial fetishism, mostly in relation to hip hop. I’ve been motivated to write on the subjects from my experience in various white-centric social circles where countercultural identity and politics seem not to counter these unacknowledged racisms but rather to embrace them as forms of transgression.
Last year Romy Hoffman (aka Macromantics), white hip hop-esque performer and Grouse queer party promoter, created an exhibition called “Blacklustre”. Fetishising race and struggle, the show was promoted with the tagline “Black is better than white. Huey Newton is better than Isaac Newton. Tu Pac Man is better than Pac Man.” along with the trivialising image of Pac Man in a bandana as ‘Tu Pac Man’. The promo did not explicitly disclose her white privilege, though it could be deciphered from the white-centric wording claiming the show to be “an investigation of otherness, minorities and white guilt”. Backed by her social status as a queer political / intellectual performer and party promoter (as well as her white and class privilege that has also supported these careers) it seemed there was no challenge to this supposed “celebration of black thinkers and culture in today’s pop world”. “Blacklustre” illustrated a white person’s reductive ideas about blackness for other white people. It doesn’t benefit people of colour to see issues of race and the associated struggles fetishised through a white-centric lens – instead it invalidates and commodifies these struggles. Yet, the voice of white artists ‘celebrating’ and ‘investigating’ the expressions of people of colour has historically had cultural currency greater than the creative work of people from the cultures they appropriate. It should be obvious that racism has informed this history and that white artists can’t simply disconnect from that history by labeling their appropriation as appreciation.
Yet white artists, musicians, performers, fashionistas, etc seem to feel nothing less than entirely entitled to pillage the forms and aesthetics of ‘other’ cultures as they please and to then be celebrated and financially rewarded for their ‘edginess’. White people seem to find endless novelty in watching white people, like Kreayshawn, interpret and repackage hip hop culture, but these reductive representations are ultimately dehumanising for the people whose cultures they imitate.
To be a person of colour, moving in hip hop heavy environments (that in Australia are most often white dominated on the stage, deck and dancefloor) means to navigate a minefield of compromise and risk. I am consistently the subject of racial fetishism for my brownness. This has happened in an even more overt way at queer parties than it has at the hetero-centric live hip hop gigs I occasionally attend. Between Grouse, Danceteria and several queer house parties I’ve had my skin be the subject of white people’s endless monologues, had my ethnic identity interrogated and have been touched, stroked, arse slapped, grinded on, and worse, all without my consent. These latter things may happen to white bodies too, but I have little doubt of the connection between the music played and how my body has been racially sexualised, how I have been exoticised to an increased degree in these environments.
Even when I’m not actively having my physical boundaries crossed, it requires disconnection to feel enjoyment whilst being nearly entirely surrounded by white people, many of whom parade parodies of blackness on the dancefloor. Even when I’m not culturally linked to the cultures appropriated (I’m a non-black POC), as a person of colour I’m reminded of my own position as exotic ‘other’ in white supremacy. The consistency of cultural appropriation doesn’t surprise me, but it does affect me, whilst white people don’t expect to be challenged on their entitlement and react with surprise and defensiveness on the rare occasions that they are pulled up. To set the current ‘exotic’ scenario of Melbourne… White people decide to throw an ‘80s African Dance Party’ with prizes for ‘best African inspired costume’ and a hipster dance troupe, The Real Hot Bitches, performing an ‘African inspired’ dance routine (with queer party Danceteria’s DJs supporting). White people open a Tiki bar ‘Luwow’, creating the appropriative carvings for their “traditional Polynesian bar” so they can have a “feast of exotica!”. White people continue to wear Native American headdresses, Afro wigs and dreadlocks. White people put on nearly all of the hip hop and dancehall gigs and parties though they’ll often use an image of (often seemingly random) black people on the flyer. White people are usually on the decks, mostly playing black music. White people are the promoters who have the financial and social capital to bring out the international POC acts. White people make themselves the cultural ambassadors of blackness and other racial ‘otherness’ to white people. The white-faced presentation might make them more comfortable in their consumption of otherness, but it underlines my own otherness in this white-centric world.
In choosing to identify as ‘outsider’ in relation to broader dominant culture, white people may wish to validate their transgression by appropriating racially marginalised cultures, without acknowledging how that appropriation could stereotype, homogenise, objectify, commodify, exoticise, distort and invalidate those cultures. Usually believing they are simply ‘celebrating other cultures’, they act as if unaware of their privilege in benefiting from power dynamics set in place from centuries of imperialism, racism, exoticism, capitalism and colonialism. They may choose to believe they are disconnected from the forms of oppression that their ‘appreciation’ reinforces, but even their sense of entitlement to have their experience of ‘other’ cultures prioritised is symptomatic of white supremacy.
In the white-centric queer / radical circles I have often moved within, it seems that there is a general will to believe that ‘the community’ can be disconnected from the oppressions of broader culture. In these spaces, politics regarding sex and gender might be discussed foremost, anti-capitalist and anti-racist agendas may be touted, yet cultural appropriation and racial fetishism seem to be embraced with as little examination as in environments considered less highly politicised.
In queer / radical scenes, expressing political consciousness and emphasising your oppressions, not your privileges, earns status in the social hierarchy, even as those privileges invisibly add value. Hip hop aesthetic and swagger, furthering identification with especially black as well as other POC culture and resistance, seems a popular mode of expressing and authenticating a ‘revolutionary’ or countercultural identity. This is deemed relevant by people’s own experiences of oppression. However this is done by white people without an understanding of the lived experience of racial oppression and in denial of their own inescapable connections to that oppression.
Much of the cultural appropriation I witness is done by people who consider themselves non-racist, in the belief that what they’re doing benefits the people whose culture they’re appropriating as gestures of acceptance and awareness. When the member of The Real Hot Bitches dance troupe was called out over organising the queer “80s African Dance Party” her defenses were along the lines of ‘I’m not racist, I love African culture’ and ‘I’m not racist, I work to help minorities’. (The person has since deleted the facebook event, including the criticisms and her defences, and amended the name of the event and description, slightly). It seems that the rush is always to defend an anti-racist identity, to clarify how white people’s intentions have been ‘misunderstood’, thus turning the discussion of racism back into one about white experience. This is done above acknowledging how behaviours may be problematic and hurtful to people of colour. It would be refreshing if white people who wish to be allies to people of colour would begin by de-prioritising their own voices. Surely that is necessary to a conversation about them prioritising their experience of ‘other’ cultures over ‘other’ cultures’ experiences of ourselves. Wai Ho of Mellow Yellow blog suggested offering this generous challenge…
“While we can understand the lovely benevolent, rather naïve, sentiment of combating racism and raising awareness by “celebrating other cultures” via racial/ethnic themed parties, maybe our queer communities are able to take that desire a step further. In the same way that men don’t fight sexism solely by having sex with women, or by throwing a women’s party and dressing up as women, and dancing like women, I would encourage white allies to progress their desire for the end of racial oppression by discussing with (people of colour) how to do that in a meaningful way. I would press the importance of white allies getting together as white people to educate themselves about the myriad of racial dynamics, and constructive ways in which to address those privileges, benefits, blindspots and power laden frameworks.”
I haven’t seen much evidence that most people in Melbourne’s queer / radical ‘community’ have the willingness necessary for self-education nor are ready for conversations on terms that I would find empowering and productive for change. My experience has been that white people want to set the terms for what they believe is ‘constructive’ conversation, believing it a generosity on their part if they are at all ‘open’ to being individually educated, without ever doing their homework. These conversations further diminish my sense of agency as a person of colour to build new senses of ‘community’ and to initiate broader change from a non white-centric viewpoint.
There are few people who are willing to challenge those with power in the social hierarchy, especially on problematic race politics (or gender politics… or any others) whether or not they acknowledge any dodginess privately. Meanwhile, when queer people of colour speak up we are most often labeled angry and irrational, are mocked and patronised and otherwise silenced. Apparently we’re just spoiling the party for everyone else and it seems that most people would rather not challenge people with social currency, nor assess their own attitudes, if it would mean missing out on any party. Are the social repercussions and associated emotional stress of speaking about problems within a ‘community’ worse than those we have from trying to feel a sense of belonging to a ‘community’ that’s not addressing these problems? Personally, I can’t imagine that they could be, but I have hesitated in publishing this post with this poem.
The title of the following poem is perhaps a person of colour in-joke. White people’s minds tend to homogenise any brown skinned babe into the brown skinned celebrity of their choice (or ‘Asian’ babe into ‘Asian’ celebrity etc) regardless of your actual racial or ethnic similarity and often barely related to your physical resemblance to that celebrity. This rarely happens to white people unless there’s striking resemblance. However, some QPOCs I know decided that the catchall term for every wigga (i.e. white person who appropriates hip hop culture) should be a ‘Kreayshawn’. There needs to be a term for white people who seek out people of colour as lovers and friends for social and/or political credibility, and producer Diplo’s name and associated reputation serves this purpose well. Maxine Clarke suggested making a (no pun intended) ‘blacklist’ of suspicious white people such as these Kreayshawns and Diplos (feel free to contribute via comments or private message). And yes, white people; you can be both a Kreayshawn and a Diplo. You might already be on the VIP guestlists for both.
**warning: contains sexual hip hop profanity **
Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Kreayshawn?
buy into blackness
coz we’re all hoes and bitches
fucked by the dollar
notions of race
to bling and swagger
just coz you
fuck bitches or fuck gender
don’t make you the n-word of the world
adopt the fierce costume
gimmick equates your struggle
now you gotta be heard
to your dull dish of whiteness
adds that sought out spice
a skin you can shed
to maintain mainstream
whenever you desire
meanwhile it’s proof
you’re an outlaw youth
with disdain for the majority
fear made racial barriers
your fascination breaks them
frees you from history
in your willing embrace
guilt of the past erased
by desire’s domination
this tantalising taboo
set to transform you
and ease your alienation
the whitest form of flattery
sold as wondrous novelty
highlight your black-lustre
but see your pale reflection
has greater opportunity
but white pockets profit
for discovering the party
appetites ready for
white hands to feed them
other cultures as hip consumables
diplos keep white hold on
the power and the purse strings
making consumption comfortable
while gathered around
is an ethnic entourage
to lend authenticity
when brown-skinned blackness
seems a momentary prize
is my presence complicity?
where exotic approximation
makes her so much like Rihanna
and me just like M.I.A.
when you push up front at OutBlack
and rush on stage to sissy bounce
nobody gets in your way
so rare is space without you
is your presence solidarity
or further occupation?
what cost to empowerment
when you take priority
with your appreciation?
as Florence Tate said
what do white people take?
everything but the burden
Update Mar 2014:
Though all people of colour experience cultural appropriation, it seems that the relative severity of structural violence that Black people (and Indigenous people) experience is reflected in their cultural appropriation. I realise that as a ‘model minority’ person of colour I experience relative structural privilege, and benefit from, and am trying to unlearn, anti-blackness.
September 13, 2011 § 8 Comments
Yes, ol’ fashioned racism can and does get to me. Those racial slurs as I ride my bicycle, being the only one followed by the security guard, or the never-really-random airport search, but most days, if I had to choose my direct racist experience, I’d rather any of the above over encounters with a Good White Person.
If you’re a POC, you probably know at least one of these Good White People! If you’re white and reading my blog, maybe you are one; a well intentioned whitey. You’re ‘on my side’, right? You figured out racism is ‘bad’ so now you’ve joined the fight against racism! Maybe you work in a social enterprise, for a charity, with refugees, or Indigenous people, or in the multi-cultural arts. You’re proud of yourself for your many years of human rights work. You’ve claimed your anti-racist identity, you have friends and maybe even lovers who are people of colour, so how could you possibly be racist?
How could you NOT be racist? We have been raised in a white supremacy and we have all internalised racism. We are all racist.
I don’t have the emotional or political energy for friends and acquaintances who express that they are hurt and offended that I’ve inferred that they are racist by critiquing their behaviour or by simply withdrawing from their company. I know that it hurts to feel admonished or abandoned, but this is not comparable or relevant to the hurt and betrayal I feel by people who have tried to contextualise the racist behaviours I experience in terms of the person who has enacted racism’s ignorance, insecurities, or good intentions (which are factors in their behaviour, but don’t alter my experience of their behaviour as racism). This justification de-validates my experience, and though I remind myself that friends are well intentioned in trying to comfort me by convincing me that I needn’t feel bad because nobody meant any harm, they are silencing me as a person of colour, re-centering the experience around whiteness, and being complicit in white supremacy. In contrast, I emphasise how empowering it has been to share experiences of racism and have my anger and sense of alienation validated by others. This has been infinitely more ‘comforting’ than the friends who have had a ‘Don’t worry about it’ attitude. That’s their privilege not to worry about something that permeates all aspects of my daily, lived experience.
I do have white friends who ‘worry about it’. And I mean, beyond white guilt. White guilt doesn’t really help me in itself, it doesn’t help me have a less racist experience of the world. Articulation of white guilt re-centers discussion of racism around white experience, and it puts pressure on POCs to reassure white people’s feelings. I have been generous enough to articulately delineate to people that I care about, how they have enacted privilege on me and had them shut down, be paralysed by guilt that I want nothing to do with. If they use their guilt to be self-aware and conscious of their privilege, if it provides some ongoing motivation for them to critically reflect on and deconstruct their place in white supremacy and to critically engage in the future, then that isn’t bad, but they shouldn’t expect congratulations for it. They should be grateful I expended energy and emotionally risked myself to critique them, because there is less risk and more empowerment in sharing experiences and having them validated, than in educating white people, especially individually.
I operate with great suspicion around white people and white dominated collectives and spaces that claim anti-racist motivations. It so often seems that embracing diversity is seen as a magical recipe for equality when it’s no guarantee that everyone’s experience in the ‘diverse group’ will be an equal experience. It means there’s a complicated mix of power dynamics to do with race, class, gender, able-bodiedness, etc that need be acknowledged and constantly addressed. I’m not going to applaud them for their embracement of diversity, I’m going to wonder about how those dynamics play out and doubt that those from ‘marginalised groups’ feel empowered in the situation. Just because the doormat, the signage, the mission statement or they personally say ‘You’re welcome here’, does not mean that I have automatically been made to feel welcome, and when the racisms I critique are condoned or denied, that welcome means nothing.
Don’t assume because I’m in your establishment, party, group, band, bed, or friendship, that our experience of that situation is equal, when we didn’t even come to the situation from equal grounds. You asserting to me, especially in the face of me critiquing your privilege and your racisms, that you consider ‘all people equal’ and that you ‘treat all people the same’, denies my experience within, and affirms to me your complicity in, white supremacy. We do not have an equal experience of the world and so your supposed equal treatment can never be experienced equally. For example, a person (such as one of colour) who has had their body devalued, made both invisible and hyper-visible, who has been constantly other-ed, is not going to experience non-consensual touch in the same way as those subject to less consistent other-ing.
I’m speaking from my lived experience as a marginalized person who has been in situations that I was not forced into, putting in energy that was not asked of me, and consistently adapting though it was rarely literally demanded of me to do so. I realise, mostly in retrospect, how privilege has played into my relationships, collaborations and other experiences. And I try to understand why those who have enacted privilege on me do not understand my anger and sense of betrayal that is often catalysed when adaptation is consistently not reciprocated even in crucial times. Perhaps neither of us acknowledged the ongoing implicit power dynamics; my adaptation nor how that adaptation is part of a lifetime of my being conditioned to adapt, and their lifetime of having those without their privilege adapting to them. Of course, the dynamics are not just of race, but class, gender, sexuality and many other complexities. I know I have unwittingly enacted privilege on those I care about. I’m grateful to people who have pulled me up because it shouldn’t be up to them to challenge me, I need to be self-aware and initiate change in myself. And I’m thankful and inspired if they’re still in my life, because I know continued engagement with people who un-intentionally de-validate your experience is a generosity I haven’t lately been feeling capable of myself.
I would prefer not to operate on a high level of distrust towards most white people I encounter, but it seems a lot healthier than consistently feeling betrayed. You can’t just say ‘trust me’; you have to earn trust and keep it alive. As a person of colour, I know that first hand, as trust is not something given freely to people of colour by white supremacy. Yet I am constantly expected to offer my trust, without critique, to white people, and if I do not, then I am pitied, feared, despised or dismissed for my distrust, including by some other people of colour. It’s as if I should know, there are ‘bad’ racist people out there but there are white people who have nobly chosen to be saviours of people of colour, when they didn’t even have to be! That I should realize I need gratefully congratulate them for deciding to be a Good White Person.
So, here’s a certificate for all the Good White People out there, born out of an email exchange with Wai Ho of Mellow Yellow blog (thanks Wai!). So, Good White People, if you really want to fight racism and help people of colour then send $10 and I’ll send you an authentic, signed certificate in the post. All proceeds to People of Colour.
[photo description: certificate with fancy border. at top centre is a drawn logo of a white fist surrounded by a wreath of smaller various coloured hands. underneath reads “CONGRATULATIONS! You are a GOOD WHITE PERSON. You have done ___ months / years of human rights / anti-racist work and you have ___ friends from ___ different races / ethnicities. This document certifies that you can never do, think, say, feel anything racist / white-centric / self-obsessed ever again !!!! BRAVO! YIPPEE! WOOHOO! If anyone of colour ever accuses you of racism, just show them this certificate and you will be instantly absolved from any misunderstanding the coloured person* has had about you. Because, don’t forget, good white person, It’s ALL about YOU!” Below in bottom right corner is a line for a signature, under which reads “People of Colour Representative”]
*this certificate was made in collaboration with Wai Ho, based in Aotearoa (aka New Zealand) where the term ‘coloured person’ is a common term used by non-white people from many ethnicities to describe themselves. I realise the term has a loaded history in reference to black people in North America, and that this blog has a further reach than Aotearoa, and will be changing the text in future printings and online once my repetitive stress injury is a bit better
July 21, 2011 § 9 Comments
In response to your question: “Where are you from?”
Why do you ask?
Is it your curiosity in the ‘origin of my features’?
Is it your fascination for ‘other’ cultures and what they have to offer you?
Why do you desire an exact definition of my difference?
Why do you assume I desire, and am able, to define this difference to you?
Do you show the same interest in determining the ‘ethnic make-up’ of every white face that you see?
Isn’t everyone from somewhere?
Don’t you have a heritage?
Why does whiteness make yours invisible yet my brownness make mine subject to your anthropological investigation?
Do you believe that I should be delighted to personally inform and educate you?
Do you think it is my responsibility to know, and always be ready to impart, the details of my cultural heritage?
Do you apply these same standards to yourself?
Why do you assume that I’d love to reminisce about what my family, or I, left to come here?
Didn’t it cross your mind that we may have left for good reasons that I do not wish to reminisce about, especially with a stranger?
Do you believe your curiosity is commendable?
Do you think I should be grateful for your ‘tolerance’ and interest in ‘diversity’?
Do you believe this is YOUR country to welcome me to?
While brownness prompts
“Where are you from?”
Your whiteness prompts
“What do you do?”
You wish to define me by my physicality but you expect to be defined by your actions and your intellect.
Have you travelled the world and been asked the same question?
It isn’t the same experience in a place where you had expected to be treated as a visitor.
Perhaps your whiteness provided a fascination, but wasn’t it also exalted?
Weren’t you still treated like a speaker at a podium?
Or don’t you see this because you are so used to being heard from that position?
Don’t you realise that in expecting to discuss my brownness as subject of your fascination you position me as an exotic curio on a pedestal?
Do you think I wish to be a talking doll, spilling my secrets each time yet another curious child pulls my cord demanding that I politely answer your question?
I performed the above piece at the RISE 40Hands book launch and poetry slam on the weekend. The publication features poems, mostly by detainees and ex-detainees, with additional contributions by people from POC migrant backgrounds, such as myself. I was lucky to participate in the series of RISE poetry workshops hosted by Pataphysics. Pata and many of the workshop participants performed on the night, as well as the always amazing Candy Bowers, the cutting Kojo, and the witty and charming Marissa Johnpillai, visiting from Aotearoa.
My poem is addressed to white people, like most of my poetry, but it’s not for them. Judging from the laughter it received from many people of colour in the audience (POCS made up the majority of attendees), the people I had hoped would get it, really got it. I did see some uncomfortable white people and this was unfortunately acknowledged by the MC, Victor Victor, after I left the stage, when he apologised if anyone was offended, because that wasn’t ‘our’ intention as it was a night about ‘positivity’. Ramesh, CEO and co-founder of RISE, did ask him to take back the apology, which he did the next time he was on stage. Is there any person, especially any white person, who couldn’t do with being challenged on their less obvious (to them) racisms? And how, and why, should I do that without making some people uncomfortable? Especially considering, as a person of colour living in a white-centric world, I’m always adapting to ‘uncomfortable’ circumstances.
I want to print the poem as a handbill, a kind of none-of-your-business card, to give out every time I get asked this question, à la Adrian Piper. I’d like to just walk away without having to verbally explain each time why that question is so loaded and why I am so reluctant to indulge the curiousity of the questioner.
I’d been having relevant correspondence with Wai Ho, who is part of Mellow Yellow blog, among other things. I sent them the poem and their email response ponders where that question comes from…
White people, especially in colonial settler societies, ask that question because it’s like closet homos that bully queers. Colonial settler society imbibes amnesia, because they would like to forget that they did indeed “come from” somewhere not so long ago, and that their “coming” was an invasion (which is why they get so touchy with Asian invasion). Also the shame/guilt they feel from leaving UK/Europe makes them extra touchy about things… They actively forget their shameful colonial histories, which is why they like to think they have no culture, because they’ve cut off their ethnic cultural limbs along with their colonial imperial invader hands.
White Australia makes such a big deal about ‘letting’ certain people into this country, actively forgetting this is not their country either.
RISE is a not-for-profit organisation founded and run by ex-detainees for refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees, making a rare, empowering structural choice of striving to function with little involvement by white ‘benevolence’ (which always enacts a power dynamic). Government policies and ‘Go back to where you came from’ attitudes are the obvious racisms that do-gooder white people love to point their fingers at, but institutional racism affects and infects us all. Finger pointing white people who wish to claim they are ‘not racist’ need to question their place in a system that places whiteness in the magnanimous ‘helping hand’ position and Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of colour as the should-be-grateful recipients of ‘tolerance’ and charity.
White people need to ask themselves why they expect gratitude for ‘giving’ access to the benefits of a country that white people stole and now most assume as their own. I don’t hear do-gooder white people who mostly call themselves ‘Australian’ even use the qualifier of ‘non-Indigenous Australian’ (though the term ‘Indigenous’ is also a white construct).
White Australia may forever be defining people who have come here because of circumstances they would probably rather not remember, as ‘refugees’. White people wish to forever remind people of their experiences of trauma, escape, re-location, and detention because it reminds themselves of their own ‘generosity’ in allowing people who ‘needed them’ to let them into ‘their’ country.
White people need to question their very curiousity in ‘other cultures’, because it’s a white-centric viewpoint that places people of colour as curious, unknown ‘other’ waiting to be ‘discovered’ by them, and the ways of whiteness as expected knowledge. No gratitude should be expected for this dehumanising other-ing of people of colour that comes with the normalization of whiteness.
White people recognise only the symptoms of systemic racism that register to their own perspective; physical violence, government policies, verbal intolerance and abuse, ‘obvious’ exclusion and discrimination; but there are other often indescribable power dynamics that I register in my daily lived experience which white people do not recognise, especially in their own behaviour. A white person may ask “Where are you from?” with ‘good intentions’, but ‘good intentions’ have always attempted to justify the oppression of people of colour. I recognise their invasive and other-ing curiousity in ‘different’ physicality as yet another symptom of a white supremacy in which I am made aware of my position within, and am expected to tolerate, every day.