The Kreayshawn complex: cultural appropriation as counter-cultural expression

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  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?

hip hop:
your ready-to-wear

buy into blackness
coz we’re all hoes and bitches
fucked by the dollar

notions of race
drastically reduced
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

ethnic flava
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

imitation is
the whitest form of flattery
sold as wondrous novelty

highlight your black-lustre
but see your pale reflection
has greater opportunity

blackness celebrated
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

This poem and post references or is influenced by the following sources
bell hook’s essay “Eating the Other: Desire or Resistance” from “Black Looks: Race and Representation”
Greg Tate’s introduction ‘Nigs R Us or How Black Folks Became Fetish Objects” and Carl Hancock’s essay “Eminem: The New White Negro” in “Everything but the burden: what white people are taking from Black culture”
Minh-Ha T. Pham, Threadbared “Unintentionally Eating the Other” 
Wendi Muse, “It’s Complicated: DJs, Appropriation, and a Whole Host of Other Ish”
Sharp Tongue Charlie
Yoko Ono’s quote “Women is the n****r of the world”
Latoya Peterson, “Venus Iceberg X and the Ghe20 Goth1k Crew Call Out DJ Diplo for Musical and Cultural Imperialsm”
The Crunk Feminist Collective, “On Kreayshawn and the Utility of Black Women”
Bien Viera in Clutch Magazine “Kreayshawn: Another Case of Appropriating Black Culture
and for more homework..
Xan West “Does Kreayshawn Rep(resent) Oakland?”
Jessica Yee “Feminist Intersection: Ke$ha and the ongoing cultural appropriation and sexualization of Native women
Kjerstin Johnson “Don’t Mess Up When You Dress Up: Cultural Appropriation and Costumes
Julia Caron “The Critical Fashion Lover’s (basic) guide to Cultural Appropriation”
Jessica Yee “Indigenous Feminism and Cultural Appropriation”
(video) “Yellow Apparel: When the coolie becomes cool”
and for hip hop appropriation breakdown, Oz style
Busty Beatz Speakz
Renoriginal, “Hip Hop?? Yeah, Well You Can Stop: Exploitative Workshops Targeting Indigenous Kids”

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.


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