Contemporary art and the cutting edge of cultural appropriation

March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

Recently, a video on Vimeo by art:broken called “P.A.M.: it’s a white thing too”[1] 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 [2].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[3] 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, female assigned at birth, 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, 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’[4], 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 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’”[5]

“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[6] with their heavier legacies of genocide and slavery with colonisation, and as a non-Indigenous person I benefit from the colonisation of the Indigenous lands collectively / colonially called ‘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[7]. 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.

“A white australian man exposing the seedy underbelly of what has become of the fragile indigenous (sic) population of this country is bound to ruffle some feathers”

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 continuous 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’.

“By mixing primal jamming, worldly influences, and a bountiful release strategy, Sun City Girls spent 25 years defying conventions of structure and taste.”

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.”

“It’s no longer a black face. And to begin with it was a face. That’s more important that any projections of race.”

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.

Donate to RISE here.

Footnotes

[1] The title is a reference to Richard Bell’s “BELL’S THEOREM: ABORIGINAL ART – It’s a white thing!”

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Hennessey Youngman : How to be a Successful Artist http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNXL0SYJ2eU Warning: gender essentialism (biology=gender myth)

[5] Jingle cones are part of Jingle Dresses. Read about their significance on the website of the Indigenous Institute of the Americas.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

Notes:
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…
https://soundcloud.com/art-broken

Australian born Indian: cultural heritage, appropriation and identity

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”

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
revolution

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

 
 
Footnotes:
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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