Category Archives: Cultural Appropriation

Let’s Talk About: Intersections of whiteness, Masculinity, and Queers

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So this afternoon on facebook…

After a debate with a Zionist I clicked over to my dash to find this image being used by a local gay bar to advertise their thxgiving day festivities. “Come get your turkey stuffed,” said the promotional material. Here we have an example of the most popular time of year to use white stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as marketing strategies. Furthermore, this is yet another example of whiteness in communities who, although they might understand the oppression of homophobia, have the racial privilege to dismiss the oppression of racism and cultural appropriation. This image reminds me of two things: not to assume that white supremacy exists exclusively in conservative heterosexual spaces, and to remember that even though there are queer whites, we have still been conditioned by white supremacy and continue to benefit from it. Being queer does not preclude us from being racist or participating in racist behavior.

I’m assuming a buckled hat or turkey feathers weren’t erotic enough, so they decided to go with a… war bonnet. Not only does this image use white stereotypes to objectify Native masculinity, it also exploits cultural dress by packaging it as a sexualized costume that will, ideally, appeal to potential consumers and stimulate their genitals. The common and frighteningly overused argument that cultural appropriation is a demonstration of appreciation and respect cannot, even remotely, be applied in this case. I fail to see how using war bonnets to sell sex to mostly white gay men would qualify as appreciative or respectful. If there are any questions about this, consider the fact that the war bonnet (in combination with the promotional material quoted above) is only serving the purpose of a sexualized costume precisely because it’s the only thing the model is wearing—the picture being tantalizingly cropped right before the pubic hair territory gets more graphic.

With turkey basters being as phallic as they are and ovens being as orifice related as they are, the use of a sexualized racist trope becomes less of a random association and more of a conscious decision. This hypersexual photo is designed to appeal to a decidedly non-Native demographic for a decidedly non-Native event.. which is based on a whitewashed holiday that celebrates legacies of ignored Native genocide in the US. Selling distorted Native images to sell thxgiving could only be the product of a white supremacy blind spot. Nontraditional war bonnet wearing already plays on white fantasies of Native peoples constructed as universally similar in appearance and customs, but this version gives it a hot shirtless twist to attract gay men and compel them to buy $9 cocktails. This version turns cultural appropriation into a gay male fantasy.

Why is this desirable? A naked white dude (who can go ahead and skip the spray tan) with a turkey leg in his mouth and an oven mitt on his dick wouldn’t fit with the “get stuffed” theme? Doesn’t that send the same message? The point being that eroticism is a good thing until it manifests at the non-consensual expense of oppressed peoples. I am unconvinced the decision to go with a war bonnet has nothing to do with a sentimental attachment to the whiteness of thxgiving, and the privilege to exploit, stereotype, or dismiss Indigenous peoples and their cultural traditions. I still can’t get over the fact that thxgiving is being celebrated at a gay bar in the first place. How is that progress—for anyone?

—DD

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Tumblr Q&A: Costumes and Cultural Appropriation

Q: Hi there! Would dressing up as Frida Kahlo for Halloween be considered cultural appropriation? I’m not sure as she’s a PoC, but I wanted to do it because she is an artist and I am an artist. Thanks!

A: Great question, and one that hasn’t yet been explored in this specific way on the blog. A white opinion on this issue only goes so far, so here is what I can say: what I’ve learned from friends, organizers, and great anti-whitewashing blogs is that the cardinal rule for white folks dressing up as famous POC for Halloween is to change everything about the way we look except our skin color. Whether it’s Frida Kahlo or Kanye West, as long as you don’t use brownface or blackface you aren’t in offensive/racist territory. I personally wouldn’t dress up as POC because I don’t want to go there, but, if you must, just stay white. Change your clothes, not your skin color.

Here’s what I can’t say: I can’t tell you that all Latin@ folks who could see your costume will find it acceptable—some might be completely opposed to a white person dressing up as Frida, some might not mind at all, and some might at least appreciate that you didn’t darken your skin if they object to the costume. I can’t speak for any of these positions, nor would I want to. I just think you should keep this in mind, and consider the meaning your costume might have to fellow human beings beyond the personal meaning it has to you—especially since Frida Kahlo has become so excessively commodified, appropriated, and mass produced as a consumer image. It’s never just a costume.

As for cultural appropriation with this issue, that’s an interesting point. My white opinion here is certainly not the only one, or the most valid, but I would honestly say cultural appropriation happens any time a person turns everyday clothing or something culturally significant into a costume. Even though you both might be artists, this is a shared talent but not a shared experience. Just as a side note: it would also be more original, interesting, and completely unoffensive if you dressed up like Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Annie Sprinkle, Barbara Kruger, or any number of white women artists. To me, the funny thing is there are so many famous white folks, then there are so many non-famous white folks who want to dress up like the few famous POC there are in the US (or those few who have become famous in the US). Not so funny at all is when Halloween turns into an Imperialist free-for-all shit show of white folks thinking we finally have a day to dress up like POC and get away with it.

So my advice is to re-think this costume choice and go with something different. And my vote is for Cindy Sherman—have you seen her work? It’s perfect costume material, and it wouldn’t be appropriating cultural experiences or clothing from an oppressed and/or stereotyped identity you do not share. But if you must, never forget the cardinal rule. Thanks again for the question.

—DD

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Expensive Homemade Racism in Massachusetts

Members of Scott Brown’s campaign were recently caught (and recorded on youtube) making a stereotypical mockery of Native Americans, which Brown wouldn’t condemn as racist—just “unacceptable and immature.” With the sign above, we see the consequences of both racism and a political campaign that ignores (and therefore encourages) it. A business owner in Boston created this sign after already being criticized for his anti-Obama displays, taking his white supremacy to another level by spending more than $2,000 on the custom signs while protecting them with 24 hour video surveillance. In his own words:

“I’m voicing my opinion. As an American, it’s a right that we have and I’m going to use that right,” Sullivan said. “So we’re not bad guys here.”

Yet another example of racism and hate speech being conflated with constitutional rights and sanctioned by national identity. This is our personal freedom as white folks in the US: we can say whatever we want, hurt whoever we want, offend whoever we want, and be as racist as we want, then turn around and say “It’s OK I’m an American. Read the first amendment, asshole.” If you uphold the constitution as a unique and sacred document of equality, first consider how often it is used to defend shit like this.

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Tumblr Q & A: Defending Racism as “Art”

Q: Hello, I was going to write a long, drawn out response to your lady gaga burqa post, but it came down to fundamental perspectives, which we probably don’t share. Lady Gaga’s religion is arguably aesthetics, and she has always referenced “”‘disrespectfully'”” Christianity. I view her wearing a burqa not as rude, but as a way of portraying the beauty of such a garment. NO religion or culture should ever be immune to the hand of an artist.

A: Well I think you are using the words “religion” and “artist” way more liberally than I would ever use them. I agree that Lady GaGa’s “religion” is “arguable” to say the least: she does not worship at a church of aesthetics, there is no history of aesthetics as an institutionalized or organized religion, and there is not a bible of aesthetics outside a cute fashion quip of “this issue of Vogue is my bible.” Furthermore, Lady GaGa is not socially oppressed, institutionally disadvantaged, or racially stigmatized because of her aesthetics “religion.” White feminists don’t try to save Lady GaGa because she is “oppressed” by aesthetics. Even if she has spoken “disrespectfully” of Christianity, this does not then give her the right to appropriate something from Islam. This also does not give her the right to disrespect Islam.

The idea of Lady GaGa as an “artist” making an artistic statement of ‘appreciation’ is giving a pop star in a racist costume an awful lot of credit that I personally think she doesn’t deserve. It takes a shit load of white privilege to see this as something profound and to defend it as something artistic, rather than see it as the racist fashion gimmick it is. Followers: this is a perfect example of where a white opinion doesn’t matter. Even if you don’t think it’s “rude,” or if you think it’s acceptable for an “artist,” Muslim folks are telling us not to do this shit, they don’t appreciate it, and they don’t care what our intentions are. The opinions of the people who are directly affected by cultural appropriation are the only ones that matter.

The argument that religion or culture should not be “immune” to the interpretations and bastardizations of artists is a very old, very European one. This is the attitude Surrealists used when they stole shit from African cultures to inspire their “creativity,” or when Van Gogh painted exact replicas of traditional Japanese prints, or when Gaugin obsessively painted “primitive” Tahitian “natives.” Rousseau spent who knows how many hours imagining what POC in the “jungle” looked like… then painted them. When white folks claim culture and religion are fair game for “artists,” we are essentially saying everything is ours for the taking. The individual “freedom” of a white “artist” does not and should not take precedence over the  objections of POC; when it does, this is white supremacy at work.

—DD

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white Feminism 101: Whatever the Fuck We Want

This is a very basic arc of popular white feminism in the US: first wave, second wave, and third wave feminism. I’m still waiting on tidal wave feminism that destroys the whole of patriarchy in its path. But aren’t we all. The first wave starts with white women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin in the 1800s, then the second wave washes up with white women like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, then an intervention happens between the second and third waves… WOC feminists like Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, and Barbara Smith bring queer and racial politics to a white-dominated movement. The white supremacy in mainstream feminism was finally called out, yet the legacy lives on.

Individual freedom and/or liberation has been and continues to be at the heart of white feminism, ranging anywhere from the freedom to vote to the freedom to wear underwear in public and not be called a “sl*t.” Like most rights and private liberty discourses in the US, liberation often translates to individuals having the power to do whatever the fuck they want. But who has the privilege to do whatever they want with a considerable amount of public safety? Who has institutional power while they exploit the social freedom of never having been reduced to a stereotype that results in oppression, violence, and death? Whether it’s a white woman wearing dreadlocks, wearing a bindi, wearing a sari, wearing a war bonnet, wearing a burqa, or getting “tribal” tattoos worn by Indigenous Filipino peoples, the only “freedom” we have is in damaging and disrespecting the cultural expressions of the women and people of color to whom these expressions belong.

We white folks are all about private property and ownership, and we have been ever since the days of chattel slavery when we owned human beings as property. European whites + capitalism + racism = slave trade, colonization, genocide. Could it be our persistent dehumanization of POC that compels us to never see cultural objects, traditions, and garments as the private property of POC? When we affirm our own “humanity” through the “freedom” of stealing from women and people of color, we devalue the humanity of those from which we steal (otherwise known as racism). For those of you that might raise the argument “but white women became the property of white men through marriage,” think of it this way: even though you may not have been alive back then, there was certainly a huge difference between working the fields of a plantation and sipping tea on the porch of a plantation mansion in silk stockings. White women were never sold and traded in chains through public auctions, and neither were their children.

In the picture below is Lady GaGa, only one contemporary example of cultural appropriation and white supremacy in mainstream feminism. Women with white skin appropriate clothing for maybe five minutes—the significance being that they “appreciate it”—and do not live in this clothing for most of their lives. Famous white women who appropriate clothing make it that much easier for their fans to act like none of what Muslim women experience matters. This is a hideous example of white feminism because it serves the interests, privileges, and liberties of white women exclusively; this is not feminism that supports and empowers the WOC being devalued, dehumanized, and dismissed by cultural theft.

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Here’s a simple list of reasons why white women should never do this kind of shit:

*If you are not a member of a group that traditionally and historically wears these garments, there is never a good reason to wear something that is not socially or culturally relevant to you.

*Mocking Islam by taking something worn for religious purposes and wearing it for Western entertainment will only benefit racist ideas and racist culture.

*If feminism is for the good of all women, then white women who oppress ‘others’ for their own empowerment are not practicing feminism. They are practicing white feminism.

*Stealing a cultural and religious garment for the sake of performance is cultural appropriation. If it is not your daily experience as a white person, it should never be your costume.

*White women do not encounter racism, oppression, or Islamophobia (the social fear and racial hatred of Islam) when they wear cultural garments that do not belong to them.

*Only white people can take something from another culture and make it “fashionable” while experiencing none of the violence POC endure.

*white privilege is having fun with racist stereotypes.

*The argument in defense of Lady GaGa that says “equality is anyone being able to wear anything they want,” really boils down to “white people can steal anything they want from POC and should be able to wear it without consequences.”

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No Comment Necessary: When whites Cry Hate Mail

One of the stellar blogs we follow and learn from on Tumblr, this-is-not-native, exposes the cultural appropriation of white hipsters with their headdresses, war paint, and “indian” tattoos. A Tumblr user recently wrote to them after several lengthy exchanges, asking why they were “perpetuating the same hatred” and proceeded to cry about how these poor racist white folks were receiving so much “hate mail” because this-is-not-native reblogs their pictures and calls them on their shit. I want to be clear that the mods at this-is-not-native did an excellent job of deconstructing and debunking as always, and they have informed everything written below. This particular mod felt the need to critically engage this argument on our blog because it demonstrates white supremacy, white ignorance, and racism so infuriatingly well. If you’re a white person and you want to go after Indigenous bloggers, here’s ten reasons why you shouldn’t do it:

  1. The assumption that we’re about to make an argument a person of color has never heard, thought of, or previously dealt with. If we want to make matters worse, then it’s the assumption that we’re going to enlighten an Indigenous person about their own culture, or their methods of defending it—and themselves—against racism. Not our culture, not our experience, not our business.
  2. The attitude that suggests we are experts when it comes to dealing with racism and we know the “right” way to do it. We don’t experience racism, so how the fuck would we know? We have no business doling out unsolicited social advice to Indigenous people, or to people of color in general. Never do this. Seriously. It’s not our place.
  3. The self-righteous conviction that we are entitled to educate an Indigenous person about “proper” etiquette when dealing with racists. White privilege allows us to think we have answers, we have knowledge, and we are qualified to tell PoC how to conduct themselves. PoC are the only ones qualified to tell us what’s up when it comes to racists and racism, not the other way around.
  4. The misconception that our opinion in the context of cultural appropriation is more important than the demands of Indigenous people that we stop doing it. Not only are our opinions less important, they are also completely irrelevant. If Indigenous people don’t want us stealing from their culture, then it doesn’t matter how nice we are or how much we think we’re showing “appreciation.” One simple NO is all we need. End of discussion.
  5. The delusion that racists feeling a backlash for their racism is the same as actual racism. Come on people, really? Get the fuck out of here with that argument. The racist act of cultural appropriation deserves all the backlash, “hate” mail, and calling out it’s going to potentially get. When we’re desecrating cultural practices and refusing to stop when Indigenous people tell us to do so (that is racism), we don’t get to cry about people being “mean” to us (that isn’t racism).
  6. The derailing of specific conflicts to talk romantically about all of us as just “human beings.” Um no. When cultural appropriation is committed (like the crime that it is), the same historical/current power dynamics between white colonizers and colonized Indigenous peoples is being played out once again. It is fundamentally dehumanizing for white folks to steal from Indigenous cultures, so we can’t make that bogus claim about human beings when Indigenous peoples are not being respected as human beings.
  7. The confused idea that all people deserve respect, therefore racists should be left alone. Don’t forget that white folks appropriating Native culture are the ones on trial for heinous amounts of disrespect.  So unless we’re advocating for hypocrisy, don’t act like hipsters appropriating Native culture is OK while Indigenous people calling them out is “disrespectful.”
  8. The crazy accusation that Indigenous people are “perpetuating hatred” by refusing to tolerate cultural appropriation. This completely ignores the fact that a white person stealing Native culture is already an act of hatred and racism—especially when Indigenous people have explained repeatedly that they do not approve. Hatred is not the criticism you invite upon yourself after you do something wrong.
  9. The ignorance that compels us to think we have every right to comment on something we don’t understand. There’s a big difference between having an opinion and acting on it; there’s also a big difference between an educated opinion and an ignorant one. Learn something about Indigenous peoples and why stealing from their cultures isn’t harmless, instead of getting in their faces.
  10. The failure to check white privilege when intervening in Indigenous arguments as moderators on the behalves of racists. Defending racists and their behavior is not a community service or a good deed, it is helping the cause of racism and uplifting our own white privilege. Furthermore, remember the cardinal rule of checking whiteness: if it’s not about you, no matter what it is, don’t make it about you.

–DD

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