Tuesday, 1 September 2015

EXCHANGE OR APPROPRIATION?

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past year (or worse, without wifi), you will no doubt have heard the words ‘cultural appropriation’ thrown around relentlessly. Whether they’re in reference to Kylie Jenner wearing dreads or cornrows or Miley Cyrus’ various marijuana references at the recent Video Music Awards, it seems that debates on intersectional feminism and racism are more ubiquitous than ever. Surprisingly, it seems that the industry’s younger voices are the ones tackling the issue honestly, intellectually and, on the whole, extremely impressively. The first concise explanation of cultural appropriation came courtesy of 16-year-old Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg, who published a video on YouTube entitled Don’tCash Crop my Cornrows”. Amongst other topics she talks about the use of cornrows as an “urban fashion trend” and the wave of white rappers (Iggy Azalea, Macklemore etc) that dominated the rap charts by incorporating pop sounds thus making rap more palatable to a mainstream audience.

Amandla Stenberg looking incredible @ prom 

It’s obviously true that dreadlocks and cornrows have been staples in the fashion industry for a while - the industry frequently takes inspiration from exotic lands, to the extent that designers such as Lagerfeld have created entire collections based on a national aesthetic. The real question is at what point does it cease being inspiration and become appropriation? The brief answer is that it becomes appropriation when the culture being referenced is referenced as a stereotype. Many minorities rightly feel anger when a style which carries cultural significance is reduced to an aesthetic or a stereotype and, as Azealia Banks rightly points out in her now-famous Hot97interview, cultural appropriation is also present when white rappers steal from black culture but fail to get involved in black issues. Over the last few centuries the world has become a melting pot of different cultures due to free movement. Almost every country is now, in some way or another, multicultural. It is important for us to educate ourselves on the history of a culture, the struggles faced by a culture and respect different cultures in order to truly achieve integration.

This can be linked back to intersectional feminism, another heavy topic which recently seems to have become a buzzword of sorts. Intersectional refers to the necessity to talk about the ways in which women of different ethnicities, cultures and even biological sex see the world. It could be talking about dismissive stereotyping of black women, it could be the alarmingly high rate of transgender women murdered or it could be as simple as the body hair debate or #freethenipple for white women. 13-year-old Rowan Blanchard recently made headlines for a brief essay publishedon Tumblr explaining the importance of intersectional feminism and the various struggles faced by various minority groups – the fact-laden post was eye-opening for several reasons, one of which was that it seemed to highlight an element of ‘one-upmanship’ that permeates most discussions of both cultural appropriation and intersectional feminism.

Chanel Métiers D'art 2011
For example, I am a white cisgender gay male – none of this is a choice, it is simply a fact. Inevitably, this means that I am naturally more inclined to research issues facing gay men, gay women and transgender people as I can relate to them more. Personal experience has shown me the issues facing gay white men whereas my experience in gay bars and current employment in a gay bar have enabled me to meet and befriend a number of LGBTQ+ friends that have shared their experiences with me. By default, I am not particularly knowledgeable of the struggles facing racial minorities as I have no personal experience with them – for this reason, no matter how much research I do into black history, the stereotyping of Muslims or even the struggles surrounding gender dysphoria, I can never truly be an authority because I have never and will never experience them first-hand.

The problem the Internet has at the moment is that anybody lacking this first-hand experience is seemingly denied a say on the matter at all. Azealia Banks is, again, an example of this – she recently called out a white feminist for posting about growing about her body hair and responded with a bunch of shady comments about how her armpit hair shows a lack of respect for herself and subsequently trivialised the issue of ‘white feminism’. Again, white feminism has become a dirty word of sorts – it is, by default, linked with white privilege and thus trivialised. Then we see women of various minorities almost competing with each other – Sandra Bland was recently arrested for little to no reason other than being a black woman and then died in prison, yet all white women care about is cat-calling? It is true that white women have a much easier life than black women; the same is true of white men and even white trans people (remember the uproar caused in the trans community when Caitlyn Jenner declared herself a ‘spokesperson’?) It is not productive, however, when minorities turn against each other and turn against white allies. It is, in essence, just as entitled as a white woman shutting down a black woman.

None of us can change our genetic make-up. We are born into a certain race and this race then becomes part of our identity for the rest of our life. Some of us are born with gender dysphoria – again, this is another factor that defines us. Our identities are inevitable, non-malleable, but this doesn’t mean that as a white male I cannot research black culture, speak on black issues or show support for minority groups. It certainly means that I need to research the issues more carefully, but it doesn’t mean that I should be excluded entirely. In the spirit of intersectionality, we should all be entitled to voice opinions and not be shut down unless they are unnecessary or offensive. The problem surrounding cultural appropriation is that it has become an insult fired all too quickly. White people have always borrowed from black culture – it simply becomes an issue when this exchange becomes stereotypical, disrespectful or done without awareness. A quick Google search of “shit white people say” or even the basic bitch epidemic  prove that the suburban white boy or the entitled white girl clutching a Pumpkin Spice Latté has become as much of a derogatory stereotype as those applied to any other culture. In fact, white privilege (Middle Class Problems etc) has become a parody in itself, yet it is seen as a light-hearted joke. I have never seen a thinkpiece posted by a basic bitch – it is somehow more acceptable. The point here is that discussion of all cultures should be equal and that more education is needed to help us move past stereotypes and understand the world we live in. Belittling or insulting one another isn’t helpful, nor are overly-intellectual posts which take shots for no reason. To quote Mean Girls, a hilarious yet astutely observant parody of the various cultures in a suburban high school, “I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school…I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy…”


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