Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Familiar Oppression (Rich)

This post is in response to Tim's guest post on Cultural Appropriation. Rich is a friend from university in Cape Town, South Africa who now lives in Sydney, Australia. Rich has written before on Happier Cities and Oozing. His own blog which focuses on sustainability is called 'The Pointy End'.


There is no doubt that cultural appropriation has happened throughout human history. It might not even be such a stretch to say that cultural appropriation is human history. That it has often been painful is probably beyond question. Conquest, migration, language, art…

We white africans are a mish-mash of afro-european weave that carries with it a lot of pain and a lot of extraordinary creativity. Over our shared colonial history there have been brilliant exponents of sensitive appropriation; of putting on the clothes and language of the other to tell better stories, to make better music, to taste better food. That there are creative cross-cultural pioneers that forge a way forward for us; in other words that cultural appropriation can be done right; is self-evident.

But let’s get real.

Most cultural appropriation is not sensitive. Most cultural appropriation is a game that is played by the powerful on those with less agency. It is often an act of taking without permission, without consultation. It is blackface. It is ‘knowing Africa’ after just a visit to Morocco.

A white Dutch woman in a Zwarte Piet costume

There is a social currency, social legitimacy, to familiarity with once-oppressed people. There is a power in being acceptable to the people our ancestors royally fucked over and on whose backs our privilege was built. I think we all leverage this to our advantage.

I think that the authenticity of cultural appropriation is the degree to which it is freely given, rather than taken. Were someone of Zulu heritage to take exception to a son of apartheid using their language, their song, their dance (especially commercially), they would be entirely entitled in that view.

It doesn’t really mean much for the takers of another’s culture to build narratives that support their taking.

Perhaps most importantly, like racism and sexism, it only really works one way on the power spectrum. We know reverse racism is a bullshit concept, because of the history of racial exclusion. We know reverse sexism is a bullshit concept because of the history of women’s exclusion from the workforce and power structures of society.

So too here.

Which makes consultation the cornerstone of authenticity. If you are the current end-game of a powerplay that has caused pain to people, best to engage with them before assuming aspects of their identity and culture.

That cultural appropriation can be done sensitively is not to say that it cannot be done insensitively. Our only hope at understanding the difference is to ask.

And not to take offence if someone calls us out on it.
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