Thursday, October 28, 2010

I’m Sorry Whiteness, You Can’t have Everything

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.  

Cultural appropriation. The race-relations hotbed of our time. We've all been guilty of it at some point. When we live in a globalized marketplace that's constantly revamping its buffet to pique our capricious consumerism, it's hard not to be.

Even though many a blogger has tackled this issue numerous times, I have to say my piece because, despite numerous bloggers cited above, white folks in the general western hemisphere still INSIST that cultural appropriation is either  a)harmless

b) just POC being oversensitive

c)paying a compliment

Before I plunge in, I'm going to offer a general explanation of cultural appropriation: it's when the dominant culture adopts symbols, iconography, customs, crafts etc created by a subordinate culture, without either gaining permission, giving credit, honoring the true spirit of the culture or ensuring that members of the subordinate culture are equally represented in the mainstream. It's like hey, we like the yoga stuff, but not so much the brown people that created it. 

 Now, a personal example to illustrate. Last week, the boyfriend and I were hitching a ride with some folks.  Myself, the boyfriend, and our friend Y were the people of color in the car. The other girl, whom I shall call Genteel White Lady, continued to speak Spanish almost the entire time to Y. My partner, who identifies as Latino, grew up in a Midwestern white family, and therefore is not fluent in Spanish.

For those who are wondering where this is going: for many people of color, language is a painful, poignant issue. Many of us have had our parents’ languages forced out of us through English-privileging education systems. Or, we have internalized so much shame and hatred about our native languages from the white colonial legacy,  that reclaiming our mother tongues is a lifelong, painful, complex process. Language anchors our history, our memory, our connection to community; the loss and dispossession of language entails a lifetime of anguish. For the Latin@/Chican@ community in the US, English-only programs and corporal punishment by white teachers ensured that entire generations grew up without the words to speak with their grandparents. Reclaiming language and celebrating bilingualism is therefore tied to the collective decolonization of communities of color.

When Genteel White Lady proceeded to blithely showcase her Spanish skills, ignoring the fact that my partner could not participate in the conversation, she was appropriating cultural prerogative. She was displaying her ignorance of the history of the Spanish language in the United States.  So here’s someone who’s studied Spanish for years, without ever considering the issue of appropriation and privilege that reap her Genteel White Lady self adulation for being ‘well-rounded’ while stigmatizing the same language in brown-skinned people.
It gets worse.

Turns out that Genteel White Lady travelled to Latin America with her church, where she was moved beyond her Genteel White Lady self could explain by how ‘the people” are “so happy, even though they have nothing”.  She thus took it upon herself to learn Spanish so she could continue to flit around the globe (as those with US passports can) and partake of this wonderful jubilance so inherent in formerly colonized people.

So, not only is Genteel White Lady benefitted immeasurably by the same historic conditions that ensure people in certain countries “have nothing”, but she is able to speak for those people and assure herself that they are, indeed, happy and content.

Words cannot even begin to encapsulate my rage and frustration. If anger could cause spontaneous combustion, the car would have exploded into a mushroom cloud of flaming gasoline at the precise moment those words fell like dainty pearls from Genteel White Lady’s lips.

I’m sorry white peeps. I know it’s hard having an identity that’s negatively defined. I know that white culture is produced and reproduced as utterly normal and unflavored, so that the rest of us can be racialized and othered. I know that our brown people culture is super attractive and sparkly, and we always seem so pleased by your white attention that it almost seems rude NOT to speak for us or mimic our customs.

But, cultural appropriation is real, it’s happening, and it’s RACIST.

People of color have survived centuries of unspeakable violence against our cultures and our spirits. The cultures we have built today, in all their vibrancy and richness, are testaments to our strength and survival. Therefore, they have incredible meaning to us.  When white folks just put them on like a pair of shoes, they neutralize years of resistance and celebration.

The day when all peoples have equal access to large-scale media, when all peoples can travel with the same freedom, when all peoples have equal and humanized representation in the global cultural landscape, THEN we can talk about cultural exchange and how cultures can benefit from influencing each other.

Until then, it’s just plain stealing.