Saturday, June 11, 2016

Eliminating racial oppression does not involve preventing cultural osmosis

Sierra Mannie does not like how white gay men sometimes imitate black women, because she thinks it amounts to “stealing” their culture.  She explains why this is bad:

“extracurricular black activities get snatched up, too: our music, our dances, our slang, our clothing, our hairstyles. All of these things are rounded up, whitewashed and repackaged for your consumption. But here’s the shade — the non-black people who get to enjoy all of the fun things about blackness will never have to experience the ugliness of the black experience, systemic racism and the dangers of simply living while black.”

I agree with her that non-black people do not have to deal with systematic racial oppression or the ugliness of the black experience in America that results. I sympathize with this, because it sucks, and I can never empathize with it, because I will never personally be able to appreciate how badly it sucks from first-hand experience. But…

…the fact that the downsides of blackness exceed the downsides of whiteness in this country does not mean black people get to somehow call dibs on the good parts of blackness as some sort of retribution.  Does she expect me to stop listening to jazz, and rock and roll, and rap and all these other wonderful, largely black inventions in music?  Should I have to pretend I don’t like them because her ancestors invented them?  That’s Ludacris!

Thankfully, she tries to clarify that this is not what she means:

“Appreciating a culture and appropriating one are very, very different things, with a much thicker line than some people think, if you use all of the three seconds it takes to be considerate before you open your mouth.…If you love some of the same things that some black women love, by all means, you and your black girlfriends go ahead and rock the hell out. Regardless of what our privileges and lack of privileges are, regardless of the laws and rhetoric that have attempted to divide us, we are equal, even though we aren’t the same, and that is okay. Claiming our identity for what’s sweet without ever having to taste its sour is not. Breathing fire behind ugly stereotypes that reduce black females to loud caricatures for you to emulate isn’t, either.” [emphasis added]

If this is what she means by drawing the thick line, she’s done so in mighty vague terms. We white guys can “rock the hell out” to things black women love, but we cannot “claim [black female] identity” in the process?  Ok…what the hell does that mean in practice?  How does one go about claiming an identity?  If a gay man were to literally check the boxes that say “black” and “female” when filling out a government form, I think we could all agree that counts as claiming their identity.  But what Mannie seems to be lamenting at the top of her article are a rather different set of activities, namely...

-quoting Madea
-talking about how large your butt is
-talking about having sex with black men

Does twerking mean you are claiming to be a black female?  NO!  It’s just a dance move, and you don’t get to the exclusive rights to it.  Nor can you claim Madea, nor large buttocks, nor the discussing the many pleasures of screwing black dudes.  Culture is not property, and cannot be stolen. You do not own it. You do not get to call dibs on it, any more than I get to call dibs on all the awesome stuff white people invented.

Eliminating the sourness of the black experience does not involve hoarding the sweetness.

Mannie makes the same bad argument Ruth Tam used in a different article about appropriating Asian food.  She wrote:

“This cultural appropriation stings because the same dishes hyped as “authentic” on trendy menus were scorned when cooked in the homes of the immigrants who brought them here.”

Maybe so, but that doesn’t make hyping dishes wrong in 2016.  The scorn is what was wrong. The fact that the scorn for foreign foods is gone now is a good thing – a positive change, not some big hypocrisy.  I can sympathize with the sting Asians faced back then, but we have to distinguish between what caused it, and what merely reminds her of what caused it.

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