Since being publicly called out for appropriation in a recent performance of mine, I have made renewed research and spent a lot of time thinking about the very important topic of appropriation, especially in relation to the ways that I experience privilege (endnote i).
I feel strongly that the topic of “appropriation” is one to take seriously, not one to dismiss or undermine, one that I have been considering in my performance decisions my entire career, and one to unpack and dialogue about extensively. Why? Because we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, violent world, and to consider how our personal actions contribute to that structure is the very least thing we can do (as artists, as consumers, producers).
The topic pinpricks me, causes me a rumble in my gut, as I think it does many. It pricks because actually I think we care about each other’s feelings and we care about violence. Maybe the discomfort we feel has to do with the structures of violence themselves. Maybe it has to do with how we are talking to each other.
I experience the privilege of whiteness on a daily basis.
(And) I would like to think and write about “issues” of cultural appropriation and how it relates to empathy and finding alliance across difference.
I want to live in a world where those two things can coexist. Sometimes lately I feel like it can’t. I feel nihilism and paralysis.
As much love as I see around me, we are also hating each other so much, so much of the time. And every time someone talks about love, there is equally one more person saying how sick they are of hearing about idealistic ideas of love. So many still feel silenced, angry, unsafe.
We have to be silent and listen and yet speak. We have to hold back and yet act. We have to advocate and yet never speak for another. Meanwhile we don’t know what is Us and what is Other; we can’t pinpoint it. Our authentic self is/are dynamic selves which are inconsistent and hard to find authenticity within. Most people seem to feel they are always “not quite inside” any one group and yet still perpetuating the violence of the larger structure. This is partly why it seems this issue pricks; it’s so close to fundamental contradictions of existing.
At least, from my perspective (endnote ii), this is what some of what i am thinking about.
I don’t believe in censorship at all for any reason and I believe that playing with (ie performing on stage, on the street, or in private spaces) race, class and gender is part of understanding social taboos around power structures. I believe that race, like gender, is a floating signifier and I think we are curious to perform across difference no matter where our identities intersect within structures of power (put simply, we are inclined towards drag and costume play—pretending to be something “we are not”).
I do believe in curating “Art” and “art” and “the daily experience of getting up and getting dressed”. I believe in consumer choice (we can try to choose to see the art we want to see and not see the art we don’t want to see). I do believe that so-called “good art,” (and since I don’t believe in good or bad art I will simply say—the kind of art that I want to see) – must be thoroughly thought through by the artist, considered from a variety of angles, and aims to subvert, unpack, and shed new light on common knowledge around a particular concept. In doing so, it might appropriate, it might offend, and it might confront the deepest most difficult and deeply held assumptions of our societies.
I would like to believe and trust that outing / policing / boycotting / no-platforming / calling-out so-called “appropriations” – whether it be of an artist in their performance, or a person walking down the street wearing an item of clothing or style – is done so with the highest respect, non violence, and with the intent of educating and sharing information. Moreover, that it is enacted with the intention of breaking down structures of violence and towards a world that is peaceful, towards a world where empowerment, fulfillment and sustainability is equally accessible by all peoples. Thats not to say that it is never angry. Of course we are angry with the state of the world.
I think that all of these ideas and feelings can and must coexist.
Yesterday I went with my coparents to have a meeting with the headmistress of our kita, a first generation German-born Turkish person. I was nearly in tears as she related her history of discrimination as a person of Turkish descent to our experiences as a queer family. She encouraged us to set our own boundaries, to speak proudly about our family, and to continue to fight. She assured us that while structures of discrimination were changing, the minds of people and entrenched knowledges of people were harder and slower to change. She related to us and empathized with us through her difference.
I found this refreshing because I feel an increasing alienation growing, especially amongst leftist communities. We feel afraid to relate to each other for fear of being called out as appropriators or exploiters; as racist or sexist or transphobic or homophobic. We are afraid to say: we ARE these things (at different times, at different moments, in different ways). But we are ALSO allies of each other. We don’t know to what we can speak because our identities feel so fragmented and dynamic, an appropriation in and of itself.
We are concentrating so much on our differences, on our singular identities. We seem to be forgetting the ways in which we can find similarities in our intersectional experiences (ones that are complicated by race class and gender). We have to be able to teach each other and be allies to each other, we have to raise our communities to new standards of respect and language, but we also have to be able to relate and empathize with each other across our differences.
In our global capitalist context, everything that we use is taken from somewhere else. It has a migration story. It is difficult to find its origin. Its perceived origin may not be its “real origin”. Its origin in relation to how it was creatively conceived many be different from its origin in relation to the migration stories of the hands that created it. When we try to dissect which appropriations are “okay” and which are not, we run into many important questions which I think are worth bringing up. If we automatically berate and silence each other for bringing up these questions, I believe that we are actually signing on to collective intellectual laziness. Its not enough to simply say—the sight of feathers is a cultural appropriation. Of what? Of whom? Why is it important?
These are questions that are hard to grapple with and touch an emotional center for many of us because it mirrors a human condition. We are all living in a structure of violence within which we both experience and perpetuate violence. We have to hold these two contradictions in our hands—an appropriation is both a taking and a sharing, it is both an advocacy and a lack of context. It is both representational and authentic. It rides a fine line.
The theme of cultural appropriation is not a new one; depending on our points of reference it has been discussed in various circles for a very long time. I first felt the weight of this subject as a 19 year old when reading “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color” (a fantastic book written in the 80s). I remember specifically reading a poem by a person named Jo Carillo, who wrote “And When You Leave Take Your Pictures With You.” (endnote ii)
The poem relates to this topic of appropriation because it references how bodies experiencing the privilege of mobility, of travel, of whiteness, of owning a camera, can take pictures of people in different contexts, bring them back to their own contexts and share them in a context devoid of the pain or power of the photograph and present the images as beautiful. They give the photographer social capital as they share them in their own artistic and social contexts.
One could argue that the photographer is giving voice to the persons in the photographs, sharing stories which are not their own. One could also argue that they are exploiting other people’s stories for their own benefit, not lifting those people out of their conditions. Not helping to change the structure of violence that keeps them separated. Meanwhile in reality, those people (on either side of the lens) could very well be working very hard in any number of occupations that in fact are trying to undermine structures of violence. Alternatively, those people (on either side of the lens) could be working in occupations that entrench structures of violence. In other words it would be unfair to take the situation as a either good or bad, and needless to say, we cant even speak so clearly about which occupations do and do not entrench structures of violence. Its an endlessly escaping descriptor.
What I do know is that it was a topic urgent to the author and that she knew she had to speak. And when I heard her voice, I listened, and the problematics of the situation resonated with me. It changed my life. It encouraged me to speak through my own body as much as I possibly could. And yet still 20 years later the complicated web within which we interact is still complicated and fraught with pain and emotion which I understand.
Appropriation has come to gain some kind of mainstream visibility in the last ten years, perhaps simply due to social media and new forms of public art presented in the form of, for example, music video. As an increasing number of public figures are exercising acts of appropriation it seems like we need to have increasingly complicated conversations about what is important in relation to appropriation and what we need to do (if anything, aside from listen).
From what I can tell in many recent articles, news reports, and blogs about appropriations, the word is rapidly being used as derogatory and simultaneously has come to encompass just about everything (it has come to mean any time any one does anything that does “come from” them, does not represent them and their exact origin).
Simultaneously, it’s defined by far less than it ought to (the problematics of larger structures of violence are always escaping the minute instances of appropriation, especially in the instances of appropriation where the accused are genuinely interested in undermining that structure). In other words, we aren’t getting to the heart of the matter in most of our discussions or sound-bite epithets we hurl across Twitter.
In the first instance, appropriation has been used as short hand to describe any act where a privileged body (read: oppressor body) tries to take on the voice, action, consciousness raising of any other body or thing that is “not their own”. It might refer to an object, to music, to a gesture, a dance. It might refer to similitude of a style or anything at all.
It seems to lead to some problematics. For one thing, it asks us to assess what exactly is the origin of an object, but it does so selectively. It also asks us to pinpoint our own origins, which is often equally murky. It’s wonderful to research the history and migration story of any given object, who made it, how it was made, why it was made, and under what conditions it was reproduced. But the fact is that this is relevant to every single object with which we interact. It implicates the stories of all the artists, scientists and laborers who work with the object. There are so many intricate and interesting histories involved that should be brought to light.
Just because an appropriation is “obvious” probably means we need to do more research about all the “non obvious” appropriations. And why are they not obvious? Because most of us just aren’t that knowledgeable about everything with which we interact. Because the people whom it appropriates are driven into silence. In some cases, research and knowledge lead us to separate conclusions about our “right” to use or conjure a tradition or object and what one sees superficially lacks deeper analysis and ends up offending in any case. But those who it references aren’t even part of the debate.
But is research about authenticity bringing us to a constructive place? For sure it seems valuable to find out about the history of objects, traditions, and above all people, but on the other hand, we as people struggle against this pigeon-holing as it relates to origin. “Origin” is not a person or a tradition’s most important feature. Some of us want nothing to do with our origins, our birth nation, our history. Some of us want to be devoid of our context, and isn’t an obsession with birthright what drives some very fascist policy? Giving undue weight to the importance of “birthplace” has delivered racist policy towards migrants. Towards the idea of being chosen and lucky. All of us, all over the place, should have the right to stay and the right to move, to deny our origins.
So where does this obsession with authenticity end? And where does this take us?
Some have suggested that appropriation is negative “only” in cases when an oppressor class takes from an oppressed class to use for their benefit or their social capital. First, it bolsters an essentialist idea of the experience of oppressed people. The African Diaspora experience is not the same, any individual experience intersects at many different points with many other experiences. Secondly, it forgets intersectionality. The issue of oppressor/oppressed is instantly complicated when the intersectionality of either party doesn’t make for a very clear hierarchy. And is hierarchy as it pertains to exploitation really what we are interested in promulgating (i.e. “my violence is more important than your violence”)?
As Franchesca Ramsey has discussed excellently in her Youtube video series, good intention does not mean that you didn’t mess up — some acts come across as violent and offensive to some people, no matter what the intention is. On the other hand, I would also have to offer — good intention is in fact sometimes the only thing that distinguishes some acts from others.
(I relate this to queer porn. What we see on the screen of a queer porn may not look all that differently from a porn not made from a queer perspective, and yet the intent and the context of the creation of the queer porn may in fact be unique, it might be more empowering for the actors. If the porn offends the viewer, or is critiqued as non-feminist, as contributing to a structure of sexism and gender violence, should we stop making the porn? Should we apologize for the porn? Those of us who continue to make it have obviously chosen to keep making it. How do we then live in the contradiction, how is the best way then to continue to validate our privilege, our context?)
We could say—and many have—if you enjoy the privilege of whiteness, then stop crying, shut up, and deal with the fact that you feel hurt and censored. I’ve even heard—to my face—that all white people should just die. Sure. White people should just shut up and listen. Maybe they should all die—Fine. I don’t believe my life is any more important than any other. But if we do live in a world of coexistence, when is it NOT an exercise of privilege to speak? To whom do we listen, and is it not problematic to speak of non white people as some kind of monolith? Who decides which silences are important? What is the ultimate goal? At some point and for some generation does this end? Do we find new strategies (other than silencing) within our lifetime?
When we “speak for another” person this seems to be different than appropriation and yet it’s often lumped in the same bin. It is sometimes necessary to be an advocate. Sometimes the person who needs advocating has asked for advocating. Sometimes they have given their permission to be advocated for. What about genuine solidarity and taking on the story (not as owning it but as standing with that story) for the benefit of finding larger alliances? If a person objects to advocacy but is not the person advocated for, are they not also assuming a role of “advocating on behalf of” that they themselves object to?
Appropriation as an epithet seems to forget its own intention. I’ve been in one too many conversations about the topic that have led to essentialist and racist stereotyping about the so-called offended party (who is often not present). Sometimes, they are present and their identities are (mis)assumed. Sometimes its even implied that the oppressed person doesn’t have enough knowledge about their own oppression to give an educated response—a presumption which is classist and privileges the authors of the language.
If an artist or DJ uses the music from another musician, and has acquired it by buying it online because the musician has put it online to be accessed and bought, it seems that in fact the musician has given permission for the music to be shared and appreciated globally. Should a DJ or artist seek the explicit permission of the musician in every case in which the music is shared for noncommercial purposes?
If in fact we care about seeking the permission of any artwork to be used at any time by any person, there are two issues involved. For one, we have to be vigilant about seeking the permission of anyone whose music or artworks we borrow in our works, without exception–which I don’t see happening in general during any given night of music played in any given club. But secondly we presumably have to assess the relative power of the person whose artwork we seek in order to assess whether its use is “exploitation” or “sharing”. Is this productive? Especially at this fragmented economic time when the vast majority of artists and musicians have so little power at all, when so many people have lost security as freelancers, it seems that its not constructive to simply go about deciding who has relative cultural power or buying power. Perhaps there are the obvious examples. Perhaps we can easily say that Lady Gaga has more money more power and more cultural power than, say, Saul Williams. But what about Saul Williams in relation to another independent artist? Is creating a heirarchy the direction we would like to go?
Perhaps performers should move towards seeking permission of all musicians whose music they use. Given that most of the music used in performance is music by people too busy to give “some dancer” or “some DJ” permission (I am thinking of all the go-go performances and neo-burlesque performances I have been asked to perform where I danced to artists on major labels), when does one decide that one “must” seek permission or not? I would rather, say, bring to light the music of someone who is independent than “major label”. But in this case am I always appropriating, simply because I am utilizing the music of someone underrepresented? Am I meant to research the “race” or “intersectionality” of the person whose music I am using in order to asses my relative cultural power? Through this research and categorization are we ultimately arriving at a positive place?
All this said, “cultural appropriation” as a critique really doesn’t go broad enough, if its intention is what it says it is. It picks and chooses what is relevant and irrelevant. The exercise of policing or silencing or apologetics is misinforming many of us. Even apologies are being critiqued as “disingenuous”–perhaps because people just don’t know what they are meant to apologize for, or genuinely disagree with the critique. Perhaps the those who are doing the critiquing are also inconsistent or ambiguous in why they feel offense, or feel that another (unrepresented party) would.
Some people are beginning to be fearful of sharing music from other cultures, learning from other dancers; meanwhile gender appropriation like “drag” is completely “okay.” Blackface is an agreed upon ultimate taboo, because historically it is so offensive—it was a form of making fun of black people and yet representing them in shows without actually hiring them (disempowering as well on an economic level). Playing women in theater was historically not all that different. But Drag by men of women has actually brought to light some of the issues of “the making of a woman,” the issues of how gender is “produced” – the same way that in fact race is also produced.
But the conversation about drag (which at present seems only to refer to gender–though maybe it could use an expanded definition) and transgenderism is celebrated. Few interrogate critically the ways in which we perform in various “class drag” all the time (though one might argue that it has been explored in Drag scenes and “Realness”. The conversation about transracialism is awkward, lambasted and/or silenced. Why?
In the end, it feels like not everyone has time, space, patience to really go deep with critical thinking around the topic; rather they are operating on rumor, learning to memorize what they hear and tiptoe around issues that they are unsure about, fearful of making an “accidental” mistake. And it leaves no room for people to play and to explore areas of discomfort. This may feel safe for some, but its feel unsafe to me.
So what do we do?
In order to eradicate appropriation we are asked to construct a narrative around what is the origin of an object or tradition. In order to discover what it is that we are borrowing from, it necessarily asks us to create our own origin and to understand the origin of the Other. Ultimately, this leads to something I find unproductive–an increasing number of lines are being drawn.
Becoming obsessed with the idea of where something “originally came from” sometimes sells short what the larger issue is or to whom it is important. It biases the obvious appropriations (headdress, dreadlocks) while ignoring less obvious ones (the smart phone – several hands of exploited laborers made it—one privileged hand uses it).
Most things have complicated stories, full of multiple appropriations and changing of hands—including the history of how we acquired them, all of which are tied to class, entitlement and the intersections of race, class and gender. It seems counterproductive to suggest that any time something is used in a context outside of its original, that it is violent. And yet—it is. Of course it is. The histories of migration and changing of hands are violent and exploitative. The exchange of goods and services for money is generally exploitative because everyone is searching for their advantage. That is the contradiction we are living within.
Yet we have to move forwards. Pick ourselves up. Ask others how we can assist. Don’t be our own heroes. Listen. Exist in the contractions. Ask questions. Listen again. Be loving to each other. Listen. Think critically. More questions. There are many more questions.
My body is, like any body, hanging within multiple structures of power. As a performer I encounter the myriad ways in which my body is experienced intersectionally and “read”–literally viewed–in a variety of contexts. Some of the signifiers my body carries are obvious and clear, others are difficult to read on the skin itself. Some are read through the nature and context of the performance, the presumed message of the performance, the very price of the ticket, or lack thereof. I often play with the naked body itself, in part because I cannot get under it and in part because I have to always contend with it. I cannot fully hide it under a variety of other signifiers, ie clothing, whether it is made by an independent artist in Berlin, or by the hands of a woman in, perhaps, Cambodia, who was “rescued” out of sex work and told to work in a factory.
My body is a light skinned body. It is a thin body. It is an aging body. It is a muscular, androgynous, sometimes butch presenting body. It is a shave-headed body that can be made to look femme with a wig, or made to look sick with no makeup. It is a public body, one that can be “accessed” in performance or called upon as a sex worker, or found on the Internet. The body itself presents a host of constraints and advantages within which I work. It is a body with a cunt and sagging breasts. It is a body that speaks English as a mother tongue. It is the child of an immigrant father and a low-income mother who both crossed class lines through education. It is an educated body. It is a queer body. It is an artist body, it is a precarious body. It is a low-income body, a body that has never earned enough to owe taxes, but is ineligible for government assistance because it is a migrant body. It is an ugly body. A body who does not own a car, a television, a home. It is a 37-year-old, beginning to feel the physical limitations of body, body. It is a tired body, one that is worn from daily struggle of fatigue, waking up early to parent, cycling and hauling bags around because it cannot afford a taxi. A body that wears stress of trying to survive on a precarious income. It is an activist body, an out sex worker body. It is a body that can migrate, if it saves the money. It is a body holding a US passport.
It enjoys a variety of privileges and struggles out of this intersectionality of experience, context, background.
And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You
By Jo Carrillo
Our white sisters
love to own pictures of us
sitting at a factory machine
wielding a machete
in our bright bandanas
holding brown yellow black red children
reading books from literacy campaigns
holding machine guns bayonets bombs knives
Our white sisters
Our white sisters
love to own pictures of us
walking to the fields in the hot sun
with straw hat on head if brown
bandana if black
in bright embroidered shirts
holding brown yellow black red children
reading books from literacy campaigns
Our white sisters
should think again.
No one smiles
at the beginning of a day spent
digging for souvenir chunks of uranium
of cleaning up after
our white sisters
And when our white sisters
radical friends see us
in the flesh
not as a picture they own,
they are not quite sure
they like us as much.
We’re not as happy as we look
“And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You,” published in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 2nd ed., 1983