By Thea Lim
On Tuesday Racialicious Special Correspondent Jessica Yee wrote a post for the Bitch Magazine blog called “On hipsters/hippies and Native Culture” (scroll down one to see the post itself), which was basically a post listing some of the major cultural appropriation no-nos practiced by hipster and hippie culture.
The Bitch Magazine blog comments section is usually fairly quiet, averaging about 10 comments a post. Jessica’s post got 51 comments (at last count). While a few comments were supportive of Jessica’s point, a lot of them were angry, obtuse and condescending, accusing Jessica of being combative while they themselves were combative or accusing Jessica of “excluding people” while remaining completely insensitive to the fact that our culture has actively and institutionally excluded the communities Jessica speaks for, for hundreds of years. A little proportion, please.
Racialicious considers Bitch a friend – all year Racialicious bloggers will be guesting at the Bitch blog. But when Jessica sent out an email to the team with a link to said Bitch post and its comments, we shuddered a long, sad, collective sigh. This kind of blowback is so depressingly standard, and calls immediately to mind the dozens of times we’ve received these types of responses when we’ve asked for ourselves, our cultures and our experiences to be respected.
The resistance Jessica got is so standard that we can categorise it into three, typical responses that entitled folks make when called out for their privilege. So here, organised for your reading ease, are some of those soul-scorching comments, and my rebuttals to their nonsense.
1. Why are you so angry? Don’t you know that no one will listen to your cause if you’re angry?
…Her defensive, hostile and generally angry tone does no service to the Indigenous community nor to her own self-claimed authorty as the arbiter of all things Native. Many of her points (Native women were the first to acknowledge that periods aren’t gross?) fail to recognize that these same concepts are fairly universal and are held by the early peoples of pretty much every continent- including Europe. She needs to take a breath and get over herself…
It seems somewhat contradictory to put stickers on your laptop that indicate a Mohawk heritage and then rudely dismiss a stranger who expresses an interest in your advertisement. Perhaps a better way to accomplish your agenda (whatever it is) would be to engage in polite and open-minded conversation with those who mistake your stickers for an invitation.
if you dont like the ignorance people have of you then fix it! teach them the right way! dont get all huffy and upset and tell them to go away!
Note that the second comment suggests that Jessica should take a nicer tone if she wants to accomplish her agenda – without even knowing (or I guess, caring) what the agenda is.
This kind of hey-let-me-help-you-achieve-your-goal-by-suggesting-you-be-more-radio-friendly response totally misunderstands (and appears disinterested) in the anti-racist project, because it assumes that anti-racism is all about convincing white people to be nice to people of colour. In other words, it assumes that anti-racism revolves around white folks. Like everything else in the world.
Anti-racism and people of colour organizing is not about being friendly, being appealing, or educating white folks. While individual anti-racist activists may take those tacks to achieve their goals, the point of anti-racism is to be for people of colour.
Anti-racism is about carving out a space for people of colour; decolonising and reappropriating the spaces which have been taken from us by racism. So sometimes people put Mohawk stickers on their laptops (or wear yellow pride t-shirts or support black music) because that is a way for them to affirm to themselves who they are, within a dominant culture that tries to ignore and erase their pride in their own cultures.
While I personally often take a gentler approach to anti-racism (often because I have internalised messages that as a woman of colour I should not be pushy) I have many times over been inspired and moved by Jessica’s power and fearlessness at calling people out on their shit.
2. Why don’t you lighten up and get over it?
Oh please. This is like saying its not cool to eat pizza unless you’re Italian. Or only the French can drink champagne. Learn to share your heritage. Stop holding on so tightly. My ancestors weren’t even around before the 1900’s. They didn’t kill your ancestors. Get over it.
…But should racial sensitivity move all the way over to never watching a John Wayne movie ever again and seeing Italians poorly portray a “First People” (Bitch needs to check their AP style book *snotty wink*). Or a bunch of star fucking hipsters in headdresses coked out of their little American panties? It just seems like trite and really insecure whistle blowing.
…Health disparaties and poverty are worth more of everyone’s attention than hippie fashion trends or things that annoy you about white people…
As a pop culture website, we get this response so often that we even have a policy to speak to it:
8. Don’t respond to a post or comment by saying “why don’t you focus on some real issues like the war/starving children in Africa/police brutality/etc.” Newsflash: this is a blog about race and pop culture. If you’re not interested in discussing the intersection of those two things, please go elsewhere.
Incidentally Bitch is also a pop culture site, so it kinda makes sense that Jessica talk about hipsters there. Bitch readers come to Bitch to talk about feminism and pop culture, but they don’t want to talk about racism and pop culture?
The “get over it” defense is not hard to take down as soon as you realise that by “it” the commenter is referring to colonisation and genocide, the legacy of which continues to beset Native communities in the form of poverty, environmental racism, and health disparities (to recap some of the things Jessica mentioned in the original post).
The whole “but that happened 100 years ago!” defense is similarly dense: a brief look at who is poor and who is marginalised in the richest countries in the world should quiet that one down…though it often doesn’t. There’s no accounting for pigheadedness.
And beyond this? Racism manifests itself in a million different ways, from massive structural inequalities, to the accessories of that fashionable person on the subway next to you. And sometimes it is easier for folks to understand and tackle the small things; for me, it was a long journey to the admission that racism exists and impacts my daily life. Talking about pop culture was a baby step that I could take; it was also something that was familiar and accessible when I didn’t really understand the academic language of postcolonial theory, or couldn’t imagine that words like “double marginalization” “diaspora” or even “immigrant” could apply to me.
It’s bossy to tell people which incidences of racism they should be discussing, and it also denies the insidious nature of racism. There’s no global limit on how many racist topics we can discuss. If our bandwidth has room, we’re going to decontruct it.
3. Why is this my fault? My family didn’t do anything. And anyways, I’m poor/female/an immigrant (insert other identity) so that neutralises my white privilege – I don’t have any.
…Am I immediately part of the problem because I was born into it? You assume I don’t care or involved myself in Native rights and politics because I’m white? How easy it is for all you to dismiss the few uber-defensive Caucasians claiming, “What, I’m automatically racist because I’m [white]?” without reconsidering the allegation. Throwing around blame is not a solution…
…[from a commenter who identifies as a white immigrant] Though we fare better than many others…it’s been a long struggle, especially since my parents’ accents are much too thick for most American-born citizens to understand and has made jobs difficult to land. We are working class and could not even afford state university. Anyway, I wanted to say that it is interesting how homogenized white people are in this country. Our personal heritage is ignored, a Scottish redheaded regarded no differently than a deeply olive-skinned Sicillian, in the United States.
…my ancestors came from Ireland, i am only a few generations off the boat. and when the Irish came to America, they were looked at the same way that assholes look at immigrants today. by other white people…being poor pretty much cancels out all the benefits of white privilege, except for the whole thing about being “color blind.” i’m trying to be more aware of this stuff…but here’s the thing- my ancestors didn’t kill your ancestors, and i don’t really see what benefits i am reaping (other than the one i mentioned earlier)…
No matter what, denying that you have privilege because of other things going on in your life, shows that you have not really engaged with what it means to have privilege.
The bottom line is, if you are white, you benefit from white privilege, and if you live on native land, you benefit from the native genocide.
Let’s take me as a case study.
In my everyday life, I am often the only person of colour in the room. While this can be stressful and upsetting, I also have to ask why it is me, of all the people of colour, who gets to be in the room. Part of it may be because I worked hard. But I also need to acknowledge that a lot of it has to do with the fact that I grew up middle class (even though my parents were immigrants); that have a great deal of educational privilege and that is clear as soon as I open my mouth; and that my mother is white and she taught me by example to be entitled (even though she herself grew up very poor)…In other words, I experience both barriers and privileges, and denying that only means that I will have a dishonest relationship to the world around me.
The fact that I have white/educational/class privilege does not go away because I am a woman of colour. Sure the privilege is mediated through the racism (and other things) that I experience (and on a bad day where I feel like the room is completely ignorant and just doesn’t give two poops about my experience, I often want to escape the room) but neither the oppression I experience nor the privileges I have cancel each other out. It’s more complicated than that.
I also was born on Native land, in Canada, and continue to live on Native land in Texas. Without a doubt none of my ancestors had a direct hand in the colonisation of the Americas; my parents were each the first members of their families to set foot on Turtle Island, and they arrived in the mid 70’s. But by the fact that I live on the land, I benefit from the genocide visited on the people who originally lived here. Do I like the fact that I benefit from something so horrendous and on-going? No. But would I be living here and having my nice life on the land if the genocide hadn’t happened? No. If I can’t admit that I benefit from it – no matter how I feel about that benefit – I have a dishonest relationship to the world around me.
Is the genocide my fault? No. As someone who lives on the land, is it my responsibility to do something about its fallout? Yes. That doesn’t mean relocating everyone who now lives on the land*, but it does mean (to me) educating myself about what happened, showing solidarity, and taking an active interest in indigenous efforts to preserve their culture and gain access to basic human rights. As a Canadian, this is a part of my history, and a part of my business.
The onslaught of pushback that anti-racism receives from folks who simply have no interest in engaging with their own privilege can be silencing, especially if you don’t have your own community of colour who has your back. Which brings me to my final point.
To anyone who ever asks why Racialicious is run solely by people of colour, or keeps such a death grip on the comments section, or runs content almost solely by people of colour – well, your answer is in the sample comments above, which in their own way are all saying: SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP. Even if they were written by well-intentioned people who did not intend to shut Jessica up, that is what they ultimately communicate.
We run Racialicious the way we do because we have to. This is how we survive and build community. When no one will give you the space to speak your own truths on their site, make your own damn site. While we intend to make space for respectful disagreements, we do not publish comments that require our writers to defend whether their experiences, feelings or opinions matter or exist. Because people of colour have to deal with that kind of eroding scrutiny every single effing day.
Despite the gargantuan size of the English-speaking blogosphere, Racialicious is one of the few places where anti-racist people of colour can come together in a safe space to debate the issues (from small to big) of our lives. And truly, that’s not necessarily something we’re happy about; while it’s nice to excel at what you do, there should be more online spaces that are either for people of colour, or just more friendly to people of colour.
But in the meantime, we’ll be holding it down here.
* Another favoured response of non-anti-racists to the belief that we benefit from the native genocide is to say “Yeah but, what are we going to do, move away and give back the land?” As I said in a past post:
That kind of zero-sum reasoning distracts away from the fact that many First Nations people in Canada, my own country, live under third world conditions in a first world country…Surely there is a political option to remedy this beyond shameful situation, between ignoring it and moving back to England.
Cultural Appropriation Bingo Card courtesy of Elusis