Category Archives: cultural appropriation

On Burlesque [Essay]

by Guest Contributor Tiara the Merch Girl

Depending on who you ask, burlesque can either be a tool to poke fun at the Establishment by bringing them down to the “low-brow”, or a way to bask in vintage 1940s and 1950s glamour. It’s a growing art form with plenty of enthusiasts jumping in for a chance to shake, shimmy, and show off. However, with its overwhelmingly White presence, how does it deal with performers and fans from culturally diverse backgrounds?

I’m Tiara, a Malaysian of Bangladeshi heritage currently based in Brisbane, Australia. I started getting into burlesque in January and have recently debuted to the public as Tiara the Merch Girl (after being said Merch Girl at Brisbane’s Burlesque Ball). I also seem to be one of the very few Asian (or at the very least non-White) burlesque people in the area; the only other person I know of is Maiden Chyna, who is as new as me. I got into burlesque as I love performing and was intrigued at the possibility of expressing myself and my sexuality in ways that I was never able to when I was in Malaysia. I’ve seen fallen in love with the sheer creativity, talent, and humour that has come from burlesque performers around the world.

In my burlesque adventures I have noticed a distinct lack of resources, information, or even talent from culturally diverse backgrounds. As it is, there are hardly any growing organised scenes outside the UK, USA, and Australia, with small pockets in New Zealand, Canada, Scandinavia, and Western Europe. While they do exist, they tend to either be overlooked or exoticised. How does race and culture play out in burlesque, and its sibling subcultures such as rockabilly and pinup? Continue reading

A Tattoo’s Worth a Thousand Words

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Take a look at this photo. What are your initial thoughts on this tattoo?

After being tipped by reader pinkyloveswhisky, I headed on over to the BMEZine blog to check out what all the fuss was about, and I tried to do the exercise I recommended above. What were my initial thoughts on this tattoo? First I thought, wow, this is beautiful and very well done. The colors and detailing are perfect. The necklaces are so realistically portrayed I feel like I could reach out and touch them. I thought of documentaries I had seen on television about people living in remote villages and where the origins of many of the forms of body modification we participate in today can be traced.

Then I read the statement made by the man who had requested this piece:

I, like so many of our community members, have been totally fascinated with tribal cultures and their ideas of body art and beauty. In all simplicity this tattoo is my way of paying homage and showing people what body modification means to me and showing where my roots in this industry lay.

He notes that the piece is not a reference to anyone in particular or any one specific person, but for him the piece represents a means of paying homage to the peoples to whom we owe the popularity of body modification.

I think his tattoo is beautiful and personally take no issue with it. It’s all the same if any other person got a portrait piece done of a famous entertainer or public figure. However, on the blog itself, many people took issue with Dave’s statement and his use of the word “tribal.” Continue reading

Obey the Altruistic Giant, or Else

by Guest Contributor Nezua, originally published at The Unapologetic Mexican

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“It’s not like I’m just jumping on some cool rebel cause for the sake of exploiting it for profit.” —Shepard Fairey

Question of Appropriation and Tokenism are areas one must approach carefully. Human beings are involved and there is nuance, to be sure. Good can be done with methods that are not optimally beneficial to all parties involved. Furthermore, that cost must be weighed by each person. And yet, shapes of Whiteness move behind and around us, often invisible. They must be named.

I wrote a post the other day on the new poster by Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena, and essentially it was about how my initial impression was of a white artist appropriating culture in the newest culture-hungry OBEYGIANT art operation. I made various comments about the poster art, both complimenting elements of it (I love Fairey’s style, which borrows hugely from Russian Constructivism though he’d like the borrowing to stop there) as well as criticizing elements of the composition. These were not emotional “Eh, I just don’t like it” type comments; they were grounded in a cultural perspective as well as springing from my own artistic eye. I didn’t feel it necessary to temper my critique, because hey, it’s just one cat’s opinion. Little did I know I’d get the pushback I did.

As I have returned to this issue and this post and these people with as much nuance as I can manage, I expect commenters to do the same. If they cannot engage the ideas here thoughtfully, I will simply block them. I had enough arguing back and forth yesterday though I do very much thank those commenters, too. They forced me to delve deeper and to flesh out the ideas that I intuited right away, but had not yet the background “research” as was said, to argue comprehensively. I have done the research now, and I’m sure they will be satisfied that I took their advice.

Overall, the folks at ObeyGiant and/or ObeyGiant Forums did not care for my critique one bit, and they showed up to accuse me of various things, among those that I was reacting out of jealousy, ignorance, fear, and vanity. (In the same comment I was admonished to stop being divisive and feel the love!) The comments were in turns scornful, dismissive, and furious that I dared “spread misinformation.”

One commentor, “almanegra” wrote “[j]ust don’t start trying to spread misinformation that the whole operation was simply driven by a single factor, profit” as well as “you should really look into where the money is actually going as opposed to assuming that the image was purely profit driven.”

Reading back, I can see that it could read that way. No, I don’t really think it’s that simple. So not that I thought my opinion on it mattered so much, but okay. Ahem, for the record: I don’t think Shepard Fairey’s intentions can be said to be purely profit driven. Profits from the posters go to “creating materials for the May Day marches and donations for immigration reform organizations” and that doesn’t seem very profitable, does it. Of course if the “materials” are more of these posters, then the profits are essentially going back into creating what are highly-visible advertisements for the Shepard Fairey brand, as well. But we’ll push that aside for the moment. Finally, the cat who talked to me about the poster one-on-one says he works with Shepard Fairey and he’s an all right guy. So I have no reason to disbelieve that.

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A Friendly Reminder About Cinco De Mayo

By Special Correspondent Arturo R. García, also Posted at The Instant Callback

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Continuing a semi-yearly tradition of mine since my days working at my college paper, just a few notes about today:

1. This is not Mexican Independence Day
Nope, that’s September 16th. 5/5 commemorates an unlikely Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The battle delayed, but did not stop, an eventual French occupation of the country, which lasted three years before it was toppled.

beerad12. This is not that big of a deal back home
Don’t let the beer ads fool you; 5/5 is a regional holiday, usually celebrated at the site of the battle. But, it’s nowhere near as big a deal as it is in El Otro Lado. Now, is that because of immigrant pride, or American corporate opportunism? That, I leave for you to decide. During my time working in local Spanish-language radio, the biggest sponsors for our Cinco de Mayo concerts were — you guessed it — beer companies. Banners everywhere, beer girls hawking their wares on the stage, booze selling like hot cakes in the fenced-off drinking area. I don’t doubt that at least some of the people who attended the events had their hearts in the right place, but the commercial aspect definitely got on my nerves when I thought about it. Continue reading

Fashion and Patronizing, Colonial Rhetoric, Take #758080

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

So even though fashion designers have a tendency to appropriate and re-design fashion they witness during their world travels (or, cough, imperialist imaginations), the magazine writers and journalists just can’t seem to find the right words to characterize the collections. Instead of talking about geometric prints, the use of found objects as jewelry items, and color choices in a way that could be deemed appropriate and less offensive, they shade their words with sweeping generalizations and talk about “Africa” like a one trick pony.

In a recent New York Times fashion week photo spread entitled “African Influence on the Runway,” the first mistake made is the usual assumption that Africa is one big country. Morocco has a completely different fashion history from South Africa which has a different fashion history from the Congo, just, you know, as a tiny example. So in the title alone, they end up equating the diverse fashion traditions to one big imagined Africa. To make matters worse, the corresponding article is entitled “Out of Africa.” In reading the captions, I kept waiting for a punchline. The Times was just being ironic and funny, right?

Nope. They were for real.

Photo 1: a woman with crimped hair

“In the 2009 spring season, African style is a drumbeat through the clothes and accessories. Surprisingly it isn’t about the ethnic. Instead, it is the sculpted geometric shapes of Africa and its rich spicy colors that are the strongest forms of identity. Couture coiffeur Orlando Pita created these sculptural silhouettes for Christian Dior.”

African style is a “drumbeat?” Come on, y’all, really? Oh and just in case we forgot, “rich spicy” is not a way to describe food. It describes a continental identity in its “strongest forms.” Barf.

But wait, there’s more. . . so much more! Continue reading

Soulbounce Asks “How Can Justin Timberlake Still Objectify Black Women And Get Away With It?”

by Latoya Peterson

Reader Crash Happy tipped me to this provocative article published on SoulBounce, asking “How Can Justin Timberlake Still Objectify Black Women and Get Away with It?

Contributing editor Ro writes:

Someone please explain why Justin Timberlake continually gets a pass to fetishize and exploit the image of Black women. Right now. Because after watching him aggressively pulling on a chain wrapped around Ciara’s neck only to later use her bending body as a leaning post in her new video for “Love Sex Magic,” it’s getting ludicrously difficult to understand.

It been years since “Nipplegate” after which he distanced himself from Janet Jackson, cowardly allowing her to endure the overly harsh criticism alone. The outcry against his actions from those of us in the indignant minority was quickly overshadowed by an increase in album sales, multiple music awards and an increase in his Pop stardom miming Black music and culture. Instead of subjecting his next project with trepidation–let alone dismissal–nearly every “urban” club, radio station and music channel on the planet had the masses bumping to a song with a hook that’s about shackles, whipping and slavery.

From behind a wry smile and with his hair faded he actually tarnished a reigning, Black Pop star’s image arguably beyond repair by exposing her breast on national television and then built his street cred further by bringing sexy back, Middle Passage style. He’s transitioned from the post-racialist’s pop culture dream of somewhat harmlessly lusting after beautiful Black love interest in the video for “Like I Love You” into something more sinister. He uses the scapegoat of S&M edginess in which he is the aggressor, the dominant force, to subordinate his object of desire when she is Black.

Ro goes on to argue that while both Ciara and Janet Jackson chose to collaborate with Timberlake, “that just makes his ability to exploit their collaborations to the point that they are subjugated to his dominance, wittingly or not, more protestable.”

The comments over at SoulBounce were as provocative and engaging as the post. Here are a few of the choice ones:

You talk about JT “miming Black music and culture,” but until we get away from this insular view of racial ownership of culture (and a type of music) we will never be an integrated society. By making him out to be an imposter because he borrows from hip-hop and collaborates with black women (although his last popular single was with Madonna), aren’t you singling him out soley for the color of his skin and not the content of his musical product? That seems like precisely the kind of thing we are trying to get away from as a country.
Luce | March 25, 2009 5:02 PM | Permalink

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The Brazil Files: Conflict of Interest

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Before I utter any statements of depth in this piece, I have to present a bias. Though not meant to offend those who believe in proselytizing, I find myself firmly standing on the side of those against it. If you feel that religion and/or a faith tradition of some sort is your source of hope, guidance for life, and possibly even your ticket to eternal salvation, so be it. I respect that, and I fully honor the right we each have to practice some form of the aforementioned. However, the second you start telling me or someone else which form is best (read: which version will prevent me from burning in hell for the rest of eternity), we’ve got beef.

With that said, I want to go ahead and put it out there that I take issue with the bulk of missionary work (past and present), especially that which takes place in developing nations. It is a reminder of the power of nations who sit firmly and comfortably in their G8 seats, spectators in a game of international tennis. Only in the case of missionary work, the victory comes at a higher price, one that can mean not only renouncing one’s culture, but also one’s religion (or at least denouncing it in public) as a means of attaining vital resources. This is not to say that missionaries have not done good work. There are countless records of missionaries who have helped others in excellent ways, minus all the religious rhetoric. However, even if the message of faith lies in no more than an utterance or the simple presence of the mission’s name, missionary work nevertheless boils down to a political campaign in the name of God.

In light of my objection to this line of work, I find myself dealing with a mental conflict almost every day of my present job. My campaign has nothing to do with God, but in terms of international influence, the English language and American culture come pretty darn close. Though I have been teaching English in Brazil since July of 2008, there are still a few things about my current profession that rub me the wrong way. The source of my discomfort in teaching my mother tongue lies in implications more so than tangible, empirical evidence, thus making my inner turmoil all-the-more “inner.” Much like a mosquito bite on the sole of your foot, my conflict has been an itch I can’t quite scratch.

Before enrolling in the program in which I am involved, I already knew I wanted to live in Brazil for a few months to a year to have more exposure to Brazilian culture, particularly an aspect of it that involved more of the quotidian variety. I was looking to go beyond the favela-riddled, bikini-clad, beach bathing, rainforested Brazil with which we are presented on our television screens and in our Netflix queues. I wanted to be forced to speak Portuguese on a regular basis and pushed a bit beyond my comfort zone. I was not looking for a spoiled, privileged, escapist ex-pat experience of the Eat Pray Love genre.

The easiest way to achieve my goal was to teach English here, but I knew in the back of my mind, I would be presented with interesting challenges that I may not have faced if I had chosen another route to secure a job in Brazil. For one, I would have to be a de facto representative of American Culture TM. My language and my country would be placed center stage during class, but what Americans do, eat, buy, and think would be the main topic of conversation at all other times as well. I would be reduced to a living, breathing souvenir. Yet in actuality, I find myself to be a bit of a disappointment to my students and the Brazilian English teachers, not for lack of teaching skills, but for lack of conforming to their ideas of Americans and American life. Continue reading

Dispatches from the Maid Cafe

by Latoya Peterson

On Saturday, I received this email from regular reader Allison:

I found this article: “For Anime Fansa: Maid For A Day” by Dan Zak. The article talks about American women (read: white women) being hired to work as “Japanese maids” for a DC-area Anime convention. Among other duties, their volunteer responsibilities include “call conventioneers ‘master’ and ‘mistress.’ They gratefully drop to their knees to draw a ketchup smiley face on a Japanese omelet.”

Isn’t it great when white women appropriate Japanese culture in order to sell omlettes to the so-called ‘master’? No race & gender conflicts there, right?

In my horror, I had to pass it along. If anything, it might be fodder for a blog post.

Hope you’re having a great weekend!!

Little did she know I was at that anime convention (it’s called Katsucon) over the weekend. I woke up, checked my email, and laughed. I wasn’t planning on attending the maid cafe, but the Washington Post article made us seems like such gloriously costumed freaks, I felt like I had to go represent. I convinced most of my roomies to come with me, and so we began a quickie investigation with three main goals.

We went downstairs to determine if:

1. The maid cafe idea is sexist.
2. The maid cafe idea is racist.
3. The implementation of the maid cafe at Katsucon was racist/sexist. Continue reading