Category Archives: cultural appropriation

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Stories that Ally vs Stories that Appropriate: a Yardstick [The Throwback]

In this February 2010 piece, Thea Lim examines how “Avatar” exemplifies a disturbing type of faux-progressive filmmaking.

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

How do you know when a story is allying, versus appropriating?

In other words, if someone of privilege writes a story about the political oppression of a group they do not belong to, what is the difference between:

a) a story that brings marginalised voices to a wider platform and advocates for their rights, versus
b) a story that simply appropriates a political conflict for a writer’s own end, taking advantage of the fact that communities who experience marginalisation are rarely ever allowed to speak for themselves?

Apart from the fact that a story that appropriates usually winds up grossly misrepresenting a marginalised group, this is my yardstick for telling friends from foes:  one of the central purposes of a story that acts as ally, is to use one’s own privilege to tell another’s story, in the hopes of ameliorating the others’ situation.  Meanwhile, a story that appropriates just wants to spin a good yarn, get some adulation, and uses another’s story in order to do so.  An ally story is giving, an appropriating story is taking.

Quit jabbering Thea, you may say.  It’s easy to tell the difference between stories that appropriate, and stories that ally! We don’t need a yardstick!

Not true.  At least within mainstream opinion, it is startling and depressing how many stories that appropriate get passed off as political progressive, as allies.  Like Not Without My Daughter.  Or the documentary Born into Brothels, which purported to tell the story of the children of sex workers in Calcutta, but really just seemed more interested in showcasing the magnanimity of the American photographer who worked with the children.* Or another documentary, Paris is Burning, about the black trans/gay vogueing community of New York City, which brought immense praise on the white outsider director, but painted the community as tragic and hopeless, while bringing little benefit to them. I’m sure you can think of loads more films like this.

Including…(drumroll)…Avatar. Which I finally saw last week, in all its headsplitting 3D glory. And it fulfilled all the negative press I had read over countless months, from anti-racist and anti-ableist camps among many others. But seeing how my esteemed peers did a lot of the deconstructing work for me, I was left to ponder another question. If Cameron is as leftist as claimed, why didn’t he tell the story of an actual conflict between big business (or colonialists) and an indigenous group? Why use blue allegory?

Hollywood films have a generally untapped power to sway how people think about political events. Packaging a political story within the rhetoric of emotion (and also I guess, within face-blasting special effects) is often the best way to get people to swallow arguments they would otherwise reject.  Hence a movie that – at least at face value – is very anti-war, anti-military and anti-capitalist is demolishing box office records with hardly a peep from conservative viewers.

Can you imagine the impact that a movie like Avatar could have, if Cameron had used all the CGI to recreate (for example) any area of the Americas the way it looked before first contact with the Europeans, and instead told the real story of an indigenous group struggling to protect themselves from genocide?  Imagine the kind of support it could create for indigenous rights.

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Cheering for the Chicago Blackhawks: A Tradition of Racial Play

By Guest Contributor Charles Fruehling Springwood

Members of the Chicago Blackhawk celebrate winning the Stanley Cup in a June 28 parade. Image by tanveer.i.ali via Flickr creative commons.

As a white youth growing up playing ice hockey in the 1960s, in a Chicago suburb, I fell in love with the Chicago Blackhawks. I watched Hawks games on T.V., and during the intermissions between the periods, I retired to the kitchen (and its smooth, slick tile floor) to shoot my plastic puck at the cabinets. For the kitchen shootouts, I channeled my all-time favorite, the always-helmeted Stan Mikita, or on occasion, Bobby Hull. Born just after the team’s 1961 Stanley Cup championship, I anticipated – without too much patience – the next championship, and suffered through the team’s two failed Stanley Cup appearances in the early seventies.

But between those years and the team’s next championships in 2010 and now 2013, my Native American friends encouraged me to reflect more deeply on the way symbols like the team’s own “Chief Black Hawk” distorted their identities, particularly in the imaginations of white Americans. Ultimately, in graduate school at the University of Illinois-Champaign, I critiqued my school’s infamous mascot, Chief Illiniwek, and my friend Richard King and I went on to edit Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy, a 2001 collection of essays giving voice to how Native Americans feel about many of these manifestations of the power of non-Indian, mostly white institutions and people to (re)represent, (re)name, and (re)contextualize Native peoples for white purposes.

In his foreword for the book, renowned scholar Vine Deloria Jr. of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation wrote:

With diehard refusal to change the names and logos of sports teams we always hear the justification that the name is being used to ‘honor’ us. This tortured reasoning makes its proponents look absurd. Obviously if garish costumes, demeaning cheers, and crude logos are the essence of honor, then the various sports halls of fame need to perform drastic surgery on the busts and plaques of their honorees. The excuse, being lame, must conceal something more profound, which cannot or will not be articulated by those people ‘honoring’ us.

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Meanwhile On Tumblr: Taking The Piss Out Of White People Who Think They’re Not Racist

By Andrea Plaid

While Twitter is having a whole bunch of brilliant fun at the expense of Paula Deen and her racism (and rightfully so), Above Average Productions makes fun of those white folks who feel they should be congratulated for basic manners and human kindness toward people of color. (Though I’m not sure why the woman at the end of the vid is doing Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra…)

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The Evolution Of Hula: Traditional, Contemporary, And Hotel

By Guest Contributor Sarah Neal, cross-posted from Sociological Images

Earlier on SocImages, Lisa Wade drew attention to the tourism industry’s commodification of Polynesian women and their dancing. She mentioned, briefly, how the hula was made more tourist-friendly (what most tourists see when they attend one of the many hotel-based luaus throughout the islands is not traditional hula).  In this post, I want to offer more details on the history and the differences between the tourist and the traditional hula.

First, Wade states that, while female dancers take center stage for tourists, the traditional hula was “mostly” a men’s dance.  While it has not been determined for certain if women were ever proscribed from performing the hula during the time of the Ali’i (chiefs), it seems unlikely that women would have been prevented from performing the hula when the deity associated with the hula is Pele, a goddess. Furthermore, there is evidence that women were performing the dance at the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawai’i.

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Sorority Girls Must Twerk: Cultural Demands on Black Women

By Guest Contributor Shae Collins

“So you’re going to twerk right?” was a common question my sorority sisters and I got when we entered a dance competition this year at our school.

Not too long ago, the university I attend welcomed its first historically black Greek-letter organization. I had the privilege of becoming a member of this sorority and was curious to see how the students of a predominately white university in a wealthy area would receive a historically black organization on its campus.

The university was widely accepting of the sorority; however, as we became more visible on the campus, we experienced much cultural insensitivity.

This year, for the first time, we participated in a sorority dance competition that raises money for charity. During the week leading up to the dance-off, several people approached us asking if we were going to twerk — as if twerking is the only style of dance a black woman can do.

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Table for Two: Kumaré, Or How A Guru Is Born Out Of Orientalism

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Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid with featured guest, Sikivu Hutchinson, author of “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars”

Tami: Kumaré follows a filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, who transforms himself into a fake guru to explore the concepts of blind religious faith and devotion to spiritual figures. It is interesting that Vikram and his assistants–all American-born and -raised–adopted accents in the subterfuge, playing off the magical brown person/foreigner trope.

Andrea: Would he be believable if he didn’t take on the accent?

Sikivu: Channeling the authentic brown magical mystery tour exotic (and I’m thinking specifically here of the sixties cult of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi legitimized in the West by mega-celebs like the Beatles) wouldn’t be complete without the right “Orientalist” lilt.

Tami: There are plenty of American religious/spiritual figures who inspire a devotion similar to that demonstrated by Kumaré’s followers. But I also think his race and faux accent provided a short cut of sorts.

Andrea: And I think that shortcut allowed the subterfuge to be more successful. Deepak Chopra wouldn’t be where he is if he didn’t have his accent.

Tami: …or if he were named Bob Henderson. It’s the otherness that adds credibility.

Andrea: Great minds, sis! That’s why I see some white people adopt “exotic” names when they become gurus or get deep into yoga.

Sikivu: Yes, and the drooling idolatry of Kumaré’s mostly-white female acolytes underscores this—I know a number of lib/progressive white women who have adopted trendy “yogic”  names to buttress their devoutness and confer them with the Eastern mystic equivalent of “street” cred.

Tami: This ties into the biased belief that brown people (and I say that meaning all brown peoples–black folks, Native Americans, etc.) are inherently plugged into something

Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi

Jersey-born filmmaker Vikram Gandhi outside of his Kumare costume

beyond the physical world…some magic. And that “magic” can be positioned positively or negatively, but it is part of the mantle of “other.” By adopting guru “drag,” the filmmaker successfully plugs into that idea. A brown guy with short hair and a clean-shaven face in jeans and a button down, may be too Americanized (read: normal) to work his magical mojo.

We went to see this awful movie, The Last Exorcism II, and at some point (of course) the protag goes to visit a black roots woman in New Orleans. I commented to my husband about the character’s vaguely African headwrap and her exaggerated accent. But the viewer would likely not have accepted that part if she had a Queen Bey lace-front and sounded like a black Brooklynite or had my Midwestern twang. We like our magical brown people unassimilated.

Sikivu:  And the noble savage sexuality of Kumaré goes hand-in-hand with the way the film trots out and parodies the West’s eternal fascination with the Magical Negro/Indian/Asian (take your pick) other.  The blond woman gushing in her living room about how Kumaré has “touched her life” looks practically orgasmic.  So much of this guru shtick is tied up with the charade of liberating the repressed uptight “rationalist” white folk from their shackles a la Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” paradigm pimping “black soul” as antidote to all that ails the modern white man.  A brilliant send-up on this theme is “The Couple in a Cage,” by Guillermo Gomez Pena and Coco Fusco—they mounted a performance piece where they pretended to be indigenous primitives displayed in their “native habitat” for the delectation of mostly white museum-goers seeking authentic savage artifacts.  While there was no overtly religious element to it, the Western impulse to gain validation through the body/essence and “shamanic” wisdom of the other is similar.

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Race + Comics: On Alex Summers, Apologies, And Assimilation

By Arturo R. García

Alex Summers, a.k.a. Havoc, delivers his team’s mission statement in Marvel Comics’ Uncanny Avengers. Image via ComicsAlliance.com

As a fan of both the X-Men franchise and some of his past work, I’d like to believe the best from writer Rick Remender’s online apology over his mishandling of the recent criticism surrounding his latest issue of Uncanny Avengers.

Unfortunately, regardless of intentions, “sorry” needs to be the first word in these discussions, not the last. And his statements both before and after apologizing don’t engender any more trust in his ability to properly explore the theme his story introduced. Which is a shame.
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The Problematics Of The Fake Harlem Shake

[Editor's note: We know...we know...enough with the Harlem Shake! This dissection by Sezin Koehler was just too good not to share. Consider this a coda to our discussion of the controversy.]

by Guest Contributor Sezin Koehler; originally published at Sociological Images

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 The Harlem Shake is a syncopated dance form that first appeared on the New York hip-hop scene in the early 1980s.  Here is what it looks like:

In 2012 music producer Baueer created an electronic dance tune, unfortunately calling it The Harlem Shake. Baueer’s song inspired an Internet meme in which people rhythmlessly shake their upper bodies and grind their hips in a tasteless perversion of the original dance.  For example:

This fake Harlem Shake meme has become so ubiquitous that it has been “performed” by the English National Ballet and gone further globally with a video from the Norwegian army, and in Tunisia and Egypt, where the song and imitation dance has become a protest anthem.

The irony of an African-American cultural relic being whitewashed to the point where other people of color perform its bastardized version is not lost, and this takes on a whole new level as teams with majority African-American members such as the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets add to the fake Shake canon. Personally, I’ve been “video-bombing” anyone I see incorrectly referring to the new version as the Harlem Shake with this:

A major problematic of this meme is that it takes an already marginalized group in America–one whose history and culture has often been appropriated and co-opted in fetishistic ways by the white majority–and makes a mockery of not just them, but an entire dance tradition.  This is not lost on residents of Harlem, many of whom recognize cultural appropriation and malrepresentation when they see it:

In spite of a number of calls online from African-American writers, artists, scholars, and supporters like myself to bring attention to the real Harlem Shake, every day there is instead a new group adding to the misappropriated dance. When you Google “The Harlem Shake” you must scroll through pages before you reach any posts about the actual hip-hop tradition.

This literal erasure of black culture and its replacement with an absurdist movement and meme needs to be considered in light of African-American oppression and institutionalized racism in the United States. Supplanting the sinuous artistry of the Harlem Shake with frenetic styleless arm-flailing and hip-thrusting is yet another brick in a grand wall of symbolic and structural violence that further relegates an entire culture to the margins, both on and offline.

As the Harlem residents said in response to the meme: “Stop that shit.”

P.S. Here’s how to actually do the Harlem Shake. 

Sezin Koehler is a half-American half-Sri Lankan informal ethnographer and novelist living in Lighthouse Point, FL.