Despite the brilliance people have managed to fit into tweets, Tumblr posts and Facebook statuses that have gone viral, in 2018 there’s still a significant segment of society committed to either misunderstanding or distorting cultural appropriation, in the name of unity, ignorance or something I don’t get.
Regardless, some key points have been glossed over on what black people and people of color are really mad about when it comes to white people using parts of our culture, out of context. Without further set up, some observations about what we get upset about:
The words don’t fit in your mouth. They’re not your native tongue. They’re not your adopted tongue. You haven’t been christened in the language, or faith. You haven’t lived the experiences that bore the phrases and words. We can tell they’re foreign to you when we hear them.
You ever wonder why there’s some shit that the white guy who’s dated black women for years can say without getting side eyed for that other white dudes would get laughed outta town for saying? It’s because the black people around said white dude can feel him and the words he says no longer sound foreign.
In the Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote:
White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God helps us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them—sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defenselessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and useless little voices. Only people who have been ‘down the line,’ as the song puts it, know what this music is about.
This is exactly what Blacks and people of color notice is missing when we hear our lingo coming out of the mouths of uninitiated white people.
You’re not feeling it. The key feature of embodiment is body. It’s not enough to “take your word for it”. That’s dangerous shit, by the way, but that’s a post for another day.
Your body language and intonation (tone) betray how you really feel, regardless of what you say and one of the key features of whiteness is a lack of feeling. Another is an emphasis on precision. Rhetoric isn’t enough and you using our words, customs or traditions without embodying them, even when you mean well, is hollow rhetoric. It’s devoid of anything meaningful and we’re not feeling it. Our cultures aren’t mathematical equations you can mime, buy, or talk your way into. Attempting to do any of those things is futile, annoying and plain disrespectful.
There’s no substitute for vibes and it’s categorically impossible to be inauthentic and fully resonant, at the same damn time.
We’re tired of being mocked. Circus acts, minstrel shows, dashboard dolls… for as long as whiteness has existed, there’s been an “other” to be mocked and degraded in the form of chauvinistic products.
People of color are tired of being reduced to bite-sized laughingstocks for white people’s consumption.
Even when you don’t mean anything by it, kimonos, daishikis and ponchos worn thoughtlessly are life-sized reminders of how little white people differentiate between poor-quality, off the shelf representations of us and well… us—living, breathing, feeling humans—people who aren’t disposable and who are worthy of dignity and caring.
We’re tired of you being able to consume what matters. Land, food, gold, the sun, water… everything the earth gives freely, white peoples have managed to take and then systematically, en masse and cruelly get us to trade our free time to pay for. For some of us, it came with enslavement or land theft, first.
The cultures we create are one of the few ways we have to enjoy our free time we don’t spend working for those things white people take from the land. When you take aspects of that culture and dictate to us what is and isn’t okay about it, what’s most valuable about it, it feels like we can’t even have that!
Sure, we can go create something new—and we will!
But then, that will be consumed, too. And it will be spit back out, and butchered to the point that the meaning changes, and it no longer means what it meant. It’ll be gentrified to all hell and rendered meaningless.
Case in point:
Let’s be real: Yes, some people are enforcing ego-based hierarchies of cultural ownership, but frankly, if you’re appropriating cultures that’s none of your business. You don’t get to decide what upsets people who aren’t you. Further, you concede the moral high ground when you commodify, profane and misuse aspects of other people’s heritage—especially the ceremonial or reverent parts.
With that in mind, if you find yourself clinging to the notion that you inherently have some right to use facets of people’s traditions as you see fit, take these observations, really sit with them and examine what void in you that’s coming from that you’re trying to fill with other people’s ancestry.