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When Is Appropriation Appropriate?

I’ve learnt not to post anything controversial to Facebook. I’m conflict-averse, like any good native-born Midwesterner, and I also think that the medium of Facebook is inappropriate to debate. It’s not well designed for it. Kittens and puppies, I always say.

Close-up of two pale-colored puppies roughly three months old, possibly Labradors, kneeling side-by-side in green grass.  The hindquarters of a third puppy are visible in the upper left of the photo.

I’ve given you kittens before, so this time, have some puppies. Photo by Lisa L Wiedmeier via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1HTtwNy

But sometimes it seems I can’t help myself. And so today I posted an article about belly-dancing that struck a chord with me. You see, one time I saw a performance as part of a larger event that appalled me. I didn’t know going in that the belly-dancing would be part of the evening’s festivities. And when these white women swiveled out onto the stage, not in haremesque attire associated with the art form, but in kimonos and geisha makeup for a “kabuki-inspired” performance, I raged out of the auditorium. I had fooled myself into thinking that we had somehow got beyond yellowface.

Now, this Japanese take on a minstrel show was beyond the bounds of decency. But it made me think. what about belly-dancing itself? Many performers are not of Middle Eastern descent. Is it okay for them to practice this art?

To answer my question, I just started paying attention to what my friends of Middle Eastern descent had to say on the subject. Not that belly-dancing came up in conversation all the time, and not that I broached the subject with them. But on occasion, a snippet of opinion surfaced, and, over time, I pieced the snippets together.

And the consensus was that it was not okay.

And this is the sort of thing that often has creative types like myself up in arms. An aesthetic can’t be owned by one culture to the exclusion of all others, so the argument goes. If so, we wouldn’t have English-language haiku, or the Asian influences present in Impressionist art. And without the intermingling of European and African influences, we wouldn’t have jazz or rock. So much would be lost, as the argument goes, if we all held to some strict, politically correct standard of artistic segregation. Besides, the artist should be completely free to use whatever methods or aesthetic she wants; creativity is paramount.

I argue that there is something more important than creativity–yes, even for artists. For there is an identity more fundamental than “artist”: human being. And for human beings to survive, let alone thrive, they must be able to live and work together in community. Our social nature, our ability to think in terms greater than the individual, is one of the chief reasons we have evolved to this point, and is key to our continued survival.

Respect is also the key to understanding the concept of appropriation.  And the key to respect is listening.  Simply put: if the consensus of a group to which you do not belong is that it’s okay for others to make use of an artistic expression originating in or representative of that group, go for it! Have fun.

But if the consensus of that group is that an expression is not okay, knock it off.

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an upswell of discontent from Japanese people about speakers of other languages using the form of haiku — even as the form is sometimes stripped of its original intent as a meditation upon nature.

The presence of East Asian influences in Impressionist art came out of the larger European movements of Orientalism and Internationalism in the late 19th century, which developed as a direct result of European colonization in East Asia. It’s important in the study of the Impressionist era to bear this troublesome history in mind. However, to the best of my knowledge, there have not been any recent calls from Chinese, Japanese, and other East Asian artists to dismiss Monet’s Water Lilies or Van Gogh’s The Starry Night in the way we now do, say Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer or Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Though we might want to talk about Gaugin’s objectification of Tahitian women in his work.)

With regard to the musical examples I offered above, jazz and rock, it’s important to bear in mind that artistic movements do, indeed, develop organically. Cultural cross-pollination created jazz, rock, and many other movements musical and otherwise. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a consensus from African American (and in the case of jazz, also Jewish) communities that those who do not belong their communities shouldn’t perform these genres — even as the audience for both jazz and rock over the decades grew increasingly white. An academic critique of, for instance, Elvis Presley and his complicated history with African American performers is worthwhile, but there has not been any great advocacy from the African American community that whites should quit listening to his music (though I half-wonder if some younger readers could list five of his songs — even Kings get dethroned eventually.)

To go back to my initial example, one could argue that the performers I saw that night were simply artists practicing a form of artistic syncretism. But the Asian American community has been resolute in its unacceptability of yellowface performance. And a growing number of people of Middle Eastern descent are decrying the appropriation of belly-dancing.

Even as I declared a certain black-and-white rubric regarding what to do and what not to do, notice that I’ve presented my examples with nuance and exceptions. Human beings are by nature complex, their histories, both personal and collective, tortuous and at times torturous. No one’s going to get all of this right 100% of the time, and group consensus also involves those who dissent. But the goal is not perfection, or “correctness,” but respect.

It’s tricky business. And it’s very much involved in what I do with my life. I’m a creative person across a few media. For instance, I designed this ballcap.  (Sorry for the shameless plug.) I’ve been interested in sports branding for most of my life, but it wasn’t until I discovered the online sports-concept community (and the existence of graphic-design freeware) about four years ago that I took up my hobby in earnest. And as I engaged with my fellow designers, I discovered a sharp divide within the community regarding the use of Native American imagery in the branding of a team, whether real, (like the baseball team in Cleveland or the NFL team in Washington) or fictional (I imagined my ballcap for a baseball team in Charlotte.) And as some designers like myself decry, for instance, the questionable moves of the Washington NFL ownership, others not only state that the branding is intended to honor Native Americans even as Native Americans claim otherwise — exactly what the ownership maintains — but persist in using such imagery in their own fictional concepts. On which point, I will simply say it doesn’t matter what you believe if that belief is contrary to fact. And the fact is that the consensus of Native Americans — with, yes, a bit of dissent, an issue meriting its own essay — is that such branding is disrespectful, full stop. So, to my fellow designers, I simply want to say: stop.

I also design jewelry. Mostly, I practice what is called assembly, meaning that I put together manufactured pieces in original designs — I don’t smelt metal or melt glass or anything like that. (Another shameless plug for my work is here, though at this exact moment the work is not for sale.) Another popular and lucrative style of jewelry design is bead-stitching, much of which was first developed by Native Americans. It’s a style I’ve thought about doing, though I wonder if I’d have the patience for it. But I’m not going to take it up for the time being, for the simple fact that I presently live in a community with a large Native American population, many of whom practice bead-stitching as a source of livelihood. I have decided that to do so right now would be disrespectful to the Native American community in that I would be using my hobby to undercut their ability to earn a living — in spite of the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the local Native American community has not come out against white people making and selling bead-stitched jewelry.

And, really, that’s what all of this comes down to: personal decisions. But none of us live alone; the personal decisions of all of us over time aggregate to build a culture. And it behooves us all to build a culture that edifies rather than destroys, on a foundation of respect rather than of selfishness.

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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

It’s raining in Fairbanks today. Maybe some of the rain can help put out a few of the 200 forest fires in Alaska right now. It’s the first time since Monday that the skies don’t look like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. You likely have no idea just how pervasive the smoke is. When I blow my nose, I smell smoke in my mucus even though I haven’t been outside for days.

We had well-below average snowfall in most of Alaska this past year, and the lack of meltoff already increased the threat of forest fires this summer, even before summer began. So it’s not entirely unexpected — though, as this is my first summer in Alaska, and I’ve never lived where forest fires were the norm, it’s a thoroughly unsettling experience. I look out my window and it appears, as my university’s official Facebook account put it, “like Mordor.”

View out of a highway from a driver's windshield. The air  is  an orange haze from smoke. Evergreen trees line the highway, and a car in the distance.

Not a current photo, but this will give you some idea. Photo by rickz via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1IAUebn

What disturbs me about the fires is that most of them were set by people, not by lightning strikes or what have you. This in spite of an state order not to light fires.

And I wonder what would possess people to start the fires to begin with. We’re under orders, but the orders are difficult to enforce, particularly in a state so sparsely populated. So it falls to each person to be accountable to themselves and to be responsible. And hundreds have failed to do so.

Perhaps it’s Alaska’s characteristic culture, the individualistic frontier spirit, that compels people to flout the law so. But I’m not willing to write it off to the culture, particularly when I see this mindset playing out all over the world. It’s disturbing when a person puts their self-interest so far ahead of everyone else’s. It gives rise to oppression and tyranny, when the needs of the few holds sway over the needs of the many.

As we edge closer to the precipice of major climate disruption and the effects of mass extinction, those who grasp power, who selfishly put their own interests over the needs of our entire species — such people hold the keys to the extinction of our own species.

To preserve one’s own species is one of the primal drives of nature. Can we be such fools as to bring about our own demise?

Opinions

In my online Adolescent Lit class the other day, we were asked to read two essays regarding the value of young-adult literary awards created especially for works that showcase the writing and stories of racial and ethnic minorities. The first essay was written by a white male scholar, who believed that such awards prefer subject matter over literary merit, and thus run a great risk of rewarding inferior writing. The second essay was written by an African American female author as a direct rebuttal, explaining the history of how mainstream awards have repeatedly dismissed the efforts of non-white authors and illustrators.

For my class, we were to post our response as to which side won the debate in the class “discussion,” which functions like a message board. I wrote that the field of literature was an extension of the field of academia, which exists as the result of centuries of white privilege and institutional racism. The vast majority of whites are, for many reasons, ignorant of the privileges they are afforded in society based solely on the color of their skin. Moreover, a person has no ground on which to claim what is appropriate for a group to which he does not belong, particularly if he belongs to a group that has historically oppressed the group in question. (This is simply a matter of respect in my book.) For these reasons, in the class discussion, I made the bold assertion that the first essayist did not even have the right to an opinion in the matter.

I awaited a mob of classmates, charging with virtual pitchforks, ready to pillory me for daring to suggest that someone doesn’t have the right to an opinion. I waited in vain. Most of my classmates–interestingly, including many who are not white–appreciated my perspective, and stated that they hadn’t even considered the angle of white privilege. Only one student rebutted my claim that the first essayist didn’t have the right to an opinion, since, as we are so often told, everyone always has the right to an opinion.

I, of course, disagree.  For example, I have the right to an opinion about matters of taste. But even then, that only goes so far. I may not like what someone is wearing, for instance, but even then, I don’t necessarily have the right to air my opinion about it, especially if doing so belittles the other person (and so often it does.) In fact, if someone is walking down the street stark naked, the only reason that should be my business is if that person is too cold–then, it is my moral obligation as a fellow human being to ensure they are warm.

As I stated already, I don’t have the right to an opinion of how a group should feel or be treated, if I don’t belong to that group. But that never happens, right?

And then there are matters in which it doesn’t even make sense for opinion to come into play–and yet it seems almost everyone, in their postmodern, it’s-all-what-you-believe mentality, thinks otherwise. Many of these matters have to do with what a person has the right to know.

I do not have the right to know what two (or more) consenting adults do in the bedroom.

I do not have a right to know how your genitalia look or how they function. I do not have the right to an opinion as to whether your genitalia should match what I think your gender is, or even what  you think your gender is.

I could go on, but I need to get a move-on with my day. Blogger Dan Pearce has a great list that delves further into this issue. I’m not sure I agree with all of them, but overall, it is great food for thought.

Like I said, there is much more I want to say on this subject, but that will have to wait for other days.

No

Many across the United States are aware that Minnesota is in the midst of a nasty battle for a constitutional amendment (an amendment the Republican-led state legislature felt so important that they had the state government shut down entirely via lack of budget until the amendment was put to ballot) that will restrict the rights of emancipated adults to engage in civil contract (the contract of legally-recognised marriage) and restrict the religious freedoms of churches who wish to follow their beliefs by marrying same-sex couples.  This concerns me.  Not because I am gay (I don’t think I’m quite marriable).  If I were straight as an arrow, I believe this would still concern me.  See, this battle is being fought by and large by people who claim they are fighting this battle in the name of Jesus.  When I read the Gospels, I see that Jesus repeatedly lambasted those who wanted to embroil themselves in other people’s moral affairs.  He actually praised the Pharisees for their practises of personal piety, but then condemned them for legislating everyone else’s morality ad nauseum.  This Jesus has been forgotten somewhere along the way.

I’m also concerned because I live in the Twin Cities, what I sometimes call a “gay bubble,” and so many I converse with are utterly convinced that the anti-marriage amendment will be defeated, no problem, and they’ll point to some random poll to prove it.  Yet every single poll I’ve encountered has said that, though a tight race, the amendment looks like it will pass.  Moreover, I know a number of people who are working at various levels of Minnesotans United for All Families who all confirm my assertion and refute that of my acquaintances.  I think living in this gay bubble inures people to attitudes outside the bubble

But as concerned as I am about this amendment, I am even more concerned about a second ballot issue which has garnered less national attention.  The proposed amendment would require a “photo I.D.” in order to vote.  Can’t afford the fee for a photo I.D.?  Well, just head down to your DMV and they’ll make you a special, free voter ID.  It sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it?    But then the truth rears its ugly head….

The hue and cry that got this proposed amendment put on next week’s ballot was claims of rampant voter fraud.  Extensive studies have demonstrated that this rampant voter fraud simply doesn’t exist.  The claim that it’s easy-peasy to just go down to the DMV?  Never mind the many mitigating factors that can keep someone from the DMV.  Just ask the good folks in Wisconsin.  They were told that they could do just as Minnesotans are being told, to go down and get your free ID at the DMV.  But then the DMV employees were instructed specifically by the state government to do everything possible to *discourage* applicants from obtaining these voter IDs. (Watch this video to see these tactics in action.)  Or voters of a certain political persuasion (read: Democrat) had their closest DMVs taken away from them outright.  Never mind that the implementation of this special voter ID will cost in the neighbourhood of $50 million with no clue as to how to fund it.

If this sounds like a diatribe against the Republicans, it is somewhat, but only because they are the ones who have seized upon this issue.  (I have diatribes I can write against the Democrats, but that will have to wait for other writings.)  Look at the stats across the country.  There is a clear correlation between the ease with which one can vote in a particular state and the likelihood that that state will favour one party or the other in elections.  (I say this having come from Indiana, one of the more dependably Republican states, which is also one of the hardest states in the country in which to vote.  For example, you have to be registered at least thirty days before election time, and the polls close at 6 p.m.—the earliest in the entire country.)  The Republican leadership are well aware of this correlation, and have admitted as much.  So, on the surface, this is appears to be a matter of one political party subverting the political process to gain control, which is in itself repugnant.  (For the record, I agree with George Washington in thinking that political parties are an inherently bad idea.)

But the heart of the issue is much more insidious than a simple power play.  It is nothing less than the assertion that some human beings are inherently inferior to other human beings.  A couple of months ago, I haphazardly ended up in a debate (I hate debate, or rather what is mislabelled as debate these days) on Facebook with a friend of a friend (there is no enemy like a friend’s friend).  I gave him my personal account of how, two years ago, I was nearly turned away at the polls under the existing laws for reasons related entirely to poverty.  And this friend of a friend asserted that he didn’t care.  He didn’t care about whether circumstances beyond my control kept me from the polls.  Furthermore, he stated that he could hear a million stories that were the same, and they still wouldn’t change his mind about ensuring that this repugnant amendment becomes enshrined in the Minnesota state constitution.

He stated it right there: he believes his Story is more important than mine, or those of the hypothetical million others, and by extension, *he* is more important than I or the million others are.  And I maintain that the belief that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others lies at the core of most of our social ills.

And that is what this fight—what many fights—are about.  It would take unmitigated gall to walk up to someone and say, “Yeah, you know?  You could vote just fine last year, but I’m taking away your ability to vote next year.”  Of course, most backers of this amendment would dare not express such unmitigated gall to someone’s face, instead hiding behind the anonymity of the ballot box and the socioeconomic, racial, and cultural cloisters that keep nearly all of us from ever truly learning the experience of anyone whose Story isn’t like our own.

Last night I went to a Halloween party.  As I rode the bus through increasingly conservative neighbourhoods out to the inner-ring Saint Paul suburb of my hosts, I saw on a number of lawns a maddening sight that was the impetus for writing this article: signs, side-by-side, one saying to “Vote No” on the anti-marriage amendment, but to “Vote Yes” on the voter suppression amendment.  This repeated sight angered me because the posters of the signs could not see that both of these amendments are cut from the same cloth of inequality: that homosexually-coupled individuals are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to live lives of the same quality as their heterosexually-coupled counterparts, and that the poor, the disabled, the elderly, college students and anyone else who doesn’t “fit” that look to be marginalised by this amendment are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to participate in one of the foundations of a functional democracy.  Both of these amendments maintain that some people are fundamentally inferior to others, an assertion that undermines the very notion of democracy.

And so, I turn back to my earlier illustration of all of us hiding in our own little homogeneous cloisters.  We have the gay, the lesbian, the ally who will fight tooth and nail for their own rights and of those close to them, but are at best indifferent to the rights of those who do not run in their own circles.  And that is repugnant.

To vote no on both of these amendments is to affirm the dignity and equality of all our citizenry and to support democracy.  It is the absolute least we can do.  May we do this and far, far more to uplift our species.

A final note: this is my last word on the subject.  And I will not be lured into what-passes-for-debate-today on the subject, because there is no possible way you can convince me that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others.

Edited 28 Oct 12 to add a link regarding Indiana voting shenanigans.
Edited 5 Nov 12: I also want to add that supporters of the amendment have stood on the idea that the amendment will “reduce voter fraud.”  The evidence of voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, far smaller than the statistical margin of error.  Yet this amendment would remove from thousands the ability to vote in order to sift out one or two voting cheats.  From a mathematical standpoint, this makes no sense.

 

Edited 5 November: Fact-checked, figure “hundreds of millions” for implementation of Voter ID measures brought down to “in the neighbourhood of $50 million.”  Still way too much for an unnecessary measure

Exceptional

During lunch, ESPN’s SportsCenter was running on the TV at Davanni’s.  Amongst the headlines was all the talk of Lance Armstrong stepping down from the LiveStrong charity, and other consequences of his doping scandal.

It doesn’t surprise me when the mighty fall.  I know we are all human and all fallible, in spite of the fact that our media expect us to be shocked when a “celebrity” makes a mistake.  What does surprise me though, in an instance like this, is that he committed a crime that he’d seen many other athletes get caught in, and the destruction it wreaked on their lives.  So, why did he think he was the exception?

The idea that “the other guy got caught but I won’t” seems to be a common human foible, which I would not readily understand were it not for my awareness that belief in human inequality only ever leads to destruction.  To believe oneself to be “better” than the next guy, immune to the laws of society, is almost like asking to be caught.  To fully comprehend what equality truly means breeds humility, and is perhaps the best antidote to hubris.

Commonality

Originally published here in March 2011, though this version has been thoroughly proofread and edited.  The original was dashed off in a hurry, so I hope this revision demonstrates my editing abilities, if nothing else.

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Human beings today seem to communicate primarily in two ways.  We either share personal narrative, or we “debate”–though it does not merit the name.  True debate is measured, calm, well-researched, and deliberate.  What we have instead, coming from all sides, are name-calling, belittlement, anger, resentment, hatred, malice, insults, and every curse of hellish fate you can imagine.

These “debates” develop as we lose sight of our mutual humanity. We do this by mentally converting fellow human beings into labels, into abstractions.  We call each other “liberal”, “conservative”, “gay”, “straight”, “Christian”, “Muslim”, “American”, “Chinese”, on and on it goes.

It is easy to go to war against an abstraction (why do you think they call them “casualties” and “collateral damage”, rather than “deaths”?), to oppress an abstraction, to abuse the rights of an abstraction.  An abstraction does not share your breath and your DNA and your heartbeat.  And if we behave as if the world consists of nothing but groups of abstractions, a “them”, and a small number that we call “us”, there’s nothing that to keep us from blowing “them” to smithereens.  We should just drop the nukes and call it a day.

However, it does not have to be this way.

We may well be hardwired to think of each other in terms of our differences rather than our similarities.  But we also have amazing minds that often transcend their wiring.  What if we stretch our minds beyond the capacity to label?  If our differences, and the way we use them to dehumanise each other, are speeding the destruction of our species, what are our similarities, and how might those similarities save us?

It’s not our genetics (for example, not all human beings have 46 chromosomes). It’s not our physical composition. It’s certainly not the way we look, dress, think, or believe.  The one thing that all human beings share is Story.

By Story, I mean the personal narrative that each of us carries. It is the unique path that has brought us to where we are. It is the tale of our triumphs and tragedies, events both momentous and mundane, the things that shaped our decisions, beliefs, and character. Not only is Story the only thing that we all share, but, in a very real sense, it is the only thing that any of us has. You can lose your job, your home, your possessions, your family and friends, you can lose absolutely everything–but no-one and nothing can take away your Story.

So, if focussing on our differences hastens the destruction of our species, would focussing on the commonality of Story save it?  First off, it is very easy for me to share my Story with someone who closely identifies with me–who shares my labels. The trick–for all of us–is to learn to transcend our boundaries in our sharing, to share with those who don’t share our labels, and to start seeing each other in terms of one label only: fellow human beings.

In this spirit, I am working hard not to engage in debate but to share Story. And I fail. A lot. But to keep trying in hopes of success is all I can do. And I know that I can’t force anyone to share their Story with me. But what I do know is that I’m not responsible for what others do, only what I do. And if I have the option of choosing actions that can make the world a worse place or a better place, I choose the latter.