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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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Piano

Warning of abuse trigger.

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I used to be obsessed with learning how to play piano.  I would go to the music room at school during class time, and try to figure it out, and my music teacher would coach me a long as much as she could without exactly giving me a lesson, as she had her own duties to attend to, as well.  In high school, I had lunch right after orchestra class, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to pluck out chords and melodies well into lunch period.  My church held an auction, and was getting rid of an old, very out-of-tune piano.  I was going to use a $50-dollar savings bond that I had won in a competition to pay for my bid for the piano–never mind the fact that there was no room in my family’s apartment for a piano, that the piano was in desperate need of repair, and that I still wouldn’t be able to take lessons.  I ended up placing the second-highest of three bids.  Undaunted, I went to the church in my spare time, just to try to teach myself how to play the piano and write music.

Last night, I realised why I was so obsessed with playing the piano.

My mother’s only chance to escape my father’s abuse, and to treat her own failing health due to starvation and beatings, was to go to a hospital whilst my father was on the job as a long-distance truck driver.  He had forbidden us to go to the doctor, or to really carry out any business, in our own county, as a means of hiding the abuse.  It also helped him, in that he had often established local social contacts such that he had prejudiced their opinions against my mother before she had a chance to speak with doctors, psychologists, and such in our own town.  So, if my mom was going to get help, it was going to be one county over, a half-hour drive south of where we lived.  She checked herself into the emergency room, and they kept her.  She weighed barely 100 pounds, and had suffered extensive internal organ damage from beatings.

But, there were four children, ages five through eight, with an incapacitated, barely-alive mother, and a father working hundreds of miles away.  We were not in our own county, and there was no-one we could stay with.  (Another way my father kept us socially isolated was by making it known he kept a loaded gun, and threatening to use it on us or our neighbours if we made any social contact.  He acted so unstable that neighbours who wanted to help us out of our situation worried that if they did, we or they might end up murdered.)  So we were placed in emergency foster care.

That night, as they pulled my screaming five-year-old brother off my mother, we headed off to our new residence.  We had no idea who these people were, or how long we’d be living with them, nor did they.  It was a father and mother, with three children of their own, daughters age 9, 7, and 1.

I had never been happier in my life.  It was the first evidence that I had that a man, not only did not have to yell, scream, and threaten to murder his wife and her family, but that he could treat her with love, respect, and decency.  The children were bright and well-adjusted, and we had fun having other kids to play with.  (We were not allowed to associate with other children outside of school.)  And the nine-year-old took piano lessons.

The piano was in the kids’ playroom.  It had stickers on the keys, brightly coloured little monsters labelled “C”, “C#”, etc.  The daughter would play bits of her lessons for me.  And I fell in love.  From that moment on, I wanted to play piano more than anything in the world.

My mother, still in the hospital, regained enough strength to file divorce papers.  My father returned from the road, and he was to receive temporary custody, because he had a job–even though that job kept him away from us kids for weeks on end.  We left the foster family.  I did not want to leave them.

Curiously, when I started college, as a music major, I was required to take piano lessons, but I had none of the passion I had when I was younger.  Granted, there were many intervening psychological, social, and medical reasons to not want to practise the five hours a week required to earn an A, but there was still no more fire to learn the piano.  Perhaps it was because it went from being an internal desire to an external requirement.  Perhaps it was just a childhood fantasy I shuffled off upon becoming an adult.  Or, perhaps, the piano symbolised a place of peace, of love, of hope, and that symbolism was more important than actually learning to play.