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.
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.
I find myself terribly depressed right now. There are a few triggers specifically associated with summer — the lack of structure that school provides, the lack of nighttime in Alaska (which I won’t see for about two more months.) It’s a struggle just to get out of bed, or to shower, or to dress, or to make myself something to eat or drink. I’m trying to be kind to myself, trying to find some way to help me out of this funk. But nothing is working so far. Many days I can only accomplish the tasks that require the least mental work, because even my brain is fatigued. In fact, I’m having to write this relatively short blog post in several sessions because that’s all the brain power I have today. But I couldn’t not write this post, so here I am.
Anyway. My laptop is an easy distraction for my depression. I can run a marathon of some sitcom I’ve seen before on Netflix with little effort of my brain. I can play a simple game of Boggle or Bejeweled. And, perhaps most importantly, Facebook gives me the ability to talk with those most dear to me about what I’m going through.
But Facebook is a double-edged sword Read the rest of this entry
Tonight I have a wonderful professional opportunity. I will be one of twelve poets (yes, on occasion I write poetry, too) reading at Minneapolis Central Library as part of the city’s Pride Week. The readings will be from two books: Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience and When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience. [I have absolutely no clue why it’s not letting me link the full title there–must be a bug.] I have six poems in the former book and will be reading two.
Now, it is a very funny story how I ended up in this anthology. This time last year, I was in Introduction to Creative Writing, taught by G.E. Patterson at Metropolitan State University. As is typical of many such classes, the course was broken down into three units: poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. I wanted to get done with the poetry unit as soon as possible because I did not like poetry, contemporary poetry in particular. I thought contemporary poetry was sloppy, no structure, no reason to it. Lines were broken randomly, and all the classical features I had been taught in high school were tossed to the wind. Besides, I think like every high schooler, I didn’t think that damn wheelbarrow meant anything.
But Mr. Patterson opened my eyes to poetry. Seemingly random breaks were used to emphasize words and to create new meaning. A poem was not meant to tell a story, but to capture a moment. A poem must be read multiple times before you can catch all of its meaning and intention. And, of course, he had me writing poetry that fit this new paradigm.
At about the end of the poetry unit, I went to the launch party of couplets for a shrinking world, a poetry collection by my friend John Medeiros. The party was to open with a reading, and as is typical of everything in the creative world, it was getting a late start. So, being an extrovert who was there by myself, I got to talking to strangers around me. Behind me was a gentleman named Raymond Luczak, who, upon hearing that I was writing poetry, said, “Well, I thought I knew every gay poet in the Twin Cities, but I guess I didn’t. Listen, I’m publishing an anthology of poetry from queer male poets. The deadline for submission was two weeks ago. But, if you can submit to me eight poems germane to the Midwestern experience within 24 hours, and they’re good, then you’re in. I’ll publish six, but I want eight to pick from.”
I’m not one to pass up opportunities like that, so I agreed, and after the festivities, headed home and pored over my poetry–all of which at this point was school assignments. I figured out what might fit the theme, and came up only with five poems. It was getting late. I went to bed, thinking I could write poetry better after a good night’s sleep, with a fresh mind. (To this day, I prefer to write in the morning.)
The next morning, I looked through some of my prose work and found a piece that could be reworked into a poem. After I rewrote that piece, I pulled two more poems out of thin air. I e-mailed the poems to Raymond with about five hours to spare.
He contacted me straightaway, and said that he liked the work, but that one piece needed to be tightened, and that another was poorly expressed and came off unintentionally racist. (When I do something unintentionally racist, I want to be called out for it so I can contemplate how I could have done things differently, and correct course in the future. The surest corrective of white privilege is humility.) So I tightened the first piece, and wrote yet another new poem to replace the accidentally offensive work, resubmitted, and got the okay.
And that is how I got my first publishing credit. I think there are some lessons in this story:
If you’re a writer, go to literary events as much as possible. It pays to keep your big yap open. Strangers are some of the coolest people–you never know who you’re talking to. Write enough so that you have a healthy backlog of material–you never know when some finished work will come in handy. Pressure can produce creativity. You don’t have a say about how something should affect a group you don’t belong to–to believe otherwise is a cornerstone of privilege. Keep your eyes open: opportunity can pop up in the strangest places. And to have strangers read your work is one of the most awesome and humbling things in the world.
Oh, yeah, if you’re reading this and live in the Twin Cities area, consider dropping by for the reading this evening:
Gay Pride: Poetry Reading
Minneapolis Central Library
Pohlad Hall, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN, 55401
Tuesday, June 25, 7–9 p.m.
Listen to local GLBTQ authors who contributed poems on the Midwestern experience in two Squares & Rebels anthologies: “When We Become Weavers” edited by Kate Lynn Hibbard and “Among the Leaves” edited by Raymond Luczak.
This project is funded with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Presented in partnership with Queer Voices Reading Series of Intermedia Arts.
[Despite what the library website says, registration isn’t necessary.]
I have issues with my appetite. It’s not apparent from my waistline, but that comes from my lack of exercise. I get hungry but don’t feel like eating. It’s difficult to manage. When I do get the urge to eat, I do whatever I can to make sure I eat something.
So I’m out running errands this morning when I need to eat. Having just checked my bank account, I know there’s only one option for me close by: Taco Bell. I know, I know–they use bits and parts and call it ground beef, but it’s cheap, and that’s often my number-one measure of the desirability of food.
So I go to the Taco Bell in Minneapolis’s downtown skyway system. I come in at the very beginning of the lunch rush. The cashier, a friendly African American woman, takes my order. I get my cup for water, since I try to avoid soda–the cashier said she wished she could have some water–and await my order. The manager, a middle-aged white man, barks out the names of the line staff. I’ve been to this Taco Bell enough to know that I only know of one other white person to work on the line. As I await my meal, the manager hands me a soda cup. He says I get a free soda because his staff is “annoying” him.
I was in shock. I’ve worked enough in the public sector to know that his behavior was thoroughly unacceptable. When I worked at Minnesota Children’s Museum, we talked about “on-stage” and “off-stage” behavior–when working in clear sight of the public, you are “on stage.” What this manager did was abysmal on-stage behavior, and pretty lousy for off-stage behavior, as well. Finally, one of the line staff–a young African American man–calls out my order number.
I am not a confrontational person. When I am put into the position to speak up, my right leg shakes, my heart pounds, and I struggle to get my voice above a whisper. But I told the manager, “I’m not taking my meal, you don’t treat your employees very well,” and rushed out before he could say a word to me and I turned into a quivering mass of passivity on the floor. He made me lose my appetite, anyway.
All of this came on the heels of my catching a story in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune (front-page in the print edition, buried in the online): Minnesota has the widest racial gap in home ownership in the United States.
This divide in housing does not surprise me at all. I’ve lived in a number of neighborhoods across the Twin Cities. Most of our neighborhoods are divided by race. I don’t have my picture posted on my blog, so you don’t necessarily know until I tell you that I’m white. (Technically, I’m white-skinned–my racial background takes more explaining than I wish to do here. But society treats me as white, and that’s what matters as far as the line of reasoning I’m developing here is concerned.) And I’ve felt far more comfortable in neighborhoods where people who look like me are a minority. I often say that I blame it all on Sesame Street, that the show taught me that living in a racially diverse community is an inherently good thing. And I think that’s part of it. But I also think that I’m not often comfortable in large groups of white people because I associate being white with having money, which I can’t relate to.
Earlier this week, a most remarkable thing happened. A man named Charles Ramsey rescued three women who had been kidnapped a decade ago. (I’m not going to link the great many reports of the incident here. If you don’t know about this, Google it.) It was simple as noticing something wasn’t right and calling the police, but it’s the sort of thing a lot of people don’t do. When there’s drama in our neighborhoods, many of us tend to look the other way, not wanting to get involved. As the product of an abusive household, I am well aware of the phenomenon. Mr. Ramsey’s quick thinking saved these women’s lives.
Rightfully, the press hailed him as a hero. Unfortunately, the attention didn’t stop there. People were quick to mock Mr. Ramsey’s working-class values and African American vernacular. Out rolled the stills from the TV interviews, with sophomoric jokes dutifully typed out in Impact font.
Not everyone was in on the joke. Some have pointed out the layers of privilege and racism that have been uncovered this week, most notably in this spectacular blog post. Mr. Ramsey’s statement that a white woman rushing into the arms of a black man can only mean trouble is an ugly truth we in America ignore. Or, rather, we whites in America ignore. Because perhaps the ugliest thing about privilege is that if you have it, you never have to think about it in order to successfully navigate life. Mr. Ramsey pointed out that America really hasn’t progressed since the days of Emmett Till, as much as we whites would like to pat ourselves on the back and convince ourselves otherwise.
Mr. Ramsey has revealed the tiniest bit of his Story in interviews, only to have it mocked by people who weren’t raised to have empathy. It is only by earnestly listening to each other that we have any hope as a species.
Edited to add (I meant to say this originally and forgot): I think it so funny that, from what we know, Charles Ramsey could probably be the best neighbor someone could have: hardworking, amiable, watchful. And yet how many of my fellow white Minneapolites would avoid living next to him.