understanding cultural appropriation is not cultural segregation

December 8, 2017
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By Yanisha Teelock Lallah*, AFROPUNK Contributor

At the end of October 2017, a video of the popular television host Maajid Nawas went viral. This video was entitled “Maajid Nawas takes ‘cultural appropriation’ apart, piece by piece.” The video crassly shows Nawas making some very ignorant comments, which were aimed at defending behaviours that are considered cultural appropriation. In one of his comparisons, he makes reference to dressing as Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid being appropriative of “fish culture,” using the logic of dressing in the traditional clothing of a minority culture as a classic example of appropriation.

The glaring problem here is that this example is, in essence, reducing the validity of the cultures of people of colour to that of fictional fish.

It is a ludicrous comparison with severely demeaning undertones. Furthermore, he completely misses the point when explaining what cultural appropriation is, as later in the clip he continues to tell white parents that they need not worry about being racist if they allow their children to dress up as the character Moana if they wish to.

I have written an open letter to Maajid Nawaz in retrospect of the false ideas he has presented:

Dear Maajid Nawaz

Before you purport to speak as an expert on cultural appropriation and the harm it may or may not cause, you need to do more research and talk to more people from the cultures you so freely seem to represent in one swoop (please note: I am not referring to white people).

To me, it seems that you are more concerned about the feelings and guilt of young white individuals than entire cultures and religions that have been disrespected for centuries and have experienced tons of violence by whiteness.

I suppose this is understandable, considering that you have a British background living in the United Kingdom. Arguably where the delusion of the British Empire still burns quite powerfully, and, if I may add, your internalized racism probably burns just as strongly.

However, we who are from third world countries – we will no longer tolerate white people cherry-picking bits and pieces of our identities and our cultures and claiming them as their own creativity. The character Moana, whom you so freely deemed available as a costume, is in fact a political case of representation – through her, little girls of colour are no longer left with no choice but to pick from the hundreds of white female Disney characters, Ariel being among them.

They no longer have to live up to white standards of beauty when they can see their own skin colour being portrayed on television as beautiful. Moana is a representation of them.

A long awaited feat that has been absent from the world for centuries. It is not in your power to decide to surrender this to whomever you ignorantly see fit. You, Maajid Nawaz, are a British citizen and a cis-male, and are thus unaffected by the sentiments you are trying to dismantle. Do not talk about identity politics when you don’t seem to have found your identity as yet. Do not talk for little girls of colour, and especially DO NOT EQUATE OUR CULTURES TO SOMETHING AS LUDICROUS AS “fish culture.” To be quite honest, it is extremely racist and painful to hear that comparison.

In speaking about representation within the dialogue of cultural appropriation and identity politics, it is important to discuss the problem of colourism.

Colourism is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to their skin color. Characters like Moana of Disney’s Moana, Princess Tiana of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, or even Huey Freeman, are an extremely important part of the socialization process of children of colour. They represent black and brown beauty and they stand as proof that black skin is also beautiful, desirable and powerful.

White children have always been and still are present in the mainstream images on television, advertisements and magazines.

Take a look at the first page on a Google image search of the word “happy children.” Go ahead, and note the white faces on your screen. For centuries, children of colour have had to look in a mirror and feel like their colour was not beautiful, as it was never represented in the media, there were no little brown children finding mysterious castles and using superpowers, no little brown children travelling to distant lands and speaking to dragons or wizards, those stories have always been reserved for those of European looks and backgrounds. You would be blind to reality to believe that is truth has had no effect on the youth.

It is time to consider the feelings and images that children of colour have of themselves. When they see their skin tone being portrayed in the media, it builds their self-confidence. It makes them feel relevant. Characters like Moana are not designed for white kids. They are designed for kids of color to build them up and show them that they are not only good to be in the background of movies – to be villains and domestics. By portraying more and more characters of colour in the media, we can hope to unlearn this delusion that white is beauty and that darkness is exotic or dirty. We will familiarize people with the idea that darkness is natural and beautiful. It is only then that instances like black face will come to an end.

The truth is that cultural appropriation is indefensible; those who defend it clearly do not understand what it means or ignore its complexity.

Cultural appropriation is not only the act of an individual but an individual working within a power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group. I would like to add that it is also the fact that white people turn people of colour’s identities and lives into a one night event or costume and fail to respect the fact that it is not an object.

I always go back to Rastafarianism because it is the most objectified and misunderstood culture among all the many others. White people smoke weed and wear Rasta colours and matt their hair but know nothing of the fundamentals or roots of that culture and most importantly almost never interact with real Rastafarians. Understanding cultural appropriation is difficult because white people tend to take everything very personally; white artists are the toughest crowd to reason with because they believe they are somehow exempt of being appropriators because they call themselves ‘artists.’

They mistake cultural appropriation for cultural exchange and fail to see how it is not exchange if they are the only ones profiting from the work or receiving the lime light for it.

Crudely snatching parts of a culture and turning them into a temporary trend affects more than just the marginalized group that the cultural elements were stolen from. All of us feel the consequences, often without being conscious of it. By idly standing by, we’re robbing ourselves of the chance to break free of the systemic racism that still lives on in our society — like the fact that people of color still make less money, are disproportionately imprisoned, and are even more likely to die in childbirth. It may seem like one small step, but stopping cultural appropriation in its tracks could help us get closer to understanding that people of colour are still oppressed. Because the less we appropriate, the more likely we are to start seeing each other as human beings, not tokens.

When we tell white people they are appropriating our cultures, they get offended or try to exempt themselves by making it a personal matter or ignorantly saying that we are forging a culturally segregated world. This is WRONG. When we ask you to respectfully practice our cultures, it is not segregation. It is impossible for cultures to be segregated, but it is also possible to stop disrespecting and misusing aspects of cultures, which is what white people tend to do.

Coming from a post-colonial island, I see all around Mauritius how white Europeans and Americans own most of the resources and enjoy the sandy beaches more than the locals. They are the rich minority of the island and conveniently exclude themselves from getting involved in the political and social aspects of the island. There are very few white people in manual jobs or blue-collar jobs in Mauritius. They all enjoy a privilege and expect Mauritians to work for them and provide the luxury.  Go to a Mauritian beach or restaurant on the cosat at any time of the year and you will see only white people enjoying it and eating our seafood away. This is a blatant show of white privilege. They enjoy our local foods and cultures without the sacrifices and commitments. They handpick the bits and pieces of our cultures and profit off it. Our cultures form part of our ascribed identities; those parts that slavery and colonialism failed to repress in us. Is it too much to ask that if you really want to practice them you practice them respectfully?

Finally, we have had enough and we are now creating platforms and spaces to voice out our dissatisfaction of whiteness and it is time for white people to listen instead of tell us their opinions, because we are reclaiming our cultures whether they like it or not.

But how can we do this if white people keep selling false images and ideas of what our cultures are? During colonialism, white people condemned our cultures as barbaric and animalistic. Still today white people feel superior to people of colour and are frequently more educated and socially adept, simply because western understandings are the mainstream ones.

It is time for white people to take the back seat when it comes to our cultures, and here’s how to do it Ask. Do the work. Defend people of colour and put them in the forefront to represent the cultures you claim to want to embrace and practice. Do not promote white women teaching yoga – learn it from the right people. Do not send white Sangomas or white monks to represent cultures of colour – use the right people. Stop stealing and learn instead and acknowledge that these cultures have centuries of history and deep roots in ascribed roles. How do you expect white Shamans or Sangomas to understand these spiritual practices if they have never experienced racism or oppression?

All these spiritual guides found their callings in the hardships that they have experienced through colonialism, whereas white people had the choice to move away from their whiteness and handpick what they want to believe and preach from those cultures of colour, which often times are never the full picture of the religion. Just because we see numerous examples in the media of appropriation amongst celebrities doesn’t mean it’s not possible to participate in healthy cultural exchange.

The more we see offensive examples of cultural appropriation though, the less likely it is that we ever see respectful displays of cultural appreciation and exchange. Borrowing from a particular culture becomes appropriation when the chosen characteristic is used as a passing fad and all the cultural significance has been removed from it as a result. Do Selena Gomez and the vastness of white girls at parties understand why and how the bindi is used among Indian women? The history behind it? The spiritual meaning of it? If we keep letting celebrities and white girls on Instagram diminish such traditions that carry symbolic meaning for huge groups of previously colonized people), we’ll never teach the next generation what it means to politely appreciate other cultures.

A good example of cultural exchange, not appropriation, is being invited to a Diwali celebration, the ancient Hindu festival of lights, and subsequently wearing the traditional sari, bangles, and a Bindi on your forehead.

In this situation, you’ve been asked by members of the Indian community to participate in, learn about, and enjoy their culture. This is entirely different than slapping a sari on when you feel like standing out from the crowd or having a head full of dreads and preaching the ‘one love’ speech everywhere you go instead of learning about the painful history behind dreadlocks.

Of course, there is room for cultural exchange; but not until white people can acknowledge the unequal power dynamics and economic and social inequalities that directly affect those they seek to emulate. So men of color who uphold whiteness like Maajid Nawas; understand once and for all that you are in no position to excuse white people of anything. Do your research, get off your high horse and learn about the damage that colonization and whiteness is still doing all over the world; because all you are currently showing is how thick your delusional bubble really is.

*Yanisha Teelock Lallah has an undergraduate degree in Languages, Sociology and Gender a post graduate degree in Transformation and languages from the University of Cape Town. She is the founder of Understanding and Decolonizing Cultural Appropriation which is an awareness campaign alongside five other partners and is currently a freelanching cultural researcher for third world countries.
The link to the page is here, and the link to the group is here.


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