Understanding Appropriation & Appreciation through experience, white privilege… and the Genie from Aladdin.
I remember once when I used to work at the Bose store, I was trying to sell a pair of QC25’s (noise cancelling headphones) to a guy who looked around the same age as me. He had the whole ‘hipster’ vibe going with his blonde top knot and beard.
At the time I was also rocking a top knot and beard combo, although I imagine for different reasons.
I left him to test out the QC’s and retreated behind the till to change the store music, when an elderly Jamaican lady walked in. She stopped for a moment when she saw my customer and then looked directly at me – she walked over to the till with this massive beaming smile like she was about to burst out laughing and said to me…
“First these white boys were wearing braids – now this – next thing you know they’ll be walking around in a turban”
Fortunately for ‘Hipster Joe‘ (chill his name was Joe – I remember) he was wearing noise cancelling headphones and jamming out to Portishead – so he was saved the embarrassment of being a part of that conversation.
He left soon after, but not before promising he’d buy the headphones when he got his next pay cheque from the artisan shoe cobbler he was temping at.
My first reaction to her comment was to laugh – because her delivery was legend.
Then after she left the store I began to think about the difference in me sporting a look that I recognise as cultural, and Joe having a go because all of a sudden it’s a new trend.
One might argue from the image below that I wore a top-knot for superficial purposes, but the truth is when a person feels that their cultural identities are being ‘high-jacked’ they are more likely to engage them in an attempt to reclaim them. Recently I’ve seen more Indian friends modernise more traditional looks, and African friends sporting their natural afros, or braids for this very reason.
But as a beard wearing brown-boy with a top knot I had been ‘randomly‘ selected from airport queues, ‘randomly‘ searched at train stations, ‘randomly‘ pulled over on the road, and have even had people blatantly avoid sitting next to me on the tube (I’m sorry to be blunt here but that last one was exclusively by white women)
I wonder if Joe faced those same issues?
Now to those of you who think that this just sounds bitter/angry/over-analysed, ask yourself this question…
“Have I ever been made to feel like my image/attire poses a possible threat to the people around me?”
Now the only white people who are likely to answer yes to that question are either those desperately seeking to experience the ‘minority struggle‘ – as opposed to understand it… or Police Officers.
*Note we don’t refer to it as the minority struggle – that is yet another title bestowed upon us.
You see it’s hard to be so ‘easy-going‘ about this stuff when you get characterised as a threat for simply ‘doing you’…
So what is appropriation?…
A young black female is walking along Southbank with braids and a dashiki at a time where the global #BlackLivesMatter movement makes some people feel uncomfortable because they’ve been gravely misinformed about its intentions. She is meeting her black friend who hasn’t straightened her hair and is proudly wearing her afro.
The 2 girls meet with an array of inquisitive stares…
“What are their intentions?”
“What are they trying to prove?”
“Are they trying to intimidate us?”
Now this time 2 young white females are treading the same path and are sporting the same look – they also meet with inquisitive stares…
“They must be going through a phase/to a fancy dress”
“Wow they’re certainly forward thinking”
“They must be very confident”
Cultural Appropriation is being able to dress in the attire of another culture without carrying the burdens/stereotypes/idiosyncrasies that come attached.
Cultural Appropriation is trivialising a cultural identity for the sake of novelty – i.e. ‘themed’ costume parties.
Cultural Appropriation is the generalisation of a cultural identity for superficial purposes – i.e. Fashion.
Cultural Appropriation places a trivial importance on the symbol while disregarding what it symbolises.
Two years ago it was my sisters wedding, and my brother and I invited our best friend. He was invited for the whole day which is a pretty big deal. Now he’s spent a great deal of his life around my family and has come to many ‘cultural functions’ so he was excited to see how things went down at an Indian wedding.
One day my brother and I were discussing when we should buy our Sherwani’s (Indian male attire) and it was really touching when our friend asked if he should wear one too, or if it would be seen as disrespectful.
“NOT AT ALL! ” – We 3 went to Wembley the next week to buy our Sherwani’s for the wedding…
The difference is something so simple and fine-lined that you’ll kick yourself when you hear it…
A genuine interest to learn and engage.
Taking the effort to learn is the mark of showing true respect and honour to any culture or tradition. If you do anything without understanding context you’re immediately at risk of looking like a fool.
The picture below serves as imagery to bridge the next part of the conversation with the idea of looking like a fool.
Now before you roll your eyes and head for the comment section to lecture me on how you’ve never had any privilege – let me try this from a different angle…
Not too long ago I was having a discussion with a white female peer about the concept of white privilege. She refused to acknowledge that there was such a thing because she had seen both her parents slave away in working class jobs and never receive any advantage over anyone. I believe her.
She also made it a point to inform me of how many ‘ethnic’ friends she has – but I’m never sure why this is relevant information. Nonetheless I offered her a gold star – but she didn’t want it – which I found odd.
I then tried to explain it from a perspective that she might better understand.
“I’m a man – so you might say that in this society I have ‘Male Privilege’… now that doesn’t mean that I have a golden ticket to success and that no matter what happens I will always have some rope to climb up – it means that in a situation where both myself or a female could be vulnerable – the female will inevitably feel more vulnerable than I might, because society has rendered a very different world of outcomes for her than for me.”
She sat silently processing the idea – “For example if a male and female were both walking home late at night on a dark street and no one was around – it is more likely that the female would feel vulnerable and under potential threat than the male… even if it’s for just a second”
She was visibly walking through the scenario.
“White Privilege works in the same way – it’s late at night, 2 black males and 2 white males are driving down the same road in 2 separate cars and a police car stops in between them both at a set of traffic lights… who do you think is more likely to get followed and/or pulled over?”
Looking at it in that way seemed to make sense to her.
Maybe ‘privilege‘ seems like the wrong word – but I’m pretty sure I speak for most people when I say that we’re not big on the term ‘minority‘ ‘urban‘ or ‘immigrant‘, or having anything that is considered ‘non-white‘ to be ‘ethnic’.
I don’t say this with an ‘eye-for-an-eye‘ mentality – I say it because the english language is limited and we have to play with the cards that we’re dealt. The only way we can be rid of these words is by understanding the concepts attached to them and working together honestly to make them meaningless.
That being said I bet we can find better words for these ideas in German or Sanskrit.
Curiosity + White Privilege = Appropriation
Curiosity + Engagement = Appreciation
Listen, you probably don’t have bad intentions when you want to throw an Egyptian or Bollywood themed party. When you slap on a Bindi before you go to a festival I highly doubt you have any intention to spite Indian women. If you’re rocking braids and a FUBU jacket – you might be a little confused – but no one believes you’re a bad person. However, if you throw a ‘Red Indian’ themed party you’re basically scum (#SorryNotSorry)
The truth is that you’re unburdened with the responsibility of representing your entire ethnic group and are not going to be scrutinised and possibly even penalised for visually engaging your culture. This gives you the luxury to feel that engaging in other cultures is just you celebrating or honouring them.
That’s a lovely thought, and if all of the world wasn’t distorted by the ridiculous racist paradigms that effect ALL OF US… there wouldn’t be a problem and we would just be sharing culture and experience.
I genuinely love that idea.
But many many people (including myself) disdain actions taken in ignorance, so until people are willing to understand the implications of parading around in a native american head dress with red cups full of red bull and Jager calling themselves ‘LittleBigBull’, this conversation isn’t going to be silenced… no matter how uncomfortable it makes people.
A Scene from your Childhood
Do you remember that scene at the end of Aladdin? When Jaffar makes his final wish to become an all powerful Genie? Then Aladdin gives that triumphant final word “YOU WANTED TO BE A GENIE? WELL YOU GOT IT – AND EVERYTHING THAT COMES WITH IT!” – yeah that.
Watch from 1.00 to relive an important lesson from your childhood about ‘genie appropriation’.
IN THE ‘NEWS‘: This week Vanessa Hudgens took a photo of herself with box braids and shared it on her snapchat – now there is speculation as to whether this is an example of appropriation. Personally I think there are far more pressing things to attend to on the global stage – but since this ‘event‘ can open up a dialogue about deeper issues – it’s certainly worth spending no more than 60 seconds to make up your mind on this particular issue.