A young white girl wearing a turban is at the station. Like many other people, she is minding her business and going about her day. Suddenly she is met with hostile stares and is then confronted by a group of black girls that go up to her and explain that she has no right to be wearing that turban because she is not black. She removed the turban and explained to them that she wore it to cover up her bald head – a result of chemotherapy. The girl posted her account on social media and quickly other militant social justice warriors came in like hawks to defend the actions of the black girls who berated her, also accusing the girl of cultural appropriation.
These girls and their partners are clearly in the wrong not because cultural appropriation doesn’t exist but because like many other real things such as racism, sexism, homophobia, feminism etc, the extreme leftists and their social justice warrior (SJW) militants have bastardized the meaning of the term and turned it in against itself – blocking the road towards real progress and meaningful discourse between peoples.
Real cultural appropriation is truly dreadful. It is marked most clearly by an interplay of power, as in, the powerful take what they consider to be the best elements of a conquered or weaker people for themselves and discard the rest.This has been the modus operandi of conquering nations since the beginning of time – regardless of race. One can even find examples of it in scripture. In the First Book of Maccabees 3:48, the author explains how during the Greek conquest of the Isrealite’s lands the Greeks had destroyed and defiled many cultural and religious areas and artifacts. To add insult to injury, they even went so far as to attempt to paint their images in the Isrealite Holy Books.
This show of dominance by the Greeks of attempting to destroy any vestige of a prior culture is the first step towards cultural appropriation. The second step is taking what is worthy enough to be assimilated into one’s own rewritten history. This sort of action is no doubt the inspiration for many science fiction villains, notably one of Star Trek’s most popular foes, The Borg, who assimilate only the “useful aspects” a culture’s identity and make it their own in a show of force and superiority. Christianity is also replete with mythology which mirrors almost exactly that of other prior civilizations like the Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, and the pagan Romans. This is because as the Catholic Church rose to power it became the proprietor of the agglomerate cultural and religious history that came before it, and still is to this day even with the various off-shoots of Christian theology. But again, this sort of appropriation is not specific to the people who ruled during the rise of The Church, as there is no doubt that the cultures that came before also stole from each other as each one overtook the next.
Cultural appropriation is a far cry from cultural exchange, which happens when two people are on equal ground and actively make an trade cultural knowledge which can extend to dress, food, religious practice and the arts. Cultural exchange benefits both parties, cultural appropriation does not.
As the world is no longer in the business of empire building, at least no openly, and shifted more towards the notion of globalism and oneness, cultural appropriation is less evident. This does not mean it still doesn’t exist.
One example of modern cultural appropriation can be found in America in the the use of Native American iconography for non-indigenous run and operated sports teams. This appropriation is only possible because Native Americans remain at the bottom of the rung in terms of societal status in the country. Certainly no sports teams today not run by blacks could get away with a mascot in black face with stereotypical big lips and nose calling themselves The New York Blacks, or imagine a non-Jewish run team with a yamaka-wearing mascot spinning a dradle for a team called the Pennsylvania Jews. And I definitely can’t fathom a slant-eyed mascot with a bowl of rice on hand for a the California Yellow Skins. So why are the latter examples not going to happen while the prior one does? There are two big reasons.
First, it’s distasteful and people of all walks would most likely make a scene about it.
Second, and most important to the discussion of cultural appropriation, is that these other ethnic groups (different from Native Americans) have managed to implant themselves firmly enough into American culture to garner the respect to demand that their likenesses not be appropriated and used in such fashion by other peoples. In short, they have power and equal footing under the law.
And that is where modern cries of cultural appropriation fall apart – the power interplay.
Black people in the West have risen up from their days of being nothing more than property and second class citizens under the law, despite the struggles which they still face. They have assimilated into their slave capture’s culture, many have thrived in it, but all while still keeping their identity. Blacks are as much their own ethnic group as they are American, or Brazilian, or Cuban, or Jamaican – one does not need to be exclusive from the other.
While Africa may still be the original home of Western Blacks and fueled the need for some of them to approximate themselves to the continent, it is more a symbolic home than anything because tracking one’s family heritage is nearly impossible. Here in Brazil, the records for blacks were so badly kept that a friend of mine recently told me he wasn’t sure if his great grandmother was a slave or not (although given the time table for when slavery ended in Brazil, 1888, chances are she was).
If one can’t even go back a little over a hundred years, think of the hardships of trying to find one’s village back in whatever country his and her ancestors were ripped from.
This is the most likely reason why Black people of the West have adopted their capture’s flag – not out of want but out of necessity to have a home. But in this meantime they have also made much of themselves – becoming prosperous, influential, and world changing.
So this raises the question of equal footing and where blacks were versus where blacks are as a people.
In The United States, for example, the appropriation of black culture ran rampant for quite a long time, as blacks weren’t afforded all the legal rights nor the means to assert themselves. It took quite some time before it was popularly understood that Elvis did not invent Rock and Roll (although he still retains the crown of King) or that the Nicolas Brothers were true pioneers in dance and Fred Astaire’s heroes. It was a slow and arduous process, but Blacks began taking back their identities – or even creating new ones.
This freedom to explore ones identity and history – and more importantly, share it with the nation – is what gave rise to personalities like Malcolm X and, later, certain factions of The Black Panthers who proclaimed loudly that black was beautiful, strong, and just as much a part of the fabric of America (and all the rights that entails) as anyone else.
This message was vibrant and was adopted by everyday people. It traveled through the nation and the world, having a big impact in Brazil, where the slave trade had brought in an estimated 4 million souls from Africa’s shores. Popular singers like Tim Maia (who spent some time in America as a youth before being deported from the country) and Jorge Bem Jor began infusing their music with the iconology and rhythms from American blacks – and dressed the part too. There was also a rise in Brazilian style soul and funk groups that sang about pride in their people in the vein of Funkadelic and James Brown. In short, blacks not only shouted out “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” they shared it among their peers – of all races, colors, and creeds.
I often marvel at this era which encompasses most of the 1970s but there is a big difference in how it manifested in Brazil versus in America. In America, blacks were finally being able to assert themselves both in popular culture and in daily life, but it was not done from a place of fear but from a place of self-realization, strength, and force which opened the doors to a healthy exchange with others. It’s no coincidence that nearly no one screamed of racism or appropriation when a white person grew an Afro or donned “black garb” – it was not generally viewed as a sign disrespect, but rather, an acknowledgement of of black beauty.
For the first time, black culture, fashion, song, and a myriad of other components of black life could not be stolen – they were seen as a something to be aimed for and given. This was a historic shift for blacks, because in the same way white folks had dominated nearly every aspect of what was the right and proper way to appear in public and present oneself to society for so long, blacks had managed, through much pain and struggle, to enter into that conversation – and even dominate it in some aspects. To be in this capacity and have this ability to share one’s culture without fear is to be in power of one’s destiny and to feel firmly about ones history.
Here in Brazil the same shift happened but with a few kinks. Although blacks did play with power, they never truly harnessed it in quite the same way as their American counter parts. One could argue the many reasons for this, but I find that it is mostly rooted in the oft-told fable of racial harmony in Brazil. Blacks here were not persecuted as violently as American blacks and many even managed to hold on to a lot of aspects of their African roots, namely their religions and music. While expressions of institutional racism and personal prejudice in Brazil are not as obvious to spot from an outsider’s viewpoint, the mechanisms to keep blacks on the outskirts of society were and continue to be firmly put in place.
So while blacks had somewhat more freedom of mobility, that mobility never sent them on a vertical axis. And since life on the horizontal plane isn’t always bad (even though it isn’t great either) black people seem wary of raising their voices to loudly as to not bite the hand that feeds them and keeps them on their even keel. Furthermore, when black folks do speak up about racism in Brazil, whites tend to get quickly offended. They are fast to change the conversation from racism to classism – Brazil’s true ailment. They make it a point to explain how Brazil is not like the horrid America that hanged its blacks from trees across the nation. Unfortunately, all this hyperbole or lack of conversation has created a sort of black stasis in the country. A complacency set in which, as we all should know, is the enemy of any real progress. Black people in Brazil never fought for their space in society in the same measure as American blacks, because they believed that no space was being taken away from them. Black people never saw themselves as a different people because everyone told them they weren’t.
Of course it becomes clear to anyone who spends any considerable amount of time in Brazil that this racial harmony fable doesn’t match reality. Black people in Brazil today live a life far different than their white counterparts, making up the bulk of the poor communities, receiving the worst health care, attending the worst schools, and naturally (as a logical progression from horrid living standards) occupying most of the the jails and prisons and being responsible for the majority of the criminal element in the country.
Things seemed as if they would change for the better in the last decade or so as black movements (some that had existed for decades beforehand) did start to rise to prominence in the country by riding the wave of the leftist PT government which promised them exposure and funded their organizations. These black militant groups expressed the importance of black pride, education and preservation of culture. This is all well and good, but there is a dark side. As any good leftist government does, PT used these groups as pawns for their own political agendas and as way to generate votes among a people who had historically always been left out of the political dialogue. Before many of these black movements could truly be black movements of influence they became leftist or PT movements.
As part of PT movements, black people also succumbed to another specialty of leftist governments – the creation of dependence to the state. Black people under this regime didn’t learn to applaud themselves for their own hard work and achievements, but rather, to thank “Father Lula” and “Mother Dilma” for allowing them to enter into a University based on the color of their skin; for allowing them to get easy credit to buy their first refrigerator, automobile , or home simply because they were poor; and most worrisome of all, for allowing them to express their blackness in their appearance when in fact that wasn’t a right for the government to give nor was it one that had been taken away. Black people were fooled into receiving something that was already theirs. They did not affirm their own identity, they were granted it – thus it is not truly theirs to command.
The above relates directly to how these black girls acted when they saw a white girl wearing a turban. Blacks have been brainwashed into believing a narrative for themselves which was not written by them. It is harmful and destructive.
But before I go into that, let me be clear about how ignorant these girls were to taunt this girl – regardless of any social and political backdrop. The turban is not an exclusively black invention. Many people in Africa and throughout the Middle East, and other regions, have worn turbans and other types of head coverings for a very long time.
It’s also important to note that blacks living in the west do not always have a clear path back to their roots in Africa. Just as many American blacks have adopted Egypt as their culture heritage, many blacks here have adopted dress and garb from cultures that may not be part of their direct lineage.
Just because one’s skin is dark does not mean they are from the same ethnic tribe. Black people like white people come from various backgrounds. I imagine and Englishman would no better like to be confused for a German based on his skin color than an Ethiopian with someone from Ghana. So before Western black folk begin accusing others of cultural appropriation, they should take a hard look at themselves and where that Ankh they wear around their neck, those dreads they tie so tightly on their head, or that colorful dashiki they wear to work came from – and if they truly have a blood connection to these very different places and people.
So how does these girl’s action and government brainwashing, dependence, and fed narratives negatively affect the progress of black people in a free society? The answer is simple. Blacks diminish both their place and importance in society when they proclaim that their culture is still one which is able to be appropriated. Black dependence falsely calling itself independence is a slow acting poison that kills the soul of a people and creates victims and monsters.
This is sad to see because although I think Brazilian blacks are still far behind American blacks when it comes to societal progress, they still have managed to come a long way. Per the Brazilian Constitution they have equal rights and can come and go, buy and sell, work and study as they please. Their treatment in society as it relates to their full rights is another issue, but it doesn’t take away their full equal status in democratic Brazil.
By crying about cultural appropriation of any form these black movements and social justice warriors take society leaps backwards and not forward. They may not be aware of it, but they are shouting loudly and proudly that, “WE ARE WEAK AND THE BEST OF OUR CULTURE CAN BE TAKEN, MANIPULATED, AND USED ANY WHICH WAY THE WHITE MAN PLEASES!!!” This is sad, regressive, reductive, and slightly sick.
When I walk through the streets of Brazil, I assert myself on a daily basis. Sometimes I wear a knitted cap I bought in Ethiopia, other times I wear the button up shirts that Europeans taught us look nice, and other times I wear light loose fabrics that a friend who visited a Caribbean or Middle Eastern nation may have given me as a gift.
I dress and express myself with respect and with respect to those whose culture I borrowed from.
People who love themselves, who are proud of their culture, and proud of what it stands for, do not get offended when an outsider wants to join them, respectfully. They instead use that as a time for teaching and discourse – where they can transform perceived appropriation into a moment of cultural exchange.
As I stated at the start – cultural appropriation still exits because in 2017 there are still people on this planet who truly do not have a voice. Black people in the West, despite all that we still have to go through to get the same slice of the pie, are not one of them. Our voices are strong, vibrant, and clamorous – in fact, they echo from the mouths of the social justice warriors nearly everyday. Too bad, that the words they speak only serve to make us weaker and create a deeper divide.
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