Of all the questions I receive on ask.fm and other websites, a great number of them are about cultural appropriation. My white followers seem endlessly baffled and befuddled about the topic, even though there’s a huge body of work on the subject by writers and activists the world over. (I myself have contributed my thoughts more than once, including a rant or two here at TRH.) It’s like every time a white person sees a tribal print in an H&M store window or a tacky geisha outfit at Victoria’s Secret, I’m their first port of call. When they’re deciding if it’s okay to throw a “quinceañera-themed” birthday party or tattoo their hands with henna, they anonymously entreat me to grant them permission and/or absolution. When they want to know how much street cred a Native American great-great-great-great-great grandmother is, I’m their go-to.
That would be annoying enough – after all, you can google “jaythenerdkid cultural appropriation” and read several pages’ worth of my thoughts on this topic. But then things like this happen:
— finnk (@meadowgroove) August 19, 2015
Next time you eat pizza make sure it’s from an italian shop. Cause otherwise that is cultural appropriation too @jaythenerdkid
— Antonio Pentrella (@torinoeroica) January 18, 2015
— jay, bright shiner (@jaythenerdkid) January 18, 2015
Centuries of subjugation and enslavement at the hands of white supremacists who believed (and still believe) all people unlike them were inhuman: exactly like eating shitty pizza. Sometimes truth really is more absurd than fiction.
People get mad when I say I think there are certain PoC things white people shouldn’t be allowed to access. There’s this idea that the culture was going to spread anyway, so why does it matter that white people helped it along the way? But there’s a difference between culture spreading organically amongst people who mutually respect and value each other, and culture being taken forcibly, stripped of all meaning, repackaged in a box with a stylised Buddha figure on it and sold at a 200% mark-up to trend-conscious yuppies. You wouldn’t break into your neighbour’s house, steal his valuables, burn his house down, display the valuables in your house and call it “sharing”, and even if you did, the police would call it theft. Similarly, taking the valuable things of a culture you’re oppressing and silencing and then displaying those valuable things in a museum in London or New York despite the protests of the original owners is not in any way a cultural exchange.
What sticks in the craw of the common or garden variety white ally is the idea that there are things to which they are not automatically entitled by virtue of their lack of melanin. A lifetime of taking other cultures for granted is tough to unlearn. That’s why allies are offended by the idea that they’re not entitled to practice yoga just because they want to. It’s why they gasp with shock when you let them know they can’t wear a sari just because they think it looks pretty on them. It’s why no matter how many articles are written about why it’s not a good idea to wear imitation war-bonnets to college parties, someone always does. When you’ve spent your whole life taking what you want from other cultures when you want it, it’s hard to start hearing the word ‘no’.
That’s precisely why I believe we need to start saying it more often.
No, you can’t wear mehndi at your wedding. (Actually, just stay away from henna unless your own culture uses it.) No, you can’t wear a kimono unless you’re actually Japanese. No, you shouldn’t go to that white-run yoga studio where the instructor can’t even pronounce “Ayurveda”. No, you can’t learn the sitar or how to belly dance. No, you can’t twerk. No, you shouldn’t put your hair up in a turban just because you saw a picture of a model doing it in a magazine. No, it’s still not called chai tea.
I get a lot of pushback for saying things like this, and I expect it will continue. Frankly, I don’t care at all. It’s not my job to ease white people into not being racist or to make their lives easier after they have to give up the things they stole. It’s not my job to make them feel comfortable or unjudged in their appropriation. I don’t have to smooth the way for them. Their ancestors certainly didn’t smooth the way for mine.
Maybe some day we’ll live in a world that’s balanced enough for me to feel comfortable allowing white folks access to my culture. Right now, that world doesn’t exist. I’m not saying this to be hostile; I’m just tired of finding polite ways to express my discomfort when I see people parading around in the trappings of other cultures. I’m all for fair cultural exchange, but it can only occur across a level playing field, and the field we have right now is anything but. If white people really want to start participating in other cultures in a humane, compassionate, dignified and respectful way, they need to throw themselves into the difficult and dirty work of righting the scales.
jaythenerdkid is the nom de net of Aaminah Khan, a queer Muslim writer, activist, tutor, former medical student and terroriser-of-bigots for hire. When she’s not tweeting, tumblr-ing, blogging, arguing with conservatives on Facebook or being blocked by Richard Dawkins, Aaminah reads fantasy novels, plays video games, argues with her husband about Game of Thrones and gets angry that there aren’t more characters like Abed Nadir on television.