Chapter 10 of Ijeoma Oluo’s deeply valuable So You Want to Talk About Race focuses on the how to appreciate culture instead of appropriate it.
It debates whether white people can/should rap. It’s not about Vanilla Ice versus Eminem or how many obscure black musicians had their music remade by Elvis and countless other white singing groups.
It’s about the legitimacy of economically and politically co-opting someone else’s culture. In extreme cases, it slides into cultural genocide.
Similar to the illegitimacy of white people using the “N” word because it still carries oppression in it, Oluo writes “even if a culturally appropriative act means to respect culture, it cannot if it can’t understand and respect the past and present power dynamics defining the culture’s interaction with the dominant culture.”
And in recent years, the debate has become pretty clear. Sexy Indian Squaw costumes at Halloween are not ok. Neither are the names of the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Edmonton Eskimos, and Chicago Blackhawks.
Even, as Oluo mentions, if Redskins fans seriously think they’re honouring some “redskins” somewhere, it is tonedeaf to the political history and contemporary systemic racism in society.
Yet it leaves open the debate about whether white people should be wearing art and clothing produced by different cultural groups. And please don’t say we can all wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, because that’s like white people saying they don’t care if they’re called a cracker. Power. Oppression. Systemic racism, remember?
At this point it has to be up to us to determine if our political relationship to someone else’s culture is appreciative through understanding culture and power, or appropriative.