Cultural Appropriation: Of Dreadlocks, Cell Blocks, and Stolen Rocks (like Plymouth)

columbusBy James W. Perkinson, September 29, 2015

Invited by a friend to respond to the recent blog of philosophy professor, Crispin Sartwell, “Should Miley Cyrus Wear Dreadlocks?” I would throw this into the mix. Yes, it is cultural appropriation “all the way down,” but as with ingesting spoiled food, some things come back up. The culture wars rage on, as globalization’s surface sign that something deeper is afoot. The question of taking someone else’s style cannot really be judged except in consideration of the entire regime of planetary “taking” writ large.

Historically, Sartwell is right; cultures are potpourri, polyglot accumulations of bits and pieces of influence gleaned from across every imaginable border. And in an ideal world, that would not be a problem, but cause for celebration.

The problem is the world is not ideal. For a good 5,000 years now, human political order has tended toward “kleptocracy,” organizing business-as-usual into cartels of plunder and organizing common sense into a rationale for such.

Obviously, in a piece this short, I cannot elaborate the origins and history of “empire.” But it is simply fact that increasingly sophisticated regimes of pillage have extended their reach across the globe and developed very compelling PR machines to misrepresent the “take” as honorable.

Since Columbus, that system of theft has produced Western culture as its apology. Domination has been sold as “discovery.” That today, we typically consider wealth an achievement worthy of emulation, rather than a suspect condition is evidence of the success of the propaganda.

In the face of continued predation, plundered cultures use the only “material” they typically have at hand to create breathing room and ironic commentary on their situation. And they indeed react when even that bit of resource is stripped. Such is the deep frame for the discussion.

The plundering is on-going. The US constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population consuming 25 percent of the world’s resources, with more than 1000 military bases (or base-like installations) in 153 countries to insure the resource flow. The Global South funds the Global North—once financial and aid and profit flows are calculated in sum in both directions—to the tune of some $200 billion per year (in recent years). Black incarceration rates greater than 6 times that of whites (the majority for drug use even though whites use drugs at the same rate as blacks) actually contributes to white prosperity through criminal justice system jobs and stock dividends. Etc.

Cultural appropriation on top of that? Sartwell is typical of white commentators. He notes that most complaints are aimed at dominant culture folks (i.e., white people) taking from dominated cultures. But he goes on to ignore his own note. The issue demands approach from the bottom side up. At issue is not just appropriation, but even more fundamentally respect and permission. The question is finally one of relationship. And it must begin with where we actually are.

Since Sartwell indeed identifies the prime suspects, I’ll stick with them (although the picture is actually much broader). Those of us white, such as myself, are pirates on someone else’s land. Our continuing context is a thing called “settler colonialism,” the project of using Christian and Western culture to legitimize theft of native land and now, as a New Age fetish-interest, native culture (sweat lodge, anyone?).

How ask the question in a way that takes this reality seriously? By asking actual native communities, right where we live, how we can best collaborate in undoing the theft. Perhaps joining the Idle No More movement and “appropriating” from Indian folk some of their jail time for resisting pipelines? Or working to secure official ecclesial and legal repudiation of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery that anchors property law here and around the world? Or maybe we could propose a “cultural exchange”: all the white population of the country can move on to the remaining reservations and all the native folk back onto all the rest of the land stolen from them?

Then we move on to hip-hop, dreadlocks, sagging, rhyming and tagging. How about Miley and Em and Macklemore showing some respect for what they took by returning say 19/20ths of what they earn to black communities in the form of funds controlled by neighborhood boards to be used for African American enterprise and schools? (According to a Pew study in 2010, median white household net worth was 20 times that of its black counterpart, compliments of on-going racism showing up in every major institution organizing economic resources into social benefit, such as health care, job prospects, school quality, etc., but above all in housing discrimination.) And of course, joining them in the gesture—the corporate execs of big labels cashing in on such “stardom”! Or maybe us white folks could “appropriate” some black poverty by returning all the wealth generated though the unpaid labor bill still outstanding for both slavery (some $2-5 trillion) and underpaid black work since then?

And so on, wherever cultural and economic and mineral and territorial “borrowing” has taken place over the last 500 years, from dominant folk at the expense of dominated folk. Until the playing field was roughly level again globally, nationally, and locally! Then Sartwell could republish his piece. And I will break-dance in response!
But until then, the situation demands continually seeking permission. And continually figuring out how to return stolen goods. I’m actually all for the syncretism Sartwell is advocating. I just think the intermixing has to include land and resources and decision-making at every level!

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