A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on a panel discussing a play I’d seen the week before. The play, Disgraced, is a very interesting and extraordinarily problematic piece dealing with race, religion, and gender. Sitting onstage in front of a majority white Seattle audience, there was so much we could have been discussing on that panel.
But we were discussing cultural appropriation. Only cultural appropriation.
See, in addition to everything else going on in the play, one of the lead characters, a white woman, happened to be an artist who was “fascinated” with Islamic religious art and had adopted a lot of the imagery into her work. So in a play filled with horrific assumptions on race and religion as well as gratuitous violence against women — we were focused on this woman’s preoccupation with Islamic art.
What a waste of time for everyone involved. What a lost opportunity.
I say this not because I think that cultural appropriation isn’t real — it’s very real. I say this not because cultural appropriation isn’t harmful — it’s very harmful. I say this not because I don’t think that people who appropriate the culture of those less privileged and refuse to stop when confronted with this fact aren’t assholes — they definitely are.
I say this because we’ve structured discussions around cultural appropriation in a way that actually upholds the White Supremacy that makes such appropriation possible.
Let’s think for a moment about what cultural appropriation is. Cultural appropriation isn’t just the misuse of a group’s art and culture — anybody can do that; it’s just called shitty art. Cultural appropriation is the misuse of a group’s art and culture by someone with the power to redefine that art and, in the process, divorce it from the people who originally created it. To use the ever-tired example of hip-hop here, a shitty black rapper is just a shitty rapper who fades away into obscurity, leaving behind nothing more than a trail of never-played mixtapes dispersed outside of nightclubs. A shitty white rapper wins Grammys and is held up as an example of what good rap is.