I bought a kimono this past September. It’s beautiful, and my excitement about what I’d wear with it motivated the purchase. I put it on when I got home to see if it looked as nice as I imagined, and it did! It was both modest and sexy, which perfectly fits my personality of embracing paradoxes. The moment I thought, “why haven’t I thought to buy a kimono before?” was the moment I realized I appropriated Japanese culture. It didn’t stop there, though. I was an appropriator, a capitalist, and a hypocrite! In every other circumstance, I could easily see and call out a White person on this very thing (more on this later)! Still, the acknowledgement of this was not, nor will it ever be, enough for me to return the kimono to the store. I soothed myself with a “fuck it” and a shrug of my shoulders.
My attention then turned to all the things I’ve purchased from traveling abroad, which I especially look forward to doing each trip. If not something to wear, I always bring back something to decorate my apartment, or something new for my skincare routine! But was I appropriating all these times as well? Maybe, at worst, I was just a tourist who buys memorabilia everywhere she goes (which doubles as tacit recognition of my American privilege).
I then thought about my Arabic first and last names: I’m not Arab. I’m a Black American Muslim woman, yes, but putting puppies in the oven doesn’t make them biscuits. Having an Arabic name has been a significant form of resistance against Whiteness for Black Americans: Muslim and non-Muslim alike. When you are Muslim, it reinforces Arab superiority pervasive throughout Muslim communities of all backgrounds; and when you’re not Muslim, the attempt to resist Whiteness in this particular way defeats itself once you remember that before Europeans enslaved Africans, Arabs enslaved Africans!
Stick a fork in me, I was done! All I did was buy a kimono and then my entire identity came into question. This was definitely a slippery slope, but I couldn’t ignore that I was led to these conclusions by interrogating very valid questions about not only what I do, but who I am. And while I only gave three examples here, I could go on.
...even as we simply wish to purchase something we like, we become complicit in oppression, and to a greater degree, erasure."
Critiques about cultural appropriation, however varied, rightfully conclude that it is wrong. But even when we can all agree it’s wrong, there’s levels to the way we determine the degree to which we consider an act of cultural appropriation to actually be harmful, which always leads to White people being called out ― and rightfully so!
However, cultural appropriation is a function of capitalism, an all-consuming system of exploitation in which we all partake and maintain as Americans. The insatiable appetite of capitalism, which is not restricted to America, normalizes cultural appropriation so much that even as we simply wish to purchase something we like, we become complicit in oppression, and to a greater degree, erasure.
What seems to distinguish one act of harm from another becomes a battle of false equivalence. It’s not that a Black person who appropriates, notwithstanding their awareness to admit it, isn’t wrong; it’s just not considered as harmful as when a White person appropriates any culture. To say appropriation by Black people has the same impact as appropriation by White people is a false equivalent. Whiteness will always have a perverse presence and oppressive impact on any non-White group of people, culture, or society it encounters. This has been the case among those who are White by phenotype, even if they’re culturally and socially non-White ― like Jewish and Irish people, for example. That said, acknowledgement followed by accountability are critical to engaging with someone else’s culture through an anti-oppressive and, more specifically, anti-racist lens.
I don’t come from the school of thought that Black people can’t be racist, regardless of lacking the systemic prowess to effectuate racism in the same way, or to the same degree as White people. If systemic prowess alone determined racism, there’d be no space to discuss anti-Black racism within immigrant communities of color, especially immigrant communities from the African diaspora, or from Africa itself (anti-Black racism among Dominicans is a perfect example of this). To be clear, anyone who espouses racism is espousing Whiteness; you just don’t have to be White to be racist. Regardless of who is racist, and the varying degree of harm it causes, in a true anti-racist framework, the harm itself is not to be disputed.
If anything, experiencing oppression is becoming more and more of a predictor that you will oppress someone else. Ain’t nothing for sale in capitalism like oppression! Just look at Israel, White women’s treatment of non-White women, and Black men’s treatment of Black women! Besides these acknowledgements, intercultural appropriation happens all the time, and further, is seen as acceptable! Just think about the last time you heard a Black American imitate a Jamaican accent knowing full well they couldn’t even begin to relate to the specific struggles of transitioning from one country to another. I never considered how scarring this could be until I recalled the embarrassment the new girl from Jamaica in my fourth grade class must have felt when the entire gym laughed at the way she said “three” as we divided teams for dodge ball. As an adult, she naturally finds it hypocritical that the same Black American children who called her an “African Booty Scratcher,” (though again, she was from Jamaica) are obsessed with dance hall music, and the popularization of Jamaican accents as “cool.”
Some of y’all will feel this, and some of y’all won’t, but I also don’t come from the school of thought that absolves Black people from appropriating culture. The bigger and more probing questions I want to ask are, “who doesn’t appropriate culture?” Followed by “where do we go from here?”
And while we’re at it, let’s stop with all these low-standard cookout invitations that keep being issued to undeserving, performative-ass “allies,” shall we?! That’s the beginning of your culture getting got, parading as consent to participate in a culture and reap benefits that can’t actually be “issued” or “transferred” to those who ― no matter what ― are not “about this life.” We’ve seen time and time again there’s no amount of worthiness to justify this gesture!
No one is exempt from their turn on the anti-oppressive and anti-racist rodeo(s). By using myself as an example, I wish to: 1) offer my experiences as encouragement for a moment of introspection all your own; 2) further the conversation on accountability of cultural appropriation; and 3) ultimately discourage refuge in Black capitalism as a means to resist capitalism.
Let’s get free, y’all!