How hard is it for relatively* privileged people to just shut up and listen when people talk about the way society shits on them? I’ll be honest: Really fucking hard. And yet there’s nothing actually easier.
B and I were talking about that yesterday while we were waiting for our gyros. I’d just read a great article about why white people shouldn’t wear dredlocks, and he was all offended by the notion that white folk can’t have any hairstyle they want. Why shouldn’t they?
That knee-jerk response comes so easily to those of us near the top of the privilege heap.
I’m just now getting started on figuring out this whole cultural appropriation thing. It wasn’t on my radar. I mean, I’m white. In this country, I’m able to be comfortably colorblind, because color doesn’t affect me. My upbringing told me that the world is my oyster, and I can basically have whatever I want – even if it’s deeply meaningful to someone else and not really meant for outsiders like me. I used to be one of those folks who thought that incorporating aspects of other cultures was honoring them. How could they be mad if I liked something important to them?! Can’t we all just be one big melting pot of humans, share all our shiny things, etc.? It’s only now that I’m coming to realize that impulse arises from a place of profound ignorance, and that, when it comes to Native Americans, or African Americans, or other groups who are not only in a minority but are generally treated like absolute shit by my white compatriots, I’d best shut up and listen to them when they tell me that something is cultural appropriation and we white folk really shouldn’t do that.
You know what? That’s hard. I love seeing elements from different cultures fused into something new. I don’t know where the lines are between art and erasure. I don’t know what’s okay and what’s not. I’m not comfortable with this world where everyone can’t just take what they want. But I understand there’s a problem, because I’ve heard people from various cultures say that there’s a problem. My next step isn’t to get all defensive and whine that we should all just get along. It’s to investigate, listen closely as they explain what’s wrong and why, and keep my mouth shut (well, aside from this post) while learning. Will I disagree at the end of all that? Possibly. But at least my disagreement will be informed rather than ignorant. And chances are, I won’t disagree at all, once I understand. I’ve only just begun to look into this, and I can already see that there’s a definite problem with white folks just taking whatever they want from folk they’ve been busy oppressing for centuries. There’s definitely a fire beneath all that smoke.
I explained a little about that to B, as best as I could, and he did what I’ve always admired him for. He didn’t dig in his heels and insist he was right and all those minorities were just over-sensitive. He asked me to send him the article so that he could learn. He is going to listen. He’ll start with this white girl who listened to her black friends and learned why she should cut off her beloved dreds. Then he and I will go directly to the people of color who are speaking out on these issues, and listen to them.
He said it sounded like a lot of work. And it is. Social justice involves quite a bit of work, but it’s worth it. We’ll work hard to understand what cultural appropriation is, how we can avoid it, and what the world will need to look like before we can have that wonderful mingling of cultures, if that will ever be possible. We’ll do the hard work that will incrementally improve the world. All of us doing that work together can get it done.
Oftentimes, the dominant culture can be so sure it’s right, and feel so entitled to whatever it likes, that folks within it get very offended when they’re told no by those they’re dominating. I try to be better, but even I have those knee-jerk “what now?!” responses to a lot of things at first. But I’ve learned to clamp my jaws shut on that. I’ve learned to listen when someone tells me I’m stepping on their foot, and to get off their foot even when I don’t think I’m stomping on it all that hard. I’ve learned that an apology is better than an excuse.
I learned to do that from people who had to shout to get my attention. It wasn’t easy for them to break through the protective shell my being a skinny, white, middle-class, straight, able-bodied cis person had wrapped around me, but they did it. And that taught me that it’s a good idea to listen even when I’m feeling upset about being shouted at. I’ve learned that their anger comes from a place of deep frustration, that I may be the 10,000th uninformed bumbler they’ve had to deal with that day, and that it doesn’t cost me much to calm myself down and listen to their message. I’ve learned to listen despite my discomfort, rather than demand they adjust their tone, volume, and emotion to a level I can then comfortably ignore.
I’ve learned a lot from watching what’s happened in other battles for equality. I’ve seen what happens when men argue that a sexist thing is not sexist, when straight people argue that a homophobic thing isn’t homophobic, when cis women argue that a transphobic thing isn’t transphobic, when white people argue that a racist thing is not racist. I’ve seen them lose about every battle, because the thing actually was what the women, or queer people, or transgender people, or people of color were saying it was all along. It doesn’t take a great amount of genius to realize that if people from particular cultures are saying that something people outside of those cultures is doing is appropriation, chances are it’s appropriation and we should really stop appropriating stuff right now.
(This is your open invitation to share great articles on cultural appropriation here in the comments.)
I’m still learning how to unpack my invisible backpack of privilege. I know I’ve made countless mistakes. I know I’ll make them in the future. But shutting up and listening rather than continuing to speak from a place of ignorance surely does help avoid hurting people.
*Relative to other people. The best thing that intersectional feminism taught me is that getting shat on in one dimension doesn’t mean you’re not capable of being the shitter in others.