Cultural Appropriation Continued…

So after publishing my article yesterday, I have had some really constructive feedback from some other activists online. I wanted to address a few of the points raised out of the discussion and make a few amendments. Firstly one of my friends challenged the idea that the ‘Mohawk’ is a direct cultural appropriation:

“I agree that the name is more-than-problematic, but in terms of the actual cut I’m not so certain. the Mohawk/Mi’kmaq woman you cited says that she thinks that white people can wear a ‘non-traditional mohawk hairstyles (the ones you see at punk concerts)’ its obviously complicated cos the hollywood depiction of Mohawks had the ‘modern’ mohawk, which actual Kanien’kehá:ka Iroquois don’t wear themselves.”

Totally agree here, the haircut that we see at concerts has been incorrectly named, the hair of the Mohawk people is traditionally plucked leaving a patch on the back of the head. I think it is useful to make a distinction between actual appropriated culture – i.e. dressing up as a Native American for a costume party – and appropriated language – the use of the Mohawk name to describe a hair cut that is not actually part of any Mohawk tradition. Therefore I think it would be fair to accept that whilst the punk “Mohawk” is not a direct appropriation, that giving it the name “Mohawk” is problematic. Suggestions for a new name anyone?

Another example of a linguistic appropriation was pointed out to me here:

“Take the ‘Navajo wrapped drinking flask’ from Urban Outfitters. Some people were arguing that using that kind of pattern (usually and problematically labelled things like ‘Navajo’, ‘Native American’ ‘Indian’ ‘ethnic’ or ‘Aztec’) is a form of cultural appropriation. Now i think if these kind of patterns were labelled ‘geometric’ instead of ‘ethnic’/whatever racist tinged name’ then it would be a stretch to say “that’s a cultural appropriation” because more-often-than-not these prints and patterns are very very different from any original Native design and the connection to said-appropriated culture would probably disappear if the name wasn’t there, otherwise you are saying that this neon dress with triangles and diamonds ‘looks Native American to me so therefore its cultural appropriation’ – you end up repeating the same kind of problematic stereotypes really.

I think that there are two separate arguments at play here:

1. That direct cultural appropriations are problematic.

2. That the labelling of something that is culturally non-Native American as ethnic, Native American, Navajo, Mohawk, Aztec (etc) is problematic.

This means that whilst we should not appropriate Native American culture, we should also cease to use names that misrepresent and stereotype Native American people. So maybe the punk hair cut might come back soon people!

Another point that has been raised is that we live in a multicultural society, which is a blend of cultures:

“I was just interested to ask though where you think cultural appropriation lies in relation to multiculturalism? I ask because to me it seems that a multicultural society relies upon the breaking down of all artificial divisions between people of the same class, created by capitalism – and in that sort of society I can imagine people of all different cultures learning from and embracing elements of each others view points, dress sense, forms of art and music etc etc, and in doing so it seems likely that blends between these cultures will occur. 

“I think this can have great positive effects too. A good example is during the 1970s, when the National Front were trying to manipulate working class people into dividing against black communities, and bands emerged such as the Specials, who created a fusion of Jamacian music with punk by working with musicians from that culture. This was a very good example for a generation of young people, as it encouraged people to welcome different cultural backgrounds, and create fusions between different cultures. The Specials music became an anthem for the Anti facist struggles and the National Front hated it.”

Again, I agree that multiculturalism, and the blending of cultures helps to undermine racism – racism loses its power if we cannot be categorised and divided off into distinct racialised groups. However, prevailing white supremacy within colonialism and capitalism has left many non-white cultures devastated. As Native Americans have seen their culture nearly wiped out, part of their struggle is bringing back together the culture that was once taken away from them by white colonialists and capitalists – when it comes to challenging cultural appropriation and building a multicultural society, I don’t think that one necessarily hinders the other, in fact I think it builds a better more respectful multiculturalism.

It is important to respect that Native American people would not want to see their culture appropriated, as it is very closely tied in with their fight for liberation – Native American people wish to fight against racism and/or capitalism, but also must protect their separate and distinct cultures from being erased again. However, I don’t think all cultures have undergone the same process of “whitewashing” as Native American cultures, so it may be fair to say that Native American Liberation is distinct in the fact that it is both marked with a desire to break down the system that oppresses Native American people, whilst also defending the distinct cultures that colonialism/capitalism has tried so hard to erase. But it is important to remember that we have a real struggle on our hands, and it takes unity to fight for liberation – as one activist put it to me, we should be wary not to come full circle and repeat the racist mantra “east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet”.

Another example of possible appropriation was suggested in reference to the keffiyeh worn by many white activists to signify solidarity with the Palestinian struggle:

I found it particularly powerful when during Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2009, more and more people started to take to the streets wearing one. It seemed to be a clear sign of solidarity with the struggles of the people in Gaza, even if a lot of people were wearing it partly (or mostly) because it looked good. I’ve spoken to a few friends from the middle east about this too – and they think it’s a great thing that the keffiyeh has become a fashion statement in the west – as even if only in a small way, it still opens up a potential gateway for people to find out about the oppression they are facing, and the struggles they are undergoing against Zionism.”

I think that the keffiyeh above all is an excellent show of solidarity to Palestine; I own one which I wear often to show my solidarity to Palestinian struggle. Their struggle has been marked on the one hand with an ideological struggle against racist Zionism, and on the other hand with war, genocide, rape, torture and ultimately the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homeland. However, I think it is fair to say that after a surge in the Palestinian solidarity movement in recent years, we have also seen lots of fashion outlets selling not just keffiyehs, but also new ‘fashionable’ takes on them. Many white people would end up buying one, without any knowledge of Palestinian struggle, or even any sense of being part of the movement for liberation. I think it is Lowkey who actually challenges this appropriation in one of his songs, challenging listeners to find out what the scarf round their neck means.

So I think cultural appropriation is still relevant to the anti-racist movement. In challenging our appropriations we are building understanding and trust with Native American people, in respecting their identities and how they are misrepresented in wider (often commercial) capitalist society. I also think it is very important to talk about the way capitalism markets cultural appropriations in order to open discussions about anti-capitalism and revolution. From all of the blogs and accounts I have read I think the biggest change that white people should undertake is looking critically at cultural misrepresentations and damaging appropriations – its more about a change in attitude than a road to liberation, because ultimately it takes us all on the streets, regardless of colour to bring down racism. Though we are looking to build our multicultural societies, we must respect that Native American cultures are being preserved for a reason, and that it is incumbent on white people to show respect for Native American cultures and build trust enough so that we can fight together against racism, colonialism and capitalism.

Native American Appropriation: Respecting the Struggle of Native American Liberation

I would like to say before you read this that these are some of my own reflections about cultural appropriation, and I have tried to bring in as many Native American accounts as possible. This isn’t a definitive account or set of ideas, but I have written this primarily to draw attention to the work of activists and the ways in which they have tried to raise awareness of Native American oppression. I welcome any comments or criticisms about what I have said: I think this is a discussion that needs to be had in order to shed more light on Native American Liberation, and how allies can best respect Native American struggle, culture, and history whilst fighting together to stop racism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Yesterday, I was shown a few discussions about ‘cultural appropriation’ by my good friend Lukas, in particular the appropriation of Native American culture. Just for those who might not have come across the phrase ‘cultural appropriation,’ the blog Native Appropriations (http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/) defines it as the use of other cultures, traditions, languages, and images in popular culture, advertising, and everyday life. For background on cultural appropriation, the blog signposts this article. Lukas also showed me this zine, challenging the way in which “Mohawks” and dreadlocks have been appropriated by white people, often without any historical/political/cultural understanding of where these come from (here: http://zinelibrary.info/files/dreads.pdf). In order to understand the basis of this discussion, it is important that you have had a look at the Native Appropriations blog, the zine, and this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPyPLmmtcig) outlining some of the arguments against cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation rears its ugly head everywhere in the capitalist west, from white people wearing the traditional dress (or an often disrespectful take on one) of another culture to a costume party, to mystifying or ‘othering’ of culture; at its core, it is politically and culturally entrenched racism. Native Appropriations discusses Bon Iver’s new song ‘Towers,’ (here: http://tinyurl.com/6sfdv32) focusing on an article in the Huffington Post about the new video. As the blog points out, the creators talk about Native American ‘preservation land’ (something that no longer exists for Native American people), and they play into a stereotype that paints Native American people as a homogenous whole, rather than a diverse group of many individually distinct cultures. The video makes no reference to Native American culture or traditions, nor does it represent the struggle or oppression of Native American people, despite referring to it as a ‘tribal tribute’ – as Native Appropriations puts it:

Why mention it was on Native land at all? Because it adds to the mysticism. It gives it a hipster-edge. “We didn’t just shoot a video in nature! We shot it in NATIVE AMERICAN NATURE!”

and again:

I’m really, really tired of the rhetoric of “honoring” or “tributes” being drawn upon to somehow erase Native peoples anger at the way we’re being represented by outside forces. Mascots? Hipster headdresses? YMCA Indian Guides? Quotes about Bon Iver music videos? Don’t get mad, we’re honoring you with our gross mis-representations of your culture! 

Please don’t tell me that I should be “glad” that Native people are being “recognized at all” and throw out the “Would you rather that Native people were just forgotten completely and never mentioned or shown again?” I’m sorry, we’ve been somehow “disappearing” for over 500 years, yet we’re still here. Our cultures are still strong. We’re not going anywhere. So your ridiculous “honors” and “tributes” that do nothing to truly represent our peoples and our cultures aren’t “saving” us from extinction. They’re continuing to oppress, erase, and marginalize our living, breathing existence.

The history of the oppression of Native American people cannot be ignored. Ever since white European ‘settlers’ came to America, Native American people have had their culture and way of living destroyed: land was taken away from them, they were forced to ‘integrate’ into a new way of life, having their culture stripped away and barbarised as ‘savages’ (a damaging stereotype that still rears its head throughout capitalist media), subject to a violent political rhetoric of ‘civilisation’. Native Americans were put through genocides, imperialism, and colonialism, forced into slavery and, after the Abolition movement, thrown into prison and forced to work through the new ‘convict lease system’ – in Angela Davis’s book ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’, Davis traces how slavery was transformed after abolition, as capitalists developed a new way of exploiting free labour due through the expansions of the ‘prison industrial complex.’

As capitalist property laws expanded, Native Americans were faced with attack, rape, torture, and social conditioning in order to get them out of the way of the new American capitalist project – the drive for profit far superseded any dialogue or respect for the people that existed long before the ‘settlers’ did. As a white person, I can only touch upon the long history of oppression that Native Americans have faced, and I cannot claim to know how that oppression must impact the lives of Native American people today; I urge any serious non-Native American anti-racist/anti-capitalist to educate themselves by reading about Native American experiences of oppression and the history of Native American struggle that the capitalist west has sought to erase entirely.

So, the question is raised: how do we spot cultural appropriations, and how best can we respect Native American (and all other) histories and cultures? Here is a post from a Mohawk/Mi’kmaq woman (http://tinyurl.com/7uz84cj), who lists a number of cultural appropriations with an explanation of why these appropriations are offensive (but also outlining that she can only speak for Mohawk and Mi’kmaq cultures).

I also read this zine (here: http://zinelibrary.info/files/dreads.pdf) explaining how the writers feel that white people have appropriated Native American and Black culture through Mohawk and dreadlock hair styles. It was on reading this that I decided not to grow my Mohawk back, and that three of my white friends that have Mohawk hair styles decided to shave their heads. The zine explains that:

“Mohawk” is the name of a sovereign First Nation in the Iroquois Confederacy. Wearing “Mohawks erases Mohawk people and culture

Wearing “Mohawks” or dreadlocks plays into a racist society that believes that people of colour and our lands, bodies, cultures and spirit are up for grabs

For me, this zine is an account that was created for white people, challenging privileges and often a lack of understanding of how these cultural symbols have been appropriated, and also how my use of the word ‘Mohawk’ to refer to my old haircut was culturally insensitive. Not wearing a “Mohawk” is one example of solidarity with Native American Liberation that I have undertaken as a committed anti-racist; because I didn’t want to present myself as culturally insensitive to the seriousness of Native American oppression. The zine outlines the problem with the appropriation clearly:

The hairstyle called “Mohawks” is rooted in distinct Iroquois and other First Nations/Native traditions that have only recently (1978) been legal in the United States. Non-native people who wear “Mohawks” appear naive and condescending to this reality

So i’ve been asked “Does this mean that wearing Mohawk is racist?” Well, I don’t think that was what the zine was trying to say; the zine is talking about how cultural appropriation is received and how it could affect the anti-racist movement:

By wearing “Mohawks” and dreadlocks, white people demonstrate they are unaware of anti-racist struggles and deteriorate trust between white people and people of color/non-white people.

Being an anti-racist white person is counter-culture. Trying to present a countercultural image by appropriating other cultures is not.

I know that many people might not be aware of Native American struggle – white, western capitalism has re-written the history books, and Native Americans are denied platforms to educate others about their oppression – and, because of this, white people might not know about cultural appropriation. That’s why I have tried to bring together some resources so that people can learn more.

The forces that create division are also structurally entrenched: it is clear there is a difference between the racist/colonialist drive to eliminate Native Americans and the ignorance of a white individual wearing a “Mohawk.” It is our governments, capitalism, and the media that are continuing to deny Native American liberation, and it is these structures that we must smash in order to end Native American oppression entirely and serve social justice. However, we must come together to do this, and challenge every racist division in the process – if that means withdrawing cultural appropriations, then that is one thing I will do to offer solidarity.

After reading some of these blogs and other resources, I think that white people should seriously look at what they may appropriate in order to be ‘cool.’ Ignoring and denying these accounts of cultural appropriation is disrespectful and, yes, racist. If white people feel that looking ‘cool’ is more important than the possibility of giving up one of their privileges, then I think they should spend some more time reading about anti-racism and cultural appropriation before jumping to conclusions that this is ‘political correctness gone mad’ or trying to ‘correct’ Native American or other non-white accounts.

Written by Max Brophy (http://marixstqueen.worpress.com)
Edited by the fabulous Liz Sylvian (http://comeonlizzo.wordpress.com)