I want to start this out explaining who I am. I am cisgender, white, male, and queer (mostly in the “gay” area of the queer space, but I do not like that identity). I represent a pretty privileged position in society, which does of course color my viewpoint on anything I say.
Elaine Stritch died today. This hurt me at my core: she represents the epitome of a particular kind of woman I have always held as a role model: brassy, bawdy, outspoken, talented, and fabulous. In her time she might have even been called “ballsy”. When I was a little closeted gay kid in the 90′s who had to keep silent for fear of getting beaten up, I sought comfort in women like her, especially the female leads of rock groups like Garbage, Veruca Salt, and Hole. For me, these women who subverted society’s expectations of them were role models for me. They were loud, abrasive, and in-your-face. After I left high school and started becoming more confident in my identity, I felt a similar affinity for drag queens: transgressive and loud, these gender illusionists gave me life. Knowing that it was possible to say “fuck you!” to society and still come out okay on the other side… that was powerful stuff.
Realizing that women like Elaine are one of the reasons why I am so outspoken today got me thinking about cultural appropriation. Well, that’s not quite accurate. What got me thinking about it was this article a few days ago by a black woman telling white gay men to stop pretending they’re black women, and then this monumentally idiotic response from a white gay man telling black women to get over themselves and let gay white men do what they will, lest gay white men run home crying because they got their feelings hurt. (In case you can’t tell, I think the latter argument is so monumentally stupid that I didn’t even link to the original article, but to a rebuttal of it.)
But really, even *that* isn’t what got me thinking about cultural appropriation. What planted that seed firmly in my head was a conversation I had with my friend Ashton nearly a month ago, when she asked me what I thought about Iggy Azalea. I honestly wasn’t certain; I had heard just enough to know I wasn’t interested, but I hadn’t really paid attention. Ashton proceeded to play me a little bit of “Fancy“, and I admitted that it was catchy as hell. Ashton said “yeah, but I really have a problem that she’s white.” And all of a sudden, I did too. I mean, it just sounded wrong – a white girl from rural Australia sounding like she had lived her entire life in College Park… it seemed wrong. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on it beyond a simple “cultural appropriation is bad, mmmkay?”
But today, reflecting on the conversation going on surrounding what is and isn’t okay to appropriate and who’s allowed to do what, and reflecting on the things I have appropriated from my female/trans/POC friends, it hit me.
It’s not the simple act of appropriation that makes this stuff offensive. It’s the fact that it’s fake as fuck.
Iggy Azalea is putting on a character. She doesn’t write her own shit, she doesn’t come up with her own beats, and that voice she raps with was taught to her by her producers. If she had been a white girl growing up in College Park within that culture, and that were natural to her, I guarantee nobody would be hating on her the way they do. But as it is, she’s basically doing a blackface routine, making music that resembles music made by black people. And she’s gotten really successful doing so, which has the added effect of crowding out legitimate black talent. (Oh, and then there was that time she dissed Eve in the most tone-deaf way possible, and basically she just needs to go away.)
Mister Whitey McICanPretendToBeBlackIfIWantTo is in the same boat here. He’s playacting. Rather than taking inspiration from the struggles of oppressed people and using it to find his own voice, he simply imitates someone else’s voice, and poorly at that. And I feel that ultimately, that’s what makes it so offensive. When Vampire Weekend first came on to the indie scene back in the mid 00′s, they faced some criticism for appropriating West African rhythms into their music. However, they were upfront about where it came from, and ultimately the music they created was clearly not an imitation of African music – nobody would ever think a song like “Oxford Comma” came from anything other than a bunch of rich white kids, for example. They are inspired by someone else and used that inspiration to find their own voice. More troubling might be Major Lazer, who are also highly original, but appropriate in ways that seem more like imitation. (Plus there’s this downright racist and misogynistic and hella problematic bullshit that nevertheless has a beat that won’t leave your brain for days.)
The bottom line to me is this: expose yourself to other cultures. If another culture does something you like, learn more about it. Know what it’s all about. If it’s relevant to your experience, pay respect to it and maybe even use it yourself. But if you just like it and you feel like you want to imitate it even though it has nothing to do with you, don’t be surprised when you get accused of cultural appropriation. The truth hurts. Deal with it.