Sunday, September 18, 2022

Representation and Cultural Appropriation

To the readers who share my whiteness: have you ever been somewhere where you were the visible minority?

It's only happened to me once, on a band trip to Toronto back in high school. (Other high schools got to see Vienna, or at least New York: we got the oh-so-exotic metropolis of Toronto.)

Except it was exotic. We were almost the only white people in the auditorium. 

I was more of a racist back then. I still am, of course: nearly all of us are, because if you're white, the structures and protocols of society are there to benefit you and suppress every other voice, and it's a lifetime's work digging out all of your racism. I feel like this is a very big difference between left and right: we here on the left know we still have a lot of work to do. People on the right reject the entire (obvious) premise that society is designed for white people. They go further: they call anything designed to address racial disparities racist on its face. I always tell people I AGREE that hiring, for instance, should be done on merit. I just dispute the deeply entrenched idea that whiteness, cisness, straightness, and maleness constitute four separate qualifications.

Let me tell you how racist I was. For many, many years, I thought Black people were dirty. Maybe not all of them, but how could you tell? Dirt is dark. Dark skin is dark. I actually thought that if I shook hands with a Black person, there was no telling what kind of filth might end up on my hands. I held this belief from earliest childhood all the well into adulthood. It's a stupid belief to have: not many people out there go out in public dirty, no matter their skin colour, and a moment's thought would have told me that. Also that dirt probably looks different against dark skin and would in any event be visible as a change in texture, even if nothing else. But why think? It's easier to just say Black people are dirty. 

Gay people, too. You put your dick where? IN the shit? EWWWWWWWWWWWW.  Never mind that many gay men never engage in anal sex; never mind that MORE straight people do (because there are more straight people)...and, well, by the time I got to try that out myself with a willing partner and enjoy it immensely, I'd internalized the first two points. But by then I was no longer homophobic. Having your best friend come out to you really does change your thought process on the subject. Or at least it should. It did for me.

I've only met two trans or nonbinary people that I know of. There are several more on the periphery of my life. Asking the two I know closely enough to feel comfortable asking...I found out both knew their inner world didn't match their outer gender pretty much immediately...well before I knew, for instance, that I was straight. And I knew that in grade one. Alison Edmed was the first girl I kissed. (She was also the first woman not my mother who saw me naked. Have to say I'm pretty impressed in hindsight with the way my mom handled that: Alison came to my door while I was in the bath upstairs, and she then managed to bolt up and open the bathroom door, my mom in tow. I don't remember a scene, so Mom must have defused that awkward situation fairly effortlessly). 

And of course i have met and loved many women in my life, "in so many different ways", as Jesus Christ Superstar has it. I have watched as women close to me are ignored, mistreated, and abused, by man after man after man, and by the world men made. 


I am enough of an odd duck that I rarely, and I do mean RARELY, find people who agree with me on anything I consider important. It's especially disconcerting to think you've found a community of like-minded people only to discover they're actually  fundamentally different from you in some entirely unforeseen way. And that's only a tiny, tiny window into what it's like to never SEE yourself outside of a mirror.

Think about that. Really think about it. Our whiteness is so deeply ingrained it never even comes into conscious notice until confronted with someone who isn't. It seems more than a little silly to think this isn't true for people of other races: that, for instance, someone's blackness can't possibly be just as deeply ingrained. Except that blackness gets called out all over the place: "flesh colour" crayons and bandages which look NOTHING like your flesh; the white people you interact with have no least clue about the life you live or the thoughts in your head. You are Other. No matter what you read, or what movie you see, the hero or heroine doesn't resemble you. The lesson sticks over time: you can't possibly be a hero, you're not white enough. Or male enough. Or straight enough.  Or cis enough.

Jesus Christ, if He actually existed, was not white. Thanks, perhaps ironically, to a transgendered preacher of my acquaintance, the inevitable whiteness of Jesus depictions DOESN'T bother me. That transgendered preacher schooled me on Black Jesus, also Ireland's Ginger Jesus. If there were a race of polka-dotted Christians, Jesus would be knocking on the Polka Dot Door and when you opened it you'd find Polka Dot Jesus. Turns out people feel more comfortable worshipping a God they created in their own image. (Ahem.)

I'm okay with your God matching you. I'm not okay when nobody else does. 

Watch little Black girls seeing Halle Bailey's portrayal of Ariel, The Little Mermaid. Watch the smile as they see something they've never been able to imagine: themselves, on screen. White people can do this without coherent thought: for up to an hour after any decent movie I see, I'm wielding an imaginary camera and thinking about myself playing the lead. Much harder to do that when nobody like you exists in the movie at all. 

Representation matters. It tells people THEY matter. With every person like you on screen, you feel more and more like your story is worth the telling. That's a powerful feeling. Its absence is a powerless feeling I can't help but think eventually grinds you down. If you have a problem with a Black mermaid, may I gently remind you that (a) mermaids don't exist and (b) the original story was written by a gay man to his crush. It's queer self-insertion. And what with all the stuff Mr. Potato Head keeps up his butt, I don't think he's quite the conservative hero you'd make him out to be.

If you think I'm cuckoo -- and you're willing to put some effort in -- I invite you to join forums full of people who are of a different race, gender, or sexuality. DON'T PARTICIPATE in the forums unless you are addressed directly. That's not why you're there: you have a myriad of other places for participation. Instead, simply observe. Watch the interactions and consider the subjects raised, and the points of view on those subjects you've like as not never heard.  Do it for a year and you'll INEVITABLY find yourself less racist, less homophobic, less misogynist, less transphobic. I've recently begun this exercise and it's already opened my eyes several times. 

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION, quite simply, something I struggle with. I think of cultural appropriation as (inevitably distorted, and often very deliberately so) representation of a group of people by a person in a more powerful group. But I confess I have little patience for people who go out of their way to be offended by a natural process.

When people with different points of view come together, there will ALWAYS be some giving and taking. You can use either America's melting pot or Canada's cultural mosaic: either model takes the best of a myriad of cultures. So long as it's done respectfully, I don't see the harm, and I've noticed more than one Black person saying the same. 

An example of 'cultural appropriation' I find flatly ridiculous: enjoying the food of a culture that is not your own. Yes, I have actually heard some people state that this is "fetishization".

Spare me.

If history is written by the winners (no longer a sure bet when anybody can write a history and have it go viral)...cookbooks are usually written by the losers. In North America it's hard to find African cuisine that isn't Ethiopian, for example. This is because the majority of African immigrants to this continent in the 1980s were Ethiopian refugees fleeing famine and war. They brought their food with them, and now anybody can enjoy it. Same thing happened with Vietnamese food, which is overwhelmingly from Saigon, a place many people were uprooted out of. "Indian" food is almost always Punjabi; they are a persecuted minority in India to this day. Life would be a lot less flavourful without these culinary contributions and I'm going to enjoy any of them I choose without shame. Don't @ me or I'll eat you, too. 

Rock music is fundamentally Black music. So is jazz. These are gifts to the wider culture and they should be recognized and cherished as such. Reserve your opprobrium for those who don't treat other people/cultures with respect. It should be easy to spot the difference.

I swear, some people are out to ensure the only character in a story you write must be YOU, otherwise it's invalid and (add some withering, sanctimonious pronouncement of cultural heresy and blasphemy). This is insane. Stephen King's first hero was a heroine: Carrie White. Tabitha King rescued the first draft of Carrie from the wastebasket where her husband had thrown it, promised to help him with a woman's perspective, and launched a career unprecedented in horror and nearly everywhere else besides. I've read a whole lot of reviews of Carrie and not one of them castigates King for writing characters who are women.  Even though some of the women in the novel are downright ugly and evil. There's also a woman named Sue Snell who does something so selfless it made me cry. I, a teenage guy, couldn't possibly relate to Carrie White and her first agonizing period, but I for damn sure could relate to the bullying she faced because of it. Bullying is universal in this society. It's nearly impossible to "be a success", for our cultural values of success, without engaging in it habitually. 

I read a story about women and I learned a lot. I've since read stories with transgendered protagonists, gay protagonists, and heroes and villains from cultures I do not know. Hell, I read speculative fiction, and the best of that invents cultures out of (hopefully not entirely) white cloth. It's important to listen to voices you've spent centuries trying to drown out. Listen...listen...never stop listening...but after you have spent A LONG TIME listening, if you're able to write someone who isn't just like you and do it with respect and compassion...I fail to see the harm. 

I used a word near the top of this blog that is considered problematic: "exotic". Dictionary definition: "Originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country". What part of that is racist, please? The idea that there are, in fact, distant, "foreign" countries? Isn't that a pure-d fact? I've always heard that word as a compliment. But then, complimenting someone of a different race can actually get you called racist nowadays. I begin to sympathize somewhat with the Right's contention that everything is racist, if you can't even compliment someone of another race.

I'd like to get to a world where people concentrate on our shared humanity. I feel like endlessly accentuating everything that separates us, and attacking each other for trying to climb or tunnel under the walls...that can't be the way to get there. 


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