I came across the term “Cultural Appropriation Brigade” yesterday in a piece of writing that, while erroneously attributing “cultural appropriation” to the manner in which cultures evolve, is nevertheless an important perspective to read, and one with which I ally myself. In fact, what this writer was referring to is called cultural syncretism. While all cultural appropriations are a form of syncretism, not all syncretisms are appropriative. Get it? Good. Now we can move onto why The Brigade is going too far, and what this actually costs people from the cultures it seeks to defend (and why). Spoiler alert: in a not-so-long-distance view, The Brigade is its own undoing, and it takes everyone else down with it.
What is the Cultural Appropriation Brigade?
The Cultural Appropriation Brigade is more or less anyone and everyone who endorses a particularly hyper-vigilant anti-racism meme (though it is predominantly white people), often within white-dominated social justice circles, that amounts to hurling variations of the phrase “That’s cultural appropriation, you racist!” at white people, often for doing anything other than… being as white as fucking possible, I guess. There are times one is justified in calling out cultural appropriation and racism, as in the recent, utterly astronomical surge of appropriations of Navajo culture by all tiers of the North American fashion industry, which flagrantly pumps out Navajo-style prints all over panties and leggings for mass consumption — conveying the fraudulent notion either that the Navajo people themselves don’t exist so their traditional art (see: written language) is some sort of free-for-all, or that they categorically find this acceptable (even though the opposite is more likely closer to the truth) and freely endorse its use (even though the Navajo have initiated lawsuits to express that they don’t, and to seek justice for this egregious violation against them as a whole). Another example is in the recent and steadily sky-rocketing surge of appropriations of Comanche culture, thanks to the Walt Disney film The Lone Racist—whoops! I meant The Lone Ranger. Just a friendly reminder here that the word tonto means stupid.
Then there are times, however, when one is not justified in calling out cultural appropriation and racism, as in a recent local postering campaign where I live, which has sparked a great deal of meaningless debate based almost exclusively on erroneous assumptions about what is featured in the photo on those posters, general wringing of white hands, and misdirected anger from white people that serves no purpose other than to make them feel better for getting angry at a white person (meanwhile, silenced people of colour look on and simply shake their heads, for several reasons that are perfectly clear to me despite the pale complexion of my skin). These are times that provide an important teaching: that our understanding of racism and cultural appropriation can only ever be as deep as our understanding of race/ethnicity and culture. These are times in which white people get a sort of high from getting angry, without understanding the unavoidably complex relationship between their aggression/anger and their racial privilege.
Why Does Native Artwork Count But Dreadlocks Don’t?
The day before yesterday, I had a conversation with a hereditary chief from a neighbouring ancestral territory, and while talking to him, I received an important teaching that is fundamentally critical to any meaningful understanding of what cultural appropriation is and how it is distinguished from cultural syncretism. To sum up that teaching in just a few words, indigenous artwork is written language.
Like all other written languages, it carries the history of its people and their ties to their ancestral territories with it. Indigenous artwork, therefore, is the direct written expression of individual indigenous identities and their relationships to race/ethnicity, culture, history, and place. These relationships between indigenous peoples and their written (and oral) languages on Turtle Island go back approximately 10,000 years ago to the ice age—at the very least (archaeological evidence from these territories places the ancestors here at least 40,000 years ago). These are points of understanding that are critically important and supported by oral histories, written histories, and otherwise established historical fact (see: by modern European standards). When indigenous artwork is appropriated, it is literally a theft of indigenous identity.
Dreadlocks and their association with asceticism within the Rastafari movement (of approximately 80 years’ duration), simply do not compare (not to mention that if any one culture has a claim on dreadlocks, it’s traditional Vaishnavite ascetics of the Hindu faith, for their relationship to them goes back several thousand years; yet this is rarely, if ever, acknowledged). So-called “appropriation” of dreadlocks isn’t even in the same ball park as appropriation of indigenous artwork, and never was to begin with. This is not to suggest that if someone were to, say, wear a “Black Rasta” wig of dreadlocks for a Halloween costume, that this wouldn’t be offensive; rather, it’s more like that it’s not cultural appropriation but it is most assuredly incredibly fucking racist (i.e., it’s equivalent to wearing blackface). When one wears dreadlocks made of one’s own hair, however, there is no reasonable basis for a complaint of either cultural appropriation or racism—especially when the complaint comes from a white person with no connections to, roots in, or identity associated with either the Rastafari movement or the several other cultures of racialized peoples within which the practice of wearing dreadlocks can be found. These complaints are rooted in relatively oversimplified conceptions of racism, which are in turn derived from very superficial understandings of race/ethnicity (see also: ignoring the existence of biracial people unless none of their ancestry is European). That energy is astronomically better expended learning about why appropriations of indigenous cultures are important transgressions of white supremacy, and this is something even Rastas should be informing themselves about (whether they are or not remains to be seen by me personally, but my observation one way or another has no bearing either). Calling everything cultural appropriation dilutes the power of what one is trying to communicate, the effect of which is to directly trivialize that which one rails against.
All that being said about dreadlocks, there is still a lot more going on in relation to indigenous artwork than what can be observed on the surface, or even what stories each shape and texture tell. For instance, it is often said that prior to contact with European colonists, there were no written languages on Turtle Island. I have probably even made this mistake myself in previous entries on this very blog—I know I’ve certainly said this out loud on several occasions until the day before yesterday. There are no formalized alphabets, and this is contrary to the way that written Hebrew was developed in ancient Mesopotamia, the way early Scandinavians developed runes which were later syncretized into several other language groups upon contact with Vikings (and subsequent occupation certainly played a prominent role in this process), the way several nations in what is now South Asia traditionally used Sanskrit, or the way written language has been used by the Chinese for thousands of years—and in fact, most if not all of these languages have a history of relatively similar duration, compared to written languages across Turtle Island, and even in New Zealand, Australia, and the South Pacific. However, a Eurocentric conception of written language is inappropriately narrow, even in relation to European cultures (though this is rarely, if ever, acknowledged). And on Turtle Island, apart from oral histories (the validity of which is needlessly disputed), concrete evidence to support the claim that indigenous artwork is a form of written language literally abounds. These written languages take the form of traditional paintings, carvings, bead work, hand-woven cloth, weaving with local materials, and art and clothing made from mixed media; and has frequently taken the form of tattoos and other forms of body modification as well. If while reading this, you are suddenly reminded of tatau (i.e., Maori tattooing), this is not a coincidence. In fact, tatau is also translated into several different traditional mediums other than tattooing, as are virtually all indigenous written languages throughout the South Pacific (including among Australian aborigines, who paint sand).
What is not often acknowledged is that after contact with European colonists, and subsequent to the formation of the eleven numbered treaties that laid the groundwork to declare Canada an independent nation, several forms of indigenous artwork (i.e., written language) were literally outlawed for several decades through a piece of legislation that had the explicit goal of “kill[ing] the Indian in the Indian” (i.e., the Indian Act). In addition to this, indigenous children were abducted from their family homes and incarcerated in institutions — residential schools — with the explicit goal of “kill[ing] the Indian in the child”, where children were strictly forbidden to speak their natal tongue or engage in any of the practices that were traditional to their ancestors—this persisted across Canada until the last remaining residential school closed its doors in 1996, though the prevailing attitude is that it stopped in the 60s at the latest and somehow fails to legitimate the very serious trans-generational effects that persist to this day while indigenous children are taken away from their natal families by Child Care Services at alarming rates. It is important to note, however, that it is documented fact that incarcerated children in residential schools were used as involuntary experimental subjects, maliciously exposed to life-threatening illness, physically and sexually abused/tortured, left for dead, and/or outright murdered in these schools (or, as was sometimes the case, in the remote wilderness surrounding them). In the territories where I currently live, not only was indigenous artwork outright banned across the board for several consecutive decades until 1951, while indigenous children were systematically displaced and culturally brainwashed by the residential school system, but the traditional ceremony in which communities would gather to share their histories through dance performance, story-telling, and gift-giving (i.e., transmission of those oral histories and written records from the host family to several through potlatch) was also banned. Today, these territories are host to peoples of all indigenous nations, who are (often homeless) refugees from their own homelands in this country referred to as Canada (a nation which collectively turns a blind eye to thousands of disappearing women if they are of indigenous heritage, and to the astronomical escalation of domestic and sexual violence indigenous women face relative to every other demographic in the country).
It is also important to acknowledge that Canada’s racially selective legislation was not written to select for justice on the basis of race/ethnicity, for participating in or observing indigenous dance ceremonies (which were treated like a sideshow exhibit by colonists and several generations of settlers during the bans), but only people of indigenous heritage were ever administered these punishments for breaking the law, even though whites directly self-incriminated by reporting what they had participated in or observed; and traditional indigenous regalia and other artifacts (especially from the territories I live in) became a hot commodity (i.e., literally stolen) to buy and sell to the highest bidder throughout the world, throughout the period of the bans. Much of that stolen regalia remains to be repatriated (i.e., it is in “private collections” or on display in art galleries and museums that objectify the peoples from whom they came, as if they had died out long ago—one such museum in the territories in which I live even claims ownership of the sacred ceremonial artifacts of the very indigenous people they rent the land from, on which the goddamned museum itself is built, and the museum has the gall to give these artifacts “on temporary loan only” to those people). This is yet another, though particularly exceptional, important aspect of the greater conversation around appropriations of indigenous cultures, and what power the concept of cultural appropriation carries with it. It is critically important that all of these facts are an active component of narratives about indigenous artwork as written languages, and acknowledging the written languages of indigenous peoples is a critical key to talking about cultural appropriation in general.
If one cannot accept that a piece of cloth or bead work can be a form of written language, one cannot even begin to claim an understanding of what cultural appropriation even means.
Once More With Feeling on Whiteys & Dreads: A Brigade Too Far
Most often when a white person is criticized for the perceived transgression of wearing dreads, this criticism is offered by another white person who has no actual ties to the cultures they are attempting to defend with the might of a heat-seeking missile (as any charge of cultural appropriation or racism, whether disingenuous or serious, is most assuredly intended to feel). Most often, such a white person is hurling this accusation as though to wear dreads while white is to somehow attempt to co-opt the struggles of Blacks against the state of white supremacy. Well, what’s actually being implied here is that simply by being white (in the literal, concrete sense of the facts of one’s ancestry, such as my own; rather than an abstract “race is a construct” sense), one is unavoidably and permanently complicit with white supremacy. What this means is that there isn’t even a purpose in white people trying to be allies against racism (too little or too much), because by virtue of their very existence, they are continually perpetuating what they struggle against, no matter what else they do. The only logical progression of this line of thought is the elimination of all white people as a means to end white supremacy.
But even before that horrifying progression of thought, not only is the idea that being white causes white supremacy simply the height of ridiculous, but it automatically invalidates every white person who ever has or ever will get mad at other white people for wearing dreads — or for any other transgression, either perceived or actual — since not only is their struggle pointless as long as they continue to exist; but their anger is also therefore immediately unjustifiable, serving no purpose whatsoever other than—frankly—butthurt. Not at all unlike the state of affairs before I invested this much energy and thought into the matter at hand.
What this entire thought process behind hurling accusations of cultural appropriation and racism at white people (for dreads) reveals is a simple substitution process in a sort of knee-jerk reaction to initially recognizing racism for what it is and how it comes to benefit these angry shouting white people. Instead of confining people of colour (i.e., the goal and purpose of white supremacy), white people are targeted for confinement. Instead of working with people of colour to dismantle racism, white people become the targets of it. Instead of recognizing that violence anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, now it’s OK to be violent so long as it’s only ever directed at white people. Instead of recognizing that white supremacy is systemic, the very existence of white bodies is now perceived as a direct transgression of racism, and the very cause of all of it throughout history ever. And instead of accepting that white people have a responsibility to subvert racism, the struggle to bring down white supremacy is once again limited to people of colour. It’s their job, not ours, since we can’t do anything about it.
That is a giant load of horse shit, Cultural Appropriation Brigade. You know who you are. Smarten the fuck up and, while you’re at it, shut the fuck up too until you can speak in ways that convey your understanding of the words that are coming out of your mouths.
White people can and do subvert white supremacy, in word and in deed, but it sure as hell isn’t done by policing other white peoples’ hairstyles.
If as white people and settlers here, we don’t do more (a lot more), or simply refuse to, then I hate to break it to you, but we’re being racist fucks who are doing our part to ensure that racism perpetuates until the end of all white people. Being born white doesn’t cause white supremacy, any more than being born a person of colour inoculates one against reinforcing or participating in it.
Listen to people of colour talk about their experiences—especially elders. Remember that regardless of race/ethnicity, elders are your elders too. That means listening the fuck up and remaining open at all times to learning from them. It also means being aware that they might not teach you in a way you directly understand without the help of another elder (or even several) to translate that language into something meaningful that you can engage with and gain insight from; and if that’s the case, it’s not your place to “correct” said elder (#1) to make teaching you easier for you.
Learn about your own individual relationship to history, land, and language. The fact that you’re white does not mean you don’t have the same kinds of relationships to your own ancestry as indigenous people have to theirs, nor does it mean that you aren’t entitled to take pride in your ancestry. Contrary to the all-too-popular self-hate-makes-racism-go-away trends among white anti-racism allies, everyone living in indigenous territories, regardless of race/ethnicity, has a responsibility to know who they are and a right to be proud of it. All across Turtle Island, traditional protocol is to acknowledge and thank the traditional stewards of the territories and then acknowledge your own ancestry (something that your tattoos, clothing, bead work, and even structures built into your home, would have communicated directly to other people without using spoken words or an alphabet—but another written language instead).
Make up your own mind about what sounds like it’s broadening your world views instead of being intellectually lazy and just assuming that if a speaker is white that they must not know what the fuck they’re talking about when it comes to matters of race/ethnicity, culture, racism, and/or cultural appropriation. I’m several kinds of white, but that has no bearing on my capacity to learn about why I am racially privileged, and the same goes for you too.