Exploration of Blackness: Appreciation v. Appropriation

Monday, February 27, 2012

Me appreciating and then appropriating my co-worker Shanell
I had a lot of reservations about contributing to our Exploring Blackness blog series this week. I tried to play it off – oh, I have a full workload, I’m not sure I have time – but the truth is, I was procrastinating because I didn’t feel I should be participating in this conversation. And that’s because I’m not black.
To explore blackness is, in some way, to define what blackness is and what it might encompass. And I’m someone who believes the cardinal rule about race and race-ness is that you don’t get to define it for other people. I have my own projections around this. As a South Asian American woman, my face contorts into horror and disgust every time someone who isn’t South Asian tries to talk about it, about what it includes, how it is portrayed, or how its culture is appropriated (read: yoga, North Indian fashion, Bollywood). “What the hell do you know?” is always at the back of my throat, just waiting to shoot out at the person, regardless of what they might actually know.

Then a thought struck me in those key wee hours of the morning when you’re up against a deadline and you’re about to pull all your hair out. I have my own experience with blackness. Because I was born and raised in the United States, because I have spent my life in Houston and in the Bay Area, because I listen to popular music and watch television and movies, because I am influenced by fashion magazines, and because I pay attention to the news and to politicians, I am impacted by and in a relationship with blackness. Because blackness – however large or narrow it may be defined – is steeped in my every day life. It impacts my own identity, my language, my interests, my clothing and my politics. It pushes up against and sometimes battles with my relationship to whiteness and to South Asian-ness. Because identity is shaped – perhaps unfortunately – not only by those who identify but also everyone else, my conversation about and around blackness is not limited to this blog post. That’s the nature of culture – it enters through our pores, influencing us to the point where we may even feel entitled to participate in it.

Culture is tricky. There's such a fine line between appropriating and appreciating. There’s no litmus test. But there are indicators. Appropriation implies exploiting an experience, culture or people. It suggests accessing a history of violence or hate or inequality or injustice, donning it in that way that only entitlement can offer. The example that comes to mind is the question that for some reason, I still hear all the time: "If I’m not black, can I say the n-word if I’m singing song lyrics?"

"Forget about history", the asker is saying. Forget about all the violence and dehumanization that lives behind this word. Forget about how it emerged, how it was used, how it is STILL USED. "I want to sing the song! I should be allowed to sing the song!" It’s so easy to trade in our compassion for others in exchange for the things that we feel should be ours to have.

If we want to be allies in the proverbial melting pot that is America, we have to ask questions. We have to ask, who am I impacting? What history am I ignoring or not recognizing? What experience am I undermining? Who is benefiting and who isn’t? What do my actions and words say about my privileges in this moment? How might the people around me feel? If we can’t ask those questions, we can’t explore our relationship to blackness and we’ll never learn about ourselves.

Nina Jacinto, ACRJ Staff