The Swinging Door
The swinging door swings both ways, allowing smooth passage out of the kitchen and into the Rotary Club's Mexican-themed fundraising party, and smooth passage back into the dish area, bearing trays of people's soppy-napkin bar dregs.
White people do not tire of ethnically-themed parties, or at least in this Rotary Club, they have not. Plastic sombreros for everyone! And maracas. Let's not forget those.
I realize that I am not per se bothered by cultural appropriation. Actually, I am not even sure how "cultural appropriation" is supposed to be different from culture as a whole. Culture IS appropriation. That's how we wind up with anyone speaking a language in common & also how we make new things. Noticing some traveler coming through town in a cool pair of pants, we borrow that design & execute it in a cloth we'd previously only used for aprons. We cobble together some beautiful new thing out of this-and-that, woven together on the loom of our attention. We're curious. We teach each other stuff. We ditch old, stale ideas in favor of new ones. and we spruce up the old dance with some new components. The door swings both ways: the forms of protest you use to tell me I am an asshole for appropriating your culture may well have originated in my culture - insofar as it makes any sense to say yours or mine at all.
No, I am not per se bothered by cultural appropriation. In fact, I find it is often the heart and thrilling soul of the subversions that most delight me. Lil Kim either has her lovely brown skin painted, or squeezes herself into a Vuitton-logo leather bodysuit (accounts vary), and French matrons suddenly find themselves carrying impossibly expensive handbags that they might actually be a little bit afraid of. Laurie Anderson learns how to produce the white male bureaucracy's Voice of Authority, and suddenly every TSA announcement is hilarious. Divine raids the Revlon aisle, and suddenly makeup becomes an elective performance of extra-sensory enhancement. Cultural appropriation is how we take on existing forms of art, fashion, music, and language, toss them together in an anarchic, greedy trickster salad, and see what happens next. There's nothing to break, and if what comes out sings better, looks badasser, and makes people want to walk around with a little bit more high-stepping glee, all the better.
But the door of cultural appropriation sometimes just swings to the bankruptcy of existing forms so unwilling to open themselves to real change that they will air-quote their way through anything to avoid the real risk involved in bringing forth something new. That's what happened at the Rotary Club party.
Problem: We are bored.
Solution: We shall envision entertaining brown people somewhere else, who are not-bored.
Problem: Why are they not-bored?
Solution: Because they have fancy hats and better music than we do.
At this point, true curiosity could kick in. The members of the Rotary Club could decide to start making fancy hats for themselves. They could decide to have a Best Fucking Hat Ever contest, and see who could staple, glue, fold, sew, cast, or tame the most amazing piece of headgear ever devised by humans. They could challenge themselves to listen voraciously to hours of all kinds of music from "South of the Border," figure out what they liked, and piece together an informed & passionate playlist. They could make their own songs, combining the new rhythms they'd learned with things they liked from their own music. They could mate the Charleston & the foxtrot with the new music, and dance all night in their eye-popping hats.
That whole hat/song/dance scenario is basically people being creative, curious & aware, while giving themselves permission to do the unheard-of and sometimes terribly awkward things their souls are guiding them to do. When Señor Coconut decided to produce merengue covers of Kraftwerk songs, I assume he did not pause to consider the sensibilities of super-sensitive German minimalists, and wonder whether they might be traumatized by the addition of ruffles & bongos to anthems like Autobahn.
When Werewere Liking was grabbing the Odyssey by the short hairs, I don't think she spent a lot of time worrying about whether Western classicists would feel safe in the presence of her hybrid epic. Señor Coconut and Werewere Liking were too busy making things to worry about that bullshit.
Back at the swinging kitchen door, though, we have to admit that the scene unfolding in the ballroom is not one of joyful improvisation and bawdy, risky revelry. Instead, people are snarfing desexed tacos with cheese dip, and slamming back Bud Lights. They are half-assedly giggling at the plastic, made-in-China Party City sombreros perched on one another's unimaginative gringo heads.
Problem: We are still bored.
Problem: We are vaguely aware that this whole Mexican-themed party thing is retarded, but we don't have any idea what to do about it, except to place competitive bids on the mini-meat-smoker, and have more Bud Lights.
It's important to acknowledge a few things here:
The Yale professor who sent the email to her students, saying that she thinks Halloween is actually an appropriate time for subversion and shape-shifting was not encouraging everyone to head for Party City, and stock up on all the geisha and gangster consumes they could find. She was saying, find out what you really want to be, and take the chance on being that. Not because it's what your SAE brothers are doing, and not because it's what you think will get you laid, but because it's the weird form you're inexorably drawn to incarnate for this one night. So you want to be a gangster geisha? That's messed up, but OK. Make it work. Take responsibility for what you are doing, and make it 100% specifically what you are feeling, not some lazy sombrero of a slur. Let the door swing towards something never yet seen in this world, and swing back out to a shape you wear with wonder and delight.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now