Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Identity Crisis

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I was asked at one point to weigh in on the psuedo-indigenous naturalism evident primarily in the sorts of summer camps children are sent to when they’re to get away from the city (and their parents’ hair) for a while. Such camps tend to tie the concept of anti-civilization with that of an imagined pan-native culture which they bolster with culturally appropriated artifacts from various nations and tribes across this continent.

Being Cherokee, I made the argument that both the correlation and the appropriation were wrong; a stance that was questioned by proponents of a particular camp primarily in what exactly cultural appropriation can be defined as. This got me thinking, as here I am in the one place in the world where cultural diffusion is more or less omnipresent. Everyone starts accreting the sorts of things they’re surrounded by, and indeed I speak Yiddishisms, cook stir-fry, and otherwise play the cipher as I cross miniature borders on a daily basis. Where is the line crossed between cultural diffusion and cultural appropriation?

I know this line implicitly, because I know what offends me and I know what offends others. For instance, I used to go to Cherokee ceremonies down by the Delaware Water Gap. I no longer go because there are very few natives and even fewer Cherokee in these ceremonies. Most of the proceedings are attended (and often administered) by white people looking to bolster their sense of the world with a little superficial “spirituality.”

I used to call such a phenomenon – white hippies seeking “god” – DIY buddhism, as a reference to the fascination middle-class Americans had with eastern religions (buddhism in specific), starting in the ’60s, that bear little resemblance to the actual meanings and use of those religions, wholly divorced as they are to the context. Yoga, a meditative practice, is reduced to an exercise routine, after pilates and before the free-weights. Indeed, the sweat lodge – a practice not common to the Cherokee but now a regular occurrence in the ceremonies I attended – has been used in a similar fashion as an alternative day spa.

The difference is that instead of reveling in the understandings of another’s culture, what the appropriator does is use that culture as a means of differentiating themselves in the dominant culture: It becomes an affectation –  a fashion statement – cherished only in its distinction from the accepted norm rather than its use as a new norm. It is, thus, divorced from meaning and belittles the cultures from whence it came.

I know how that feels to me, because it not only reduces Cherokee culture into a fractured sequence of practices devoid of context but it also conflates Cherokee tradition with that of other nations and peoples, cavalierly flattening entire cultures and the struggles they have had to deal with. I can thus see how that could be turned around to others: Just as I don’t like faith healings and sweat lodges taking over my ceremonies for the benefit of people who aren’t native, so too would I never put my hair into dreadlocks, for I don’t have the same experiences or a direct connection with East African peoples or their diaspora in the Caribbean.

Being a nominally middle-class person with light skin, I could not in good conscious say “my nigga” to a compatriot, for despite having black heritage I have not grown with the same indignities as one who would be compelled to use such a term of endearment and resistance. Indeed, it’s specifically because the word “nigger” used in such a context is one of anger and protest that it’s actually the opposite of cultural appropriation: It’s an oppressed culture taking the terminology of the oppressors as a display of agency and self-determination. To take the term without clearly resembling its implications would then by definition be an act of hostility towards that sentiment.

In essence, that’s where the line is drawn: As a power dynamic. Who becomes as important as what. What’s the difference between white counselors teaching white children the occasional Lakota word at camp, despite not being Lakota, and Mohawk volunteers teaching black children common Lenape words on a field trip, despite not being Lenape? Power. Why does nobody blink when I use Yiddish terms despite having no connection to Eastern European shtetls? Well, the inroads of their diaspora in New York City to the dominant culture: Power. Why are the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans on my block allowed to say “my nigga” despite not having a direct connection to American slavery? A shared sense of underclass under the yoke of racism: In short, power.

It’s a strange calculus to be endlessly aware of power dynamics when it comes to culture, especially considering how little it is directly referenced in public. Much the same as any acknowledgement of differences in socioeconomic status would be decried as “class warfare” by the most privileged, so too do some bristle at the accusation of cultural appropriation, but whether the power dynamic is acknowledged or not, it is still there.

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