06 Apr Rainbows and Cultural Appropriation – White People Unpack Privilege
By Melissa Sparrow
I am a perpetrator of cultural appropriation. I am guilty. My name is Melissa Sparrow, and I am problematic.
Why do I write this? As a white person who is involved in activist work and believes staunchly in working against white supremacy, I first need to be honest with myself and with my readers. Be assured that I am not here to attack you, because I am also guilty. I am coming from a place of humble pie. As white people, we need to start having a conversation about the things that we do and the things that we see around us that are problematic, and how we can combat them. I know we as white people have ALL been involved in acts which have been harmful to people of colour, whether it be by our direct actions, or by keeping quiet when we should have spoken up. We have also benefitted from a system which values whiteness. We are all in a sense guilty.
Firstly, white dominance did not begin with slavery, because whiteness has not always been defined in the same way. Colonial powers established dominance and defined themselves as greater powers. An example is how the Vikings were seen as savages – forced to assimilate or die. We can also look at how Jewish people were not always considered to be a white race. However, all these groups have now assimilated to whiteness and have eventually been accepted into the “white” flock. So then what is whiteness actually, if not a specific race?
Whiteness is a system that favours certain individuals because they possess specific traits and somehow assimilate to a certain way of living (but they have to look a certain way too). White supremacy is most definitely compounded by capitalism, but we lose so much of the nuances if we only define it in this way. There are plenty of poor white people who have plenty of white privilege. White privilege is not about your finances. White privilege is the small, seemingly insignificant things which make your life easier, such as not being racially profiled as a criminal when you walk down the street, or getting treated with more respect at a restaurant, or getting the benefit of the doubt when you make a mistake. (Perhaps take some time to jot down a few things which you think come as a result of white privilege).
Why has the ‘colour blind’ or ‘wishing we were all one’ narrative become harmful when we look at the above? As a white person, one needs to note that people of colour HAVE experiences that are solely created around their skin colour. And by ignoring this, we forget about our privilege. We forget about unpacking our privilege. We forget about all the things which we as white people have done through the ages. We forget about the system which we are a part of.
South Africa is known as the rainbow nation, filled with people who don’t see colour. The problem with not seeing colour in our context is that we never speak about the storms which led to the necessity of the rainbow to begin with. The storms of colonisation and apartheid – a period of South African history in which white people stole land, lives and futures from South Africans of colour. The problem with the concept of a rainbow nation was that it was to detract from the glaring reality that the problems of colonisation and apartheid had never been resolved. Post-1994 was a brief period in time in which people were complacent. But the time of complacency is over.
Cultural appropriation is not a new concept – previously it was just called by a different name. “Discovery” – it should be a synonym for white people plundering and stealing from others in order to benefit ourselves. Colonisation allowed for white people to explore “new worlds”, and take what we liked for ourselves, including humxn beings. When South Africa was colonised, white people plundered the resources of the land, and apartheid was soon birthed from the ashes. Land was stolen and people were shipped off and quartered off into homelands and Cape Flats and shanty towns. Spatial apartheid is still evident in South Africa today, with the gentrification of poor neighbourhoods being a further reality of capitalism and white privilege.
How do we define cultural appropriation? Perhaps we need to discuss it a little bit to gain some form of understanding. My favourite definition is a US definition, so it needs to be unpacked slightly for a South African context. In the US, people of colour are minorities, whereas in South Africa this is not the case. However, due to colonisation and apartheid, people of colour still suffer the consequences of racial oppression despite being the majority. The definition of cultural appropriation by Susan Scafidi is, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source has been oppressed or exploited or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
Sometimes it is easier to think about this with some basic examples. So some examples can be wearing a Bindi as a white person as a fashion statement, or wearing a Native American headdress. Some other examples are the colour run that blatantly appropriates the Holi festival, or the use of certain symbols that are religious or cultural such as tattoos, t-shirts, or other fashion accessories.
Yet I believe that talking about this as a white person means that I need to share the reality that every single white person identifies with. You see, racism is not something that any single one of us is innocent of. If you are white, you have said or done something racist in your life. This does not mean you were doing it because your intentions were evil. (I know, when an accusation like this is thrown around, hackles rise.) But every SINGLE white person, including me, has done something racist.
So here is the thing about cultural appropriation… it’s the same thing. You have culturally appropriated in your life. For example, I have dressed up as Pocahontas as a 12 year old. I had no idea it was hurtful and harmful, because systems of oppression had been in place that favoured white people. My intent was not to harm. But that does not mean that I did not do harm. You cannot drive drunk and then claim that it was an accident when someone is knocked over. We need to actively take responsibility for our actions, our thoughts and our whiteness, and actively unpack our privilege.
Imagine a South Africa that loved black people as much as it loved black culture. A South Africa that valued black lives, not African necklaces to wear as a trend or fad. Where fighting oppression was as trendy as the tantalised taste buds of white people at the Kruger Park enjoying “Pap and Sheba”.
As white people, we can sometimes allow our white guilt to make us feel stuck in the mud. But this is not the time for being stuck in the mud. This is the time for taking action. This is a call to action for white people to begin unpacking their white privilege, to start listening to people of colour, and start working on how they might give reparations to people of colour. This is a game of tag, and “Tag, you are it!”