JAMIA: The mohawk discourse aligns with the debate about dreadlocks being worn by white people. I view both of those things as cultural appropriation, but I also agree that signifiers shift. I don’t believe it is up to me to police the styles people wear, but I do believe that people should acknowledge their privilege when they wear styles like mohawks and dreads and should attempt to understand the heritage and legacy of what they’re wearing. Both styles represent resistance to limited beauty ideals that uphold white supremacy, and when I see them worn by people of color, for me that has a different meaning than when white people wear them as a fashion statement.
This conversation is really complicated, and I find myself going back and forth depending on a number of factors. I find myself less concerned, though, with individual style choices and much more bothered by corporations and institutions profiting from cultural appropriation and co-opting style for nefarious purposes. (My one exception in re: individual choices is on Halloween, when I see costumes that blatantly lampoon and exoticize other cultures.) I once wore a sari for a friend’s wedding and felt fine about it because she had asked me to wear it to stand with her and her family to celebrate her and her partner’s love. I think it is all about intent, and context. That’s what has been my one real conclusion on the issue.
ANAHEED: I’m a little confused about how intent matters in many or most of these cases, though, because I thought the problem with cultural appropriation was how it made people looking at it FEEL when they see someone white wearing the clothes of their own (the viewer’s) culture. Intent isn’t visible. How can it lessen the pain/offense/whatever caused by seeing the garment or jewel or whatever being worn?
JENNY: For me, when I say intent is important, I’m saying: Do you go through life open to the idea that you have may privilege that you are not aware of? Are you OK with someone pointing out your privilege? I’m not saying, “Burn all of your turbans/bindis/feathered headdresses/face paint/kimonos/etc.!” I’m just saying learn about why, even if you don’t feel like you are oppressing someone, you may be participating in an act that has played an important part in oppressing/silencing/shaming other cultures. I mean, if you feel like you are someone who is open to this discussion, if you feel like you don’t shame people for having real reactions to this stuff, then your “intention” is as good as it can be, you know?
ANAHEED: OK, here is a thought/feeling I have sometimes that I know is unfair, but it’s true, and so let me put myself up here as an example of some bullshit that white people think. I get why it’s lame and dumb and ignorant for someone from an oppressing culture to wear something literally taken from an oppressed one. I understand why that’s offensive. But I do not understand why that’s something to get super angry about. Like, a lot of things anger me. Actual racism is one of those things. But someone’s ignorantly wearing something that is not from their exact culture? That does not seem worthy of rallying the troops and spending your energy fighting against.
And I have to admit that I get annoyed when, no matter what the context—like, it could be a photo album on Tumblr of a racially mixed group of happy 13-year-olds who started a feminist club at their school—if one of them is wearing a feather barrette, or a glitter sticker on her forehead, all of a sudden nothing else matters. People do not consider anything positive; the comments become this kind of “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS” pit of anger and get sucked into a kind of call-out culture that I understand can be cathartic, but which also seems very reductive to me, because it refuses to accept any nuance or any consideration of context.
I know it’s a privilege to be annoyed by this. But my first thought is: “If you are mad about racism, let’s talk about ways to eradicate all of the millions of material ways that racism affects people’s lives. Let’s talk about the roots of racism and attack it there, instead of getting wrapped up in this one superficial effect. Terrible things are happening to people; this girl is not actually damaging you with her face bling.” OK, now tell me why I’m wrong/bad.