JENNY: I can’t wait to tell you why you are SO WRONG. Just kidding. Caring about racist shit in all of its forms and manifestations does not have to be a zero-sum game. There’s room to care about cultural appropriation AND other manifestations of racism. There’s no need to create a hierarchy. And I think maybe, in some ways, talking about cultural appropriation can almost be like a gateway drug to getting into bigger discussions or trying to enter into any discussion at all about race and ethnicity.
Instead of being annoyed or defensive about cultural appropriation, I would hope that people would at least have some curiosity about it. Just as the person wearing a bindi is probably not like I WOULD LIKE TO WEAR A BINDI TO HURT MANY PEOPLE’S FEELING TODAY AND TO SHOW OFF WHAT AN INSENSITIVE ASSHOLE I AM, the person who is hurt by the person wearing the bindi is probably not like I AM SOMEONE WHO ENJOYS BEING HURT OVER NOTHING AND PROCLAIMING MY HURT AND OFFENSE SO AS TO SUCK ALL HAPPINESS AND JOY AND FUN OUT OF THE WORLD FOR NO GOOD REASON AT ALL!
A personal anecdote that might help illustrate my position: In elementary school, people used to make mocked me mercilessly for not drinking milk, and for drinking the traditional Chinese soy drink. And then suddenly, when I got to college, there were all of these vegetarian/vegan kids drinking what they called “soy milk,” which was also just pulverized soybeans but somehow tasted different, and it was somehow OK and not gross and weird when they did it, and I was annoyed that they called it milk, because I thought that was a way of Americanizing this drink, of making it seem less threatening and exotic because, look—it’s just like milk, but vegan! Anyway, I mentioned this to my college friends, and they were basically like YOU ARE A RIDICULOUS PERSON, just because I was trying to start a conversation. I was 17 years old! Maybe I didn’t have the right vocabulary or the right way to articulate myself. Maybe ranting about soy milk was never going to be the way to get my white, upper-middle-class white friends interested in what it feels like to be a person of color. But what was I going to do? Show up to lunch one day and be like, “HEY GUYS LET’S TALK ABOUT IMPERIALISM, TRUE VIOLENT IMPERALISM AND OPPRESSION”? My feeling is that, instead of telling my 17-year-old-self, “You should have found a better way to engage your friends in a conversation that wasn’t REALLY about soy milk,” maybe my friends who NEVER have to think about the issues that I am constantly thinking about should not get so freaking defensive any time someone calls them out for something, and maybe they should have spent their energy trying to talk to me instead of belittling me and making me feel afraid to even attempt to articulate my burgeoning ideas about race and racism.
ANAHEED: I totally get what you’re saying, and I don’t think it was wrong or weird for you to tell your friends your thoughts about soy milk! I grew up eating “weird” Middle Eastern foods that the kids in my neighborhood made fun of. (I remember once I asked my mom to make me a NORMAL AMERICAN LUNCH of PB&J and when I opened my lunchbox there was a PITA with PB & HONEY wrapped in Saran Wrap. Womp-womp.) But when I got to my liberal hippie college everyone was eating tabouli and hummus (and pronouncing them in this strange American way that I have since adopted)—and I was actually happy about it. I was glad I could eat these foods that I loved so easily and that my new college friends liked them too. So I’m not JUST a privileged asshole; I’m also just a naturally sowhatwhocares kind of person.
JENNY: I get that, Anaheed, re: being excited that people are learning about your world. I am that way about a lot of things too—when dudes are like, “I just learned what sexual harassment is” I’m usually like, GOOD FOR YOU I AM PROUD OF YOU, but in a sincere way, like I am really happy that they are learning about what it feels like to be a woman and to have a body that feels vulnerable and often powerless. But I also know feminists who are like YOU DON’T GET NO COOKIE OR SLOW CLAP FROM ME WHO HAS LIVED MY ENTIRE LIFE KNOWING WHAT SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS! That’s not a perfect parallel, but I guess the point is that I’m OK with both reactions and I don’t want my sowhatwhocares reaction to make someone else feel like they are omgoverreacting.
ANAHEED: I sure don’t think people are overreacting when they get angry about racism! Like, I don’t care about people wearing stuff from any culture in my background, but I get FUCKING FURIOUS about street harassment, which a lot of people can just brush off. And I don’t want anyone telling me to calm the fuck down about street harassment.
JENNY: At the same time, I totally get what you are saying about what happens when you are doing your best to do something positive and then you make one slip-up and everyone is suddenly like “A-HA! I CAUGHT YOU! YOU ARE BAD!” I wrote this thing on my old blog about a Christian Dior campaign that had a bunch of digitally reproduced images of the same Chinese people in really drab clothing set as a backdrop for a really, tall, striking, individualistic white person. I was really angry, so I wrote about how that campaign fed into racist narratives about how Chinese people “all look the same.” The title of the post was “Dear Christian Dior: Your Orientalist Campaign Is Lame” or something like that. It was reposted on Jezebel, and suddenly I had all of these commenters who were like OF COURSE JEZEBEL WOULD POST THIS ABLEIST BULLSHIT. THE AUTHOR IS ABLEIST AND I REFUSE TO READ ANY MORE. At first I felt ashamed, because I had never thought about the word lame and why that might be considered ableist or be harmful, and then indignant because I was like. “What? So my entire 1,500-word essay on Orientalism and how it is perpetuated in our current day is now invalidated?” And then I felt fatigued, because I was like, if you identify as a feminist, if you identify as an activist, then you will have to be held to much stricter expectations than someone who identifies as apathetic.