Because of capitalism and globalization, cosmopolitanism, imperialism, racism and essentialism, along with colonialisms, some cultures are more dominant than others in the world. Nothing new here, right?
Others are more demonized, others are disproportionately ignored.
And still others are fetishized.
Allow me to rant about the latter, just for a moment:
Imagine that we lived in a world where African-Americans were widely believed to be, and celebrated (or denigrated) as, ebonics-spittin’, welfare check cashin’, government leeches who always made delicious soul food (thank you, food stamps!), and were always eating, always sleeping, always having sex, always playing basketball better than white Americans, and generally dominating any other athletic endeavor to which they had meaningful access. Just imagine if that were the case here in the United States, instead of the happy reality that black Americans are all stereotyped as being exceptional math and science students, and consummate professionals who cherish nuclear, patriarch-headed, Christian families.
(No, seriously, work with me, here. The sarcasm is necessary, I promise.)
Now, whether you are or not, imagine that you are African-American, and that you have a Facebook account, and a white American Facebook “friend” who insists on speaking in African-American Vernacular English–a marginalized and denigrated, yet sacred and culturally unifying and intrinsically legitimate dialect–on Facebook all of the time, who brags–in really hideously unsuccessful attempts to successfully speak Ebonics–that she is going to visit Harlem or Compton or Detroit–and that she’s “finna” kick it like nobody’s business with all of the black natives she finds. “Yup, homie, best beleee dat.”
You would feel incredibly salty, would you not? Not because you don’t believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but because you are conscious of her power and your baseline powerlessness as an African-American because of the stereotypes and assumptions proliferated and perpetuated concerning your very existence, and the additional burdens you bear each day as you attempt to overcome those assumptions and stereotypes. You know that you don’t have the luxury of speaking the way you’d like in every setting, and that breaking linguistic rules could cost you employment and reputation. Meanwhile, because of her privilege, she can butcher a language that you can only speak in the house or among friends-who-understand, and actually gain street credibility–street credibility that you, an aspiring black professional, can only afford to LOSE. Not only that, but she doesn’t even have to consider how you feel about her snatching and grabbing and intruding and perverting, because post-racialism, and colorblindness, and that red herring called reverse racism that she can use against you, and she totally voted for President Obama, see. You will have to seethe privately, as she continues to push back the gate between your lawns, her lawn getting bigger, yours becoming smaller, and her choosing not to notice.
I bring this up because of an experience I have been tolerating on Facebook, and offline, for the last four years or so, with increasingly exhausted patience. I became connected to the cultural arts and African dance (even the term “African dance” is highly, highly problematic, but that’s what its called) community in New York more or less by chance in 2010, after joining a white-shoe law firm forced me to search for convenient hobbies. In the community, African art teachers/producers/reproducers in the community are forced to tolerate fetishization of their cultures by their students/consumers because of supply and demand…because of money. They have to put up with being exoticized and essentialized by students who understand too little and want to access too much, and some will go so far as to encourage you to become more and more interested in peddled art, in the way that Verizon would prefer to you to be on contract rather than risking the loss of your custom as it does if you are a month-to-month client. As one seeks to become better and better at the art form, it becomes difficult to avoid viewing it as sacred, especially when the classes are too expensive and require too much time away from friends and family and other hobbies, and otherwise necessitate some justification. I fell into the trap myself, spending nearly $100 a week on classes, and only hanging out with fellow dancers because no one else would understand. And then it became uncomfortable, and then nauseating, as I realized that while some of the students simply wanted to escape their own life’s realities in a perfectly normal and healthy manner, others were aggressively disrespectful, taking liberties with language, customs, dress, and even religions whose privileges they would co-opt while simultaneously rejecting the accompanying, racialized burdens.
Perhaps I have become increasingly sensitive to these issues because I, too, am assumed, by some to be a fetishizer. Many community women, of all races, sexually fetishize West African men, and will enter into relationships with one or more artists. These relationships often provide the women in them with influence in the community vis-a-vis other women, and so, the relationships become cherished and sought-after. The men, black West African men, become commodified, and if the men happen to need immigration regularization, skin trade becomes tough to resist, and marriage offers imprudent to refuse.
I met my husband, who is not an artist despite hailing from a family of artists, through my connection to that community, and folks make their assumptions. However, because he is not a participant in the community, I had a chance to meet him on different terms–as a human being, with a soul, a brain, and a family–and not as an object, a mystical, exotic body that was required to perform for me when I rented it for 90 minutes at a local dance studio. Life as a member of that family has revealed to me just how damaging it is to have privileged outsiders parachute in and then run off with all of your shit, leaving you not only just as marginalized as your people had been since the Berlin Conference, but also without the right to possess and control your own customs and traditions, and the narratives surrounding them.
So sensitive have I become that I am no longer comfortable engaging in so-called “African dance” so long as it is rooted in inequality and benevolent racism, in commodification of art and history and human flesh, in cultural appropriation, or in crass capitalism. And I no longer feel that I have to tolerate the abuse of my own father’s rich cultural traditions simply because someone else feels, deep down inside, that he or she is doing me a favor by engaging them, and is therefore calling extreme amounts of attention to their cultural appropriation experiment on Facebook.
The island of Jamaica is not a talisman. Jamaicans are not djinn. Jamaicans are human beings, with a variety of lifestyles and interests and appearances and challenges and opportunities. Jamaica is no more “magical” or “mystical” than Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, or Estonia; stop treating Jamaicans like they are all little skinny men wrapped up in swaddling cloth around the loins, in a tropical forest chanting unintelligible chants and passing out magical marijuana that will help you find yourself. Jamaicans are not a monolith. Not all Jamaicans imbibe marijuana, neither do Rastafarians comprise a majority of the Jamaican population.
Don’t visit the island just because you’re horny; that’s racist as hell, and sexual tourism (read: exploitation) contributes to the island’s poverty–a poverty that you find inspiring, and that Jamaicans find miserable. Also, some Jamaicans are middle-class, and others, are rich. There is no need for you to seek out the poorest citizens you can find, in search of authentic patois that you will never speak correctly, patois that Jamaicans are discouraged from speaking at work, or in school, and in some homes–patois I was never taught because my father knew that because of folks who would denigrate or fail to take it seriously, if I spoke it, it would be to my detriment EVEN THOUGH THAT SUCKS AND ISN’T FAIR.
No, I do not want to discuss dancehall music with you, and I will not explain why. Must you have access to everything? You flew to Jamaica for a dancehall concert because you wanted to experience the “nice vibrations” even though you could have turned up on Utica Ave for the cost of a round trip on the 3 train? But you knew that they would have laughed you out of the lounge in Brooklyn, and so you went to Negril (what the hell?! Margaritavile? STOP.) where you knew that you’d be warmly received by desperate rent-a-dreads who will tell you that you’re a good dancer because they need to feed their kids. You are a predator. Go away.
Listen, if you want to romanticize France or England, or scream out “BECAUSE MURICA” on July 4th, go ahead. You can essentialize world powers without them losing their power. But when you decide to start butchering Kreyol or Patois or Papiamento on your Facebook status updates just because you like Bob Marley’s music and have convinced yourself that you have a divine connection to a country whose history you have never actually learned, you become a racist pig who contributes to the systematic global oppression suffered daily by (formerly?) colonized peoples, no matter how anti-racist you feel on the outside, no matter how black or brown or white your skin is, no matter how “culturally rooted” you imagine yourself to be, and no matter the number of people from that culture whose beds you’ve shared (in search of mystical, magical sex) notwithstanding. You are stealing in broad daylight, and it’s disrespectful. Give us back our shit.