November 7, 2016

ON MY MIND | Cultural Appropriation, Giraffes and You

Print More

Photo Courtesy of Bryan Boyd Tringali

You already know what this is about. And I get it, Halloween’s over – cultural appropriation isn’t a hot topic anymore. The people have moved on. Wait until next year. Wait for the hashtags to pop up again, wait for the flame wars and public smear campaigns, wait for the liberal think-pieces, wait for the conservative backlash, wait for those little voices of incredulity and derision – the voices of “reason” – to percolate up through your subconscious. Like clockwork. Just wait.

But cultural appropriation doesn’t just raise its head for one week, one day of the year, then go back to sleep. It’s happening all the f*cking time, every-f*cking-where in this country. You want to know why? Because cultural appropriation is bigger than costumes.

Let me try to explain what I mean with a rough analogy:

So let’s say you’re a kid who’s really good at drawing giraffes. You’ve got it all down to pat – the neck, the spots, the tail, the head-nubs, etc. Incredible, lifelike proportions. Only, there’s a slight problem. The school you go to – everyone there draws elephants. Elephants everywhere. On the walls. On other walls. And things. But it’s cool right? You’re a natural giraffe person, you have your own thing. You aren’t a fan of elephants, but you respect them, you guess.

During PE, whenever teams get picked, people always seem to conveniently forget that you’re there. Even the gym teacher, Mr. Jim, ignores you. You have to stand in front of him for a few awkward seconds before he reluctantly puts you on a team. But he gives you the worst equipment. Same for coloring days. When your art teacher, Ms. Titsch, hands out boxes of coloring pencils, you somehow always end up with the one box – the one box! – with the worst pencils. All broken and nubby and ergh. Someone has to get the box, you suppose. But why is it always you?

During art class one day, Ms. Titsch comes up to you as you’re drawing a great giraffe. She grabs your paper, rips it up, and let’s the pieces flutter to the ground in front of you. “This is an elephant school,” she informs you, a stern look on she face. You notice that your whole classroom is staring at you. They start to murmur things like, “What a weirdo. Giraffes? That’s gross.” It makes you feel pretty bad, but here’s the thing: you still love drawing giraffes. And it was only one time, right? So you keep drawing them. Sometimes people catch you, and bad stuff happens. They call you names. One time during recess, someone shoves you hard as you’re about go down the slide. You tumble down, hit the wood chips facefirst, end up with a bruised eye and cut lip. Posters start to go up in the hallways – someone’s made of crude drawing of you drawing giraffes. There’s a giant, red crosshairs painted over your face. You love theater, but you start to notice how all the village idiot-type characters in school plays are usually fans of giraffes. You stop going to school plays. Also, there’s a very vocal group of parents that’s trying to get you expelled. They’re worried that your giraffe drawings are going to pollute their children’s pure, elephant-loving minds. They even form a committee, with a single goal in mind – to get you and your giraffes out of their school. And the thing is, a part of you wants them to succeed.

You become distraught. You start to think: Maybe there’s something wrong with giraffes that I’m not getting. You go to the principal, ask for advice. What do I do? Everyone seems to hate me for drawing giraffes, and I don’t know why. Not glancing up from his computer, he intones dryly, “Have you thought about drawing elephants instead? I’m sure if you drew elephants, people would like you.”

You think about it. You decide you’ll give elephants a try. The next day, during Ms. Titsch’s art class, you take the principal’s advice – you draw an elephant. You miss giraffes, but maybe this is worth it. Plus, you can always draw giraffes at home, when no one’s watching.

Before you know it, class is over. It’s time to turn in your artwork! As you hand in your elephant drawing to Ms. Titsch, you can’t help but feel cautiously optimistic. Ms. Titsch looks at your paper. She frowns. “Oh no,” she mutters, “this is all wrong.” She looks up at you, takes in your tentative smile. “This is all wrong,” she says, more loudly this time. “The trunk – the ears – the feet? Can’t you see? All wrong. Do you even know what an elephant looks like?” She takes out her biggest, ugliest red pen, scrawls an even bigger, uglier red “F” on your paper, then calls out, “Next!”

You’re devastated. You don’t get it. Sure, your elephant wasn’t perfect – the ears were a little wonky. But you’ve never drawn an elephant before! And all your colored pencils were either tiny or broken! Besides, Bobby Moynihan’s elephant was ten times worse than yours. It doesn’t even look like an elephant! It looks like a hairy gray potato! And he got a B-minus!

You realize you’ve been standing there to the side of Ms. Titsch’s desk for a while. You go back to your seat, still fuming. As you pack up your things, you can hear Ms. Titsch exclaim, “Oh Tyler! This is hilarious! A little inappropriate, but oh, how creative! How refreshing!” Out of the corner of your eye, you see Tyler Durden standing with a grin on his face. He’s holding up a piece of paper for everyone to see. The paper has a giraffe on it. A bad, anatomically incorrect giraffe – it has stripes instead of spots – but a giraffe all the same. Next to the abomination, there’s a prim little “A+!!” written in blue ink. You drop your box of crummy colored pencils. They spill out and clatter to the floor. The whole class turns away from Tyler’s drawing to stare at you. Ms. Titsch opens her mouth.

Fast forward a few years. Some things have changed, but lots of them haven’t. People don’t tear up your giraffe drawings anymore – at least, not as much as they used to. Plenty of dirty looks though. And dirty words, when the teacher can’t hear. And you still get the worst pencils, the worst equipment, the worst everything, nine times out of ten. And on certain days, a few kids – elephant drawers, all of them – decide to be a little risqué and go outside the norm. They draw their awful giraffes. Some wear a smirk, some a blasé smile. It’s hard to tell the difference.

Writer’s note: If you want to pick apart this little fable of mine, I know certain parts don’t really hold up. It’s not a perfect allegory for the world we live in, and cultural appropriation isn’t the end-all, be-all of racism/colorism/misogyny/queerphobia/etc. in our country. But we have Facebook now, and everyday, it seems like innocent people get lambasted on social media for appropriating certain foods, outfits and accents. So I believe it’s important to clarify: just because marginalized groups have the means to make noise whenever someone appropriates – exploits, really – their culture and provoke a half-assed apology, doesn’t mean that the scales have suddenly shifted in our favor. Cultural appropriation, or cultural exploitation, is so abhorrent to many of the minorities it targets because it’s an irrefutable, insoluble, indefatigable manifestation of the imbalances that exist in our society. It’s a constant, physical reminder that we still don’t hold any sort of control over how we’re perceived by the rest of society – but you might not see that.

So I want you to think really hard and try to remember all the times you’ve taken out your box of centuries-old stereotypes and tried them on under the same pretenses as you would any garish, ill-fitting, tacky Christmas sweater; all the times you’ve dabbled in attempting to prove your knowledge and mastery of some “exotic” or “ratchet” culture; all the times you’ve dismissed, groaned at, or made a joke out of cultural appropriation as a dumb fad, whether in a public space or in private conversation. Now I want you to ask yourself what those moments meant to you, and what they could mean to someone else.

Think of a giraffe.