I’ve been thinking about issues around race, EDIB (see blog about belonging regarding this term) and critical humanist theory for a while now and I think it’s starting to manifest within people’s consciousness. However, when I see other people talk about this in the same way I do, I react in one of two ways. I can either feel vindicated and pleased that I can make a new ally in this journey to change the world or it can evoke feelings of jealousy or outrage. It’s a strange thing and I’m going to use this space to unpack that a little.
I recently came across an event talking about these matters within my profession and it caused me to once again feel left out, unheard. I perhaps need to think more as to why but I’ve discovered from experience that my initial reaction to these situations requires attention and needs to be examined in order to fully understand the core of it. The last time I ignored my gut feeling was to push away feelings of being ‘othered’ when the Brexit result landed which left me in a state of isolation and resulted in another voice being silenced.
I have a suspicion that my ego plays a part in this reaction. I am trying to position myself as a voice to be heard in this arena and when it is glossed over, my frustration at being ignored flares up. It is a common experience for me however, being a person of colour means that my voice can be easily ignored. In this particular instance though, it holds so much more personal meaning as it drives at the lived experience element of this rhetoric and therefore feels personal. Part of it is that having done so much reading and thinking in this area alongside with experiences just clicking into place, I can find it hard to believe that my white counterparts have done this work too. Mainly because my experiences have been reflected in the texts to such as extent that they physically seem to be clicking into place. I really do know that I’m not the only one thinking in this way and there are white academics who also think this way, but there is then the question that arises about why, if everyone was so aware and has already done this thinking, why are we still in the position where I have little or no representation across my professional and academic life?
My personal need to be involved has something to do with the hit you get from being actively and truly listened to. It’s a rush! Again, this sounds strange to someone who has perhaps had that all of their lives, particularly if you are male and white (sorry, for the generalisation but the facts are facts). But as a female person of colour who did not even know until very recently that her voice was being squashed, to suddenly be heard, viewpoints understood and for those to influence others’ thinking….it’s addictive. All that said, the work still needs to be done and ego aside, this work is long term, hard and generational. I don’t think for a moment that I am going to do this by myself or that I will be an ‘expert’ voice in this field. I would suggest that my white counterparts, no matter their level of education would hold less in the way of claim to being an expert in this field though, no matter how uncomfortable that statement makes them. I would also suggest that I am clearly standing here, waiting for my white counterparts to open the gate so this work can begin and I will continue to shout loudly until action is taken, and beyond.
So, to ‘appropriation’. In this term holds a multitude of meanings and opinions. At the core of the concept is the idea that white colonial systems rape and pillage resources from those with less power for their benefit without recompense. I recently came across a situation where the tendency of a colleague of taking on board ideas and claiming credit was mentioned. This was an ‘accepted’ part of how she functioned and her personality. However, in this instance, the idea was mine and the concept was brought about through my own pain and suffering. It occurred to me that the use of my ideas to further her career or boost her ego was the definition of appropriation; the use of my experience and pain to formulate thoughts and reactions to grow it into policy is where the work is currently at. For her to claim credit would no longer be simply, ‘letting her have what she needs’ or accepting it was ‘part of her nature’ but just allowing a continuation of appropriation. My pain becomes a resource to be sucked dry, keeping the balance of power in the white arena. She is possibly not even aware that this is her modus operandi, but there are times when lines need to be drawn in the sand to further understanding and make those aware who have been acting in this way with no ill intent (benefit of the doubt given here).
This is a small example of appropriation but relevant as it happens subconsciously, unconsciously perhaps. These are the times and moments which place the person of colour firmly in a lesser role, subservient to the power systems created all those years ago to subjugate a people for the benefit of a supremacy. All these small indiscretions build up to a place which we now recognise as being whitewashed. My colleague whose personality requires her to ‘need’ accolade for appropriated ideas will use that kudos to gain her next employment, or a reputation, or some element of recognition from peers leaving behind the experience of the pain and rejection for me to hold. If I at least could benefit from the positives that sharing my experience has brought, it would at least counteract some of this feeling of injustice at being treated as a lesser being in the first place. Appropriation is there to ‘put us in our place’.
Some people have used this term to describe multiculturalism, either to argue that appropriation does or does not exist. Being influenced by another culture gets intertwined with appropriation much to the delight of racist deniers; it allows the waters to be muddied. The ‘appropriation’ of food and the use of traditional recipes in different ways is a good example. Everyone gets very touchy if mama’s favourite recipe gets messed with, no?! There was an article recently in the Guardian and a short rant on Twitter about how people have taken the dish carbonara’ and added tomatoes to it in a New York restaurant (https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/feb/25/stop-this-madness-nyt-angers-italians-with-smoky-tomato-carbonara-recipe). You can see how the parallels are drawn between taking something that has cultural meaning and reinventing it can put people’s backs up. However, the very essence of development, growing, creativity, life is to learn and glean from other humans. To be inspired by experiences is why we travel. To recreate foods we have tasted once and can never forget, grows new dishes and an understanding of different cultural influences. But here we have hysteria over someone being creative over a dish. I will accept that it was perhaps culturally insensitivity or bad marketing but appropriation? There’s a fine line there and without creativity we all perish. Perhaps the restaurant should have stated that it took its inspiration from the carbonara dish and that it was a ‘new twist’, but as far as I can tell, apart from a few bruised egos, there was little in the way of oppression of a people there. Maybe I don’t know the full story and am brushing over it glibly; I’m sure someone on Twitter will tell me.
The point is, the term ‘appropriation’ is a powerful one and brings to mind slavery and the decimation of a people. It isn’t to be used lightly. However, when we play with other culture’s music, food, clothes, ideas and resources and do not offer the credit or acknowledge the benefit we receive as a result, then that becomes dicey territory. Being aware when and how we use a djembe drum may not make us use it less, but will allow the experience of the culture to infiltrate into the room. Being aware of the story of a ‘handmade’ instrument from India, may not make our client lob it across the room less, but at least the pain that is felt from its destruction is one that is deeper than just a monetary loss. Knowing that it is disrespectful to rest feet on a djembe may not seem important to one person, but to the person being affronted by the act, they will have to get over this before being able to engage with the human interaction at play. Did you know that you aren’t supposed to store a djembe drum vertically? Not for any deep cultural reasons, but because the skin will last longer due to less tension in that way of storing it. The things you learn when digging a little deeper…..!
“When you play the djembe, it needs to speak in the music. If it doesn’t speak, it is like you are saying nonsense with your voice. When you learn how to make the drum talk the language of the people who even today play and sing with the djembe, it takes on a life of its own. The djembe can then share in the energy that comes from without and within. And try to leave western accents behind and learn some Sousou, Malinké and Pular words and phrases so you can hear African sounding djembe phrases and djembe tone.” https://www.drumconnection.com/africa-connections/history-of-the-djembe/
Music is a cultural melting pot from which sounds emerge that reflect our changing world as well as our means of expression. I am not saying this is appropriation; in fact, the sharing of music is how we have grown, changed and developed over millennia. Being more aware of the music we use and perhaps understanding the cultural context which we take from however can only improve our ability to think more sensitively about the world around us. Knowing the culture doesn’t absolve us of using it ad hoc however. Using it with respect and appropriately is essential to ensuring our client’s undisclosed experience is met without them having to state their possible discomfort. Understanding that in all facets of our lives we have a responsibility to think when we are using someone else’s pain to profit either financial or in our careers could be termed as appropriation particularly when the person is of colour.