People of color have learned to navigate white spaces, and I have decided to expect no effort in return from white people who want to know about and participate in any element of my culture.
By Nami Thompson
As a Punjabi-American woman in Boulder, any question about appropriation can easily be translated to, “I want this. What can I do to make it sound like you have given me permission to take it?” If you’ve been to Boulder, you may know we are 81% white, and we have a non-native-owned store here called Zuni, which sells Native headdresses and other indigenous art, and we also have a trail called Settler’s Park, as in white settlers.
Our biggest industry is “the healing arts,” which are all appropriated. I belong to a parenting group in Boulder, and we had a recent conversation about the use of sage. By the end of it, a white woman left the group — after wishing us peace and love of course — and the women of color who participated in the discussion were exhausted.
The next day, a white person saw me buying frozen Indian meals at Trader Joe’s and asked me which of their dishes I like best. They said, “I always look at these, but I never buy them in case it’s offensive. What do you think?” As we were talking, another white person who was eavesdropping grabbed the meals I suggested. It gave me a good laugh, and I just answered and went on with my life. In theory, this might be exhausting too, but I was okay. That’s when I realized it’s not about what is and is not appropriation but about who does and does not appropriate, so I’m choosing not to answer questions about appropriation anymore.
People who understand where to draw the line in a particular situation often can name their own racial identity and understand the reach of white supremacy. When our parenting group was talking about sage, we were meant to be discussing anti-Indigineity but ended up debating whether appropriation really exists. The white people in the group fell into two categories. The first believe it exists, but they’re unsure of the boundaries. Like all colonizers, they want to draw definitive borders, but territories are porous and change with time and human need. I’m certain any white ally would cross an established boundary if they sufficiently tempted by something shiny enough on the other side.
The second group denies the existence of appropriation, calling it “culture-sharing,” instead. These people are simply in denial about the origins of white racial identity, which was formed as a means for aggregating power and resources across the globe. When white people invoke the concept of culture-sharing as an excuse to overstep cultural boundaries, they mimic colonization. In fact, I contend it’s always appropriation when a person identifies as white — because whiteness is nothing more than the rejection of cultural identity. If white people don’t know where whiteness begins and where it ends, they will never hear me in a conversation about what is culturally mine.
When I was approached at the grocery store, the person talking to me was honoring a boundary. They didn’t think to ask me until they had seen me put the meals in my cart, and they never used the word “authentic,” which would signal a benefit only to them. Truly, it sounded like they cared as much about the harm they and Trader Joe’s might be doing to Indian people as they did about buying a good meal.
“Is this appropriation?” will almost never have a yes or no answer because appropriation is context specific. One can’t understand cultural context unless one is culture-immersed and therefore able to deepen the narrative. Before social media, the individuals who were educating the world about their own culture were the most privileged of their own people. They often had education, access, and money, and they were appealing to white decision-makers. It may have felt to outsiders we were learning a great deal by reading books and going to lectures and cultural events, but we will never find greater teachers than the oppressed. If we want to learn about a society, we must engage with the subaltern.
Sure, as a Punjabi-American I can probably give recommendations for my favorite Indian restaurants, but anybody who is culture-immersed knows asking me about Indian food is really asking me about North Indian food. When it comes to South Indian food, I’m an outsider looking in. The reason Indians themselves sometimes say Indian when we mean North Indian is tied to linguistic hegemony and a colonial past. The reason non-Indian people do it is tied their desire to boil all cultures down to symbols for the taking.
As for lateral appropriation between people of color, I believe the “punching up/punching down” philosophy is applicable here. The Chilean musician Ana Tijoux, for example, is a hip hop artist, and it’s hotly debated as to whether she is guilty of appropriation. What she writes about, however, is oppression and revolution, and she collaborates with international artists who also do the same.
The artist formerly known as “Rich Chigga,” on the other hand, punched down pretty hard. He appropriated and profited from a musical style, causing harm along the way. He learned English by listening to rap, but just as one cannot become Indian just by eating Indian food, Rich Brian, as he is now known, clearly never had an invitation into Black American culture just because he listened to rap music.
So, I’m choosing to personally no longer engage in conversation about appropriation, as these discussions only center the curiosity and desire of the privileged. They are one-dimensional rather than intersectional. To use a tired but useful metaphor, many PoC and other historically marginalized people know we are fish swimming in the waters of the white gaze. We have learned to navigate white spaces, and I have decided to expect no effort in return from white people who want to know about and participate in any element of my culture.
Author Bio: Nami Thompson is a New York born artist, writer, and mother. She has a background in neurobiology and public policy and currently serves on the board of Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence. Nami also runs a group for race-conscious parents in Boulder, CO.