I was six when I heard about slaves for the first time. I cannot tell you if my Georgia elementary school was progressive, but my kindergarten teacher told us that once upon a time: Black people were forced to do whatever their masters demanded of them irrespective of their own wishes or integrity. I was never told an alternative narrative but we didn’t fixate on it because there was a matter of the arithmetic, reading, and basic cognitive benchmarks to do.
So as children do, I grew. I was the African “booty-scratcher”. “Do you understand Igbo?”, my aunt asked seven-year-old me in Igbo with a smile. It’s a common joke that African children who grew up in America rarely knew their own tongue.
And I grew. Mom told me that before she had me, she loved watching the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I used to sneak up to her doorway at night with my younger siblings and watch Nigerian films sitting in the dark where she couldn’t see us. Mom broke my brother’s water gun in the church parking lot and angrily told him that someone would think his transparent green water pistol was a real gun. I thought she was being unreasonable.
And I grew even when Dad told me that rap music is sinful. I grew even when Trayvon had to stop growing. I stopped wearing hoodies for a while. I grew even when I realized how chauvinistic culture in my dad’s village can be (relative to my strong feminism ideals that I already had).
I’m still growing and I still don’t feel like I can truly claim one identity or the other. Or rather I’d like to think I’m growing even when I feel myself shrinking back from the news. I can understand why Black people don’t want other people enjoying their culture: we weren’t here for the context from which it was born and we hardly give them all the credit. There were policies literally put in place to limit Black patronage, Black excellence, Black lives. . . but everyone loved Black culture so much that despite all of that: every other White girl wants to wear box braids and not be told they’re racist, every POC wanted to say What up, my n****, and everyone wants to joke about the Kool-aid. I can easily speak on Black culture and African culture because I was always raised to believe they were distinct from one another, because in this strange land (that is supposedly both my home and not) I needed to keep my identity.
I can understand finding solace in Black culture especially when you feel at odds with your own identity. I was never ashamed of being Nigerian so much as I never felt like someone was genuinely interested. Dad was convinced all Black people hated Africans because they blamed us for their misfortunes, that Black people were still holding grudges against every potentially involved party even if there was no guarantee that someone was involved. I can imagine that’s how White people feel. I don’t think that that justifies getting mad at Black people for being frustrated at the things that were allowed to just happen (agreements about Reconstruction, lynchings, police brutality, inconsistent law enforcement). The White people who are mad about that are the ones who refuse to look at the issue at large: they don’t like that someone is mad at anything associated with them (it’s an uncomfortable feeling) but they don’t actually want to address why the person is mad.
This comparison can be extracted from just about any culture. Native Americans, I feel, are even more disadvantaged than Black people; it leaves a bad taste in my mouth to say that outsiders came, took my land, and they define what success is for everyone. It was never a collaborative effort despite promises of co-existence, sweet nothings of peace. American pop culture makes Native Americans out to either be savages or peace-loving tree huggers so during the era of the counter-culture and hippies: it was largely treated as a sub-culture. It seemed like Native Americans protesting were able to contribute to the narrative and they were visible enough. Yet the moccasins, beads, and hair pieces that were suddenly supposed to be a symbol of someone’s understanding of the Native American’s plight was insulting. It always breathed: “I wear their things, I acknowledge their culture in this way. For that reason alone, I am personally an ally (if I’m not bold enough to call myself an honorary member of the community) and have effectively buried the hatchet. “
Never was it: Have the Native Americans benefitted from my wearing these clothes? Am I even wearing this ceremonial piece correctly (did I even know it was a ceremonial piece)? Do I know what this means?
Indians were colonized by the British. The Chinese were discriminated against as well as belittled and humiliated. But we as Americans extended that treatment to all Asians (we couldn’t tell the difference then because just having the same general color of skin makes everyone one people, right?). Aboriginals were railroaded by the British who eventually became the Australians. WHAT decides WHO can control the narrative of their people’s culture as it meets another? Before, I was convinced it was a matter of proximity so that people could effectively adopt another culture as a sub-culture or counter-culture. . . but considering the Hallyu craze and my own weeaboo tendencies (that were conceived because I was introduced to it where it was completely set apart from all the things I disliked about my own culture), I would have to say that it’s just exposure in this digital age.
I confess: even though I never thought to be ashamed of my culture or who I am, I never wanted to be White but I thought I’d like to be Asian. For two reasons: 1) My mother wanted to raise me to be someone’s wife one day and not my own person and it was always at odds with my own desire for academics and 2) Anime always seemed to have strong females so that must surely be a reflection of how Asian culture treats women, it was different from what I knew from the more conservative culture of my specific Nigerian kin. I had the immense fortune of growing up as everyone used YouTube for storytelling. I learned about Yellow Fever and how it’s demeaning. I learned about the fact that Asians also face discrimination. I learned bits and pieces in school, and learned more by the time I got to college. I go to a university with a large Asian population but because of my own awkward juxtaposition of Blackness and African-ness, I somehow found myself among a lot of social stragglers. Not as if I would have it any other way because they accepted that I knew next to nothing common sense-related and didn’t mock me as they taught me. My friend didn’t discourage me from enjoying K-dramas but instead to be careful not to romanticize her culture and acknowledge that media can be dissimilar from reality. I had learned about Nineteen Eighty-four but as a person who is somehow skeptical and gullible, I took anime at face value. I flit from culture to culture and see the hardships that the peoples have had to face (Cowboys: the undeveloped frontier :: Native Americans: capitalism that demonizes their reasonable demands to be treated like humans and not nuisances) and it makes me wonder why we always try to set the culture aside to do business. I can understand trying to achieve a common ground in things that should not have bias, like numbers, but we’ve long established that humans don’t behave rationally hence why economics isn’t definitively conclusive.
Speaking of business, I’d like to pay especially close attention to how sub-culture and counter-culture differ. I was guilty of choosing Asian (that’s broad, isn’t it?) culture as my counter-culture because I chose it purely because it differed from the values of my own environment. The culture already existed without me and I had to learn everything to even get half of the jokes in the dramas and shows I’ve watched. I had no previous connection and I’ve always been especially weary of fandoms. I realized this. I’ve always tried to be careful of understanding the context of a particular gesture or how the context changes a joke. At the end of the day, I had to be vigilant because those were not my norms because their history is different from mine. Their language. Their myths. Their struggles. Their accomplishments.
Emo is a sub-culture. Goth is a sub-culture bordering on counter-culture given its long history and the several different branches that have headed their own sub-cultures (too much to get into). Loli is a sub-culture. Nerd is a sub-culture. They have a basis in a particular culture and then have their own values, not necessarily customs, but the have always been considered phases as people’s ideals change with age. I hardly bristle when someone buys black or neon hair dye, chunky bracelets, and extensions. The purchases serve as an indicators of what set of ideals that someone has. Returning to the point of wearing moccasins and the like, you are not showing that you are worldly by wearing something that is not from your culture. You are not worldly nor well-read when you insist that fashion is an art and that art should sometimes be appreciated for aesthetics’ sake. I feel the only acceptable situation for wearing moccasins or a sari is when there is an event held by Native Americans or Indians who are encouraging you to take part by providing you with clothing.
From me to you, I think you’re great for trying to get out of your comfort zone and explore new things; I don’t mean to discourage you from boldly trying new things but someone’s culture is not meant to be your phase. Going to a foreign country, falling in love with their cuisine, returning home and establishing that restaurant because you’d know it be a hit – (as annoying as that may be) makes you part of the problem (but I have a mentally hard time wrapping my head around this when there’s not an existing community of the people in your environment, I’d think it would raise awareness to an extent). Everyone and their mother has an Italian restaurant or a French restaurant, so why can’t you profit by introducing a different cuisine? You’re being an entrepreneur and providing a solution for a lack of something. Yet because you can’t get the authentic or expensive ingredients, you’ve had to settle for changing the recipe a bit. It doesn’t taste the same and to somehow make up for that, you start getting creative. You only had a chance to try a few dishes and you’re struggling to re-create them so you end up with many dishes that attempt to grasp the flavors. But they’re hits because you’re in the market alone so when has it had to matter? It’s severely limiting and it’s not as if the Somalian family up the street are immediately going to be up for opening a Somalian restaurant just because you want to eat the food. Fair. Cuisine is the hardest to determine in regards to cultural appropriation.
I would say then, that the deciding factor would be whether there already is a X business trying to sell food and run by people from X culture. If you who is from B culture sets up an X restaurant where there is too much overlap with X people and you also have renditions of X cuisine. . . that would be appropriation. It’s not that X people are against your success but your belated entrance comes across money-grubbing versus wanting to share X cuisine with others. In the case that you are the first, I’m just as lost as you about how to proceed. I can’t properly decide without the specific context but it would be hard for anyone to assume that there’s malice (as long as you don’t have your servers wearing “costumes” from that culture or obnoxiously trying to play up the “theme”). Look up why Paula Deen was cancelled. Or even this article that encouraged me to write this article.
Being forgotten is almost as painful as not being acknowledged; more so, when you’re standing in the room. It’s why we have incentives to be outgoing. I don’t know how neurotypical minds work but I know I spend time fixated on part of the conversation from a a minute ago because I’m trying to form my response, which means that I often miss part of the conversation. If neurotypicals think in a similar way, I’d like to point out that it’s a learned skill to listen and that no one faults you for being human. My intent is not to make anyone feel guilty but to encourage people to actually think about this.
I’d be more than happy to field a discourse in the comments section. Things are still not the best but there may be points that I’ve forgotten to address so far and I would really like to start the laymen conversation. I’m not an academic in this field nor am I the final authority but I’d like to think myself pretty insightful.