Melissa Hillman, who writes Bitter Gertrude, recently asked her friends on Facebook to help define the parameters of inappropriate cultural appropriation. Hillman has (among many others) been an outspoken critic of both the casting of white people in non-white roles (see Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in the new movie version of Peter Pan) and the integration of non-white cultural signifiers and traditions in shows and circumstances that she feels are inappropriate (see The Wooster Group’s Native American-themed Cry, Trojans and Lantern Theater Company’s Japanese (and, a little bit, Chinese)-infused Julius Caesar). If you’ve read Bitter Gertrude, you know Melissa is both extremely articulate and extremely blunt, and in her frustrated posts about these issues, as well as in the reactions of many others across the web to these examples, I have somewhat unexpectedly found myself reacting with a finger upraised and an attitude of, “Whoa whoa whoa.”
I have previously referenced a set of essays by Eula Biss compiled into the amazing collection Notes from No Man’s Land, but I’m now going to do it again, this time a different essay. In it, Biss examines the time before “white” was all whites (if it is today)—in particular, the time when immigrant populations of Italians and Irish were viewed hierarchically as lower than other white folks, and were each treated as a minority. In her essay, Biss explores how those two populations eventually integrated into white society on the backs of African-Americans, but in the process, she also nods toward the appropriation and integration of Irish and Italian traditions, cultural experiences, food, etc, into the overarching culture. With an appropriate asterisk that that particular story relies on the disadvantaging of another group, which I hope need not always be the case, I have found myself continually fascinated by what that particular story of assimilation (as opposed to integration—and here, we should be having a discussion about whether “assimilation” is the pursuit, but let’s table that for a second) says about the necessity of allowing your cultural identity to become, essentially, open source.
Today is St. Patrick’s Day, the celebration of the arrival of Christianity to Ireland, a staunchly Irish holiday. It is, arguably, one of the most beloved holidays in the United States, raucous and butch, and is viewed, even as it is quintessentially Irish, as also quintessentially American. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to wear green, to celebrate. Mardi Gras, a historically French Christian celebration (of which there are a variety of other variants in other cultures) has migrated far from its roots and been embraced as a larger cultural indicator.
The privileged culture that we are all currently so preoccupied with, the one wrapped up in the short phrase “white, rich, educated,” is an amalgam of a vast set of cultures, many of which came to that single signifier of “white” through a long, argumentative, and bigoted set of treatments following immigration. Appropriation (and many, many other factors) led to a broadening of the boundaries of that singular group. Which I find fascinating.
This is not, of course, to say that such is the same (or the goal) for the cultural traditions of folks who currently sit outside of the “white privilege” sphere. And in that statement, I mean to bundle up a whole lot of caveats, and to recognize that this is extraordinarily complex and touchy. But while my initial reaction to the Native American Cry, Trojans and the Asian Julius Caesar was similarly annoyed to Hillman’s and others, I find myself more and more preoccupied with the idea that bluntly stating that one culture’s traditions should not be appropriated by another set of people is a difficult and slippery slope.
When Hillman posted about Tiger Lily (on Facebook, in case you go hunting on her blog), one commenter posited that perhaps there was some sort of logic in the choice—that Wendy, being upper-class British, might naturally gravitate towards, and populate her fantasies with, the type of white women with whom she surely had more engagement. This theory was dismissed, the railing against the Hollywood machine commenced, and the truth is that that nuanced and interesting dissection of cultural appropriation through cultural appropriation is probably not the reason—the reason is likely that Rooney Mara, the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, has a bigger name than someone else who is Native American. Johnny Depp certainly wasn’t cast as Tonto to make any larger or more complex argument about cultural appropriation. And I take all of that—and yet I’d like to leave the gate open just a bit for the moment when someone does want to engage that type of nuance, that there be room for that. That people judge things, at least a bit, after and not before.
To the connected, but different, issue of arts experiences appropriating other cultural traditions utilizing scripts, people, etc of inappropriate cultural backgrounds, I really have to say I’m worried about the lack of nuance with which many in the field are approaching the conversation. Importantly, I am not saying that either Wooster Group or Lantern’s productions were not racially insensitive—I’m saying that the simple sampling of other cultural traditions alone cannot make them so. Paula Vogel has done that. Cirque du Soleil has done that. Lion King did that. Jose Rivera does that. Jay Z does that. Kurosawa did that. Ai Weiwei does that.
In his open letter to the Lantern staff and production team, artist Makoto Hirano lists many issues that he feels devalue the actual Japanese cultural touchstones that the Lantern production appropriated. He calls them out for having a fully non-Japanese cast, and then for having those non-Japanese people perform traditional Japanese things including bowing to each other, traditional kneeling, utilize Japanese instruments, etc. He closes out with an admonition to consult an expert when doing something like this—a very important, and I think correct, admonition, although he says it more in the spirit of “so they can tell you you shouldn’t do it” and less in the spirit of “so they can work with you to do such appropriation with respect.”
He calls them out for having Brutus use a Chinese sword while everyone else has Japanese swords.
He calls them out for having all the white folks attack and kill the “only black person on stage.”
And in those two bullets, when I first read the letter, I paused. Because I sensed, in them, a whole lot of assumptions on Hirano’s part that might or might not be true. Perhaps the directors and designers didn’t understand the significance of giving Brutus a Chinese sword. Perhaps they did—perhaps they were making a statement about his status as the betrayer of Julius Caesar, an uncomfortable man in a play of characters who, by and large, pick an angle and pursue it to its logical conclusion, someone who instead acts differently, doesn’t quite understand all that is going on around him, is a bit of an alien in the landscape. Indeed, if you read Hillman’s post on the Lantern production, she both highlights the artistic leads’ more complex comments on why they chose to do what they did, and dismisses them because they, in her words, “see these cultures as visual art available for their use, not as an inextricable part of the heritage of real, living people”–a statement that I think reads a whole lot of motivation into a few quotes, but again, I haven’t seen the show.
Perhaps the directors weren’t cognizant of the image they would be making on stage, of everyone white ganging up on and murdering the only black man on stage. Given, however, that that black man was the guy playing Julius Caesar and that Philadelphia is an extremely black/white racially charged environment, I would instead guess that that image was meant to be uncomfortable, to make people question, in that moment, the unjustness of murdering a man who you don’t understand, who is different than you. Again, having not seen it, the set up reminds me of nothing so much as Amiri Baraka’s The Dutchman, where that exact discomfort was exactly the point.
I think where I get caught up is in the sort of starting assumption that this type of crafting, unless done one very particular way, is immediately and without exception wrong and racist. Hillman calls out the fact that the use of the signifiers in the Lantern production is “using artifacts of other cultures – both groups currently marginalized in the US – while shutting out the people of those cultures from the artistic process because they believe their artistic vision is MORE IMPORTANT.” And in reading those statements, which I’ve seen a whole lot across the web about these and other issues of appropriation, I feel a frustration in me start to rise.
Appropriation comes with all sorts of hang ups. The sampling of other cultures for the purpose of easy symbolism, exoticism and/or profit (and boy is there a lot of that, and it’s all mortifying) can sit so close to the sampling of other cultures for the purpose of true homage, celebration, and exploration. To put a blanket embargo on such engagement, without nuance, seems to me to be short-sighted and reactionary—particularly, actually, when I hear such judgment from white people.
My daughter went to a Purim party a few days ago. She (not a Jew) dressed, as many of the Jewish girls did, as a princess to celebrate Queen Esther, a woman whose heroism she and I both knew nothing about until a week ago. My host told me the whole tale of Queen Esther and her heroism, of the evil advisor Hamen, of the salvation of the Jews—and then told me that this story was a lot like all of the Jewish stories, starting with the Jews being in peril and ending with them being saved, but that this one, this one was different, was his favorite, because it didn’t involve a miracle. He told me he liked it because it involved no parting of seas, just simply the intelligence of a woman who wished to save her people, and who was able to explain her culture to someone who was not like her at least enough that he didn’t consider them so different as to warrant persecution anymore.
I have watched a Hispanic male soprano sing the female parts of an Italian opera on the platform of a Metro station after work in a full suit and been brought to tears. I have seen white sorority sisters step with pride and without irony, and be applauded. I have watched a black woman perform a sun salutation followed by a set of Tai Chi poses with such exactitude and reverence that there was no doubt in my mind she was celebrating two cultures, not making fun of them. I just heard two white musicians talking about how their music has been revolutionized because of their incorporation of 808-style drums into their music. I have seen reverential appropriation and, of course, I have seen a whole lot of facile, racist crap.
I also understand that assimilation, Borg-like, isn’t perhaps the best way for all of this to go down. But I equally think that fragmentation, the clutching to one’s chest of what is one’s alone, is problematic.
There is a bravery required in giving your culture a bit of a long leash. There is a trust that is often broken, but that sometimes isn’t. There is a constant fear that is occasionally met with generosity. The point, I guess, is that I’ve seen both appreciation and advantage-taking, and so, I would imagine, have you. And that I think the world gets better when we are able to grapple with our understandings and misunderstandings—that we are better when we are afforded opportunities to experience and engage with new things—that we should allow ourselves to at least start from a place of believing in the intelligent grappling with complex ideas rather than that blind, insensitive taking of something sacred. We have so many problems to actually tackle, I just want to make sure that, where we can, we also see the light and celebrate it, even when it is clumsy, even when it is not perfect, rather than simply snuff it out, and turn our faces back into the darkness shouting about how we’re better than that person we’ve not bothered to engage.