Garrett (garote) wrote,

Thinking about this thing called cultural appropriation

(Revised August 26)

I grew up in the 80's and 90's. I loved logic puzzles, pixel art, absurdist humor, chat rooms, techno music, programming, electronics, and swordfights (real and virtual.) The label 'geek' sailed in and planted itself on me somewhere along the way, and I wore it with pride.

Around the year 2000, in my home town of Santa Cruz, it became fashionable among young teenagers to "dress like a geek", deliberately looking shy and awkward, wearing aggressively mismatched clothing, even wearing glasses when their vision was perfectly normal. This phenomenon annoyed me whenever I thought about it, but mostly I didn't think about it, because I was busy being a college student. Looking geeky has since dropped out of the spectrum of things young people think about, which is crowded with other things now.

But it turns out that was a harbinger of something much bigger: Thanks to the internet and now the smartphone revolution, large chunks of the culture I used to consider my own have been taken up by totally unrelated groups, in mind-boggling numbers, all over the planet in the last 20 years. Almost all of the time I consider this to be a kind of victory, a validation of how worthwhile my own interests were, even when they were unpopular. I'm glad for it. But some of these unrelated groups twist geek culture in ways that annoy me, or take it places that I find repulsive.

There's a term that's become popular in communities of socially sensitive people, called "cultural appropriation". When I came across it recently, a couple of interesting questions about geek culture came up in my mind, and I'd like to try and work through them here. The first question was: Have I and my fellow geeks been subject to cultural appropriation?

No, I don't think so, for at least two reasons: One, geeks are not an ethnic group. They do not represent a subset of humanity with a shared origin or appearance - they can come from anywhere, and be any color, shape, or gender. (They are often stereotyped as white people, but that's only a stereotype.) They're not an oppressed group, either. The old "jock bullies versus sensitive nerds" thing was in play in the 80's, but that's about it, and that ain't much.

And two, it is often acknowledged that geek culture itself consists largely of elements appropriated from somewhere else. They say that originality is the art of concealing your source - and geek culture has never been interested in that, and its subsequent radiation all over the world has only made those sources more apparent. Now those original inspirations are finding even more attention, and more genuine attention than when geeks were drawn to them merely for being exotic.

But the pull of the exotic for its own sake will always be with us in popular culture, no matter how much the wiser and more socially sensitive among us may wish to exterminate it.

And that thought led me to the second question, the one that I find more interesting: Is geek culture itself inherently more prone to commit "cultural appropriation"? Is the messy, half-coherent community formed around computers, card games, avatars, anime, science fiction, fantasy, and alternative (anti-organized-religion) spirituality, inherently more likely to co-opt superficial traits and ideas from an actively oppressed people's culture and parody them, cheapening that culture in the eyes of others while also reinforcing it as alien, or pretentious?

Recently I witnessed an online fracas over a phenomenon in Burning Man where white people (the term "white people" is always close at hand in these scandals) are assembling and wearing headdresses made of feathers that often look very much like ceremonial Native American materials, because -- well, some inane reason, I don't know. Then they wear these to a big rave in the desert, on formerly Native American lands. To me, and to plenty of righteous online commentators, that's almost hilariously distasteful, and a pretty clear-cut example of cultural appropriation. (But, I find Burning Man itself distasteful, so perhaps I'm just not the target audience, eh?)

On the other hand, I immediately saw my own behavior reflected in it: Six years ago I took LED strips, lexan, DC converters, and a lithium-iron battery, and strapped it all to my bicycle helmet and created a light-up mohawk for riding at night in San Jose Bike Party. A photograph of me wearing it appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. All the feedback I ever got from it was positive, including multiple requests to build more and sell them. But I have to wonder... Was I being a huge hypocrite? Was that a headdress or wasn't it?

Some people see cultural appropriation as equivalent to racism or sexism. (If you want quotes, google will provide.) But this is even more fractious than those because it has a more subjective, personal angle to it. There are lots of young people at Burning Man who don't think about Native American issues at all -- it never enters their minds. They go on Etsy looking for a costume, pick something that looks cool, and that's it. One could try to make the case that a headdress looks cool because it is loosely associated with (in their minds) an exotic midwest spirituality that they have some vague admiration for, but let's be honest here: A headdress looks cool, in itself, without any story behind it at all. In scientific terms, this is more likely a case of convergent evolution, than some kind of theft. It's also art, and art is not inherently restrained by dignity or respect or even common sense. The fact that you can find headgear made up of steel wire, plastic, chunks of baseball cap, spraypaint, and LEDs on the same search is informative. On the other hand, some of these are proudly labeled by their own creators: "Native American headdress." (Well that's a giveaway, isn't it.)

Adding to the confusion, take an instance of cultural appropriation and stretch it out over a few generations so the source is obscured, and it becomes culture, like the mohawk hairstyle. Are punks wearing it because they appropriated it from the Pawnee, or because they appropriated it from Iron Age Irishmen? Or for their own reasons, independent of those? I confess that I made mine because it looked cool, and because it had an association with subversive punk culture. Was I engaged in second-hand cultural appropriation? As a self-identified sensitive person, exactly how much guilt, if any, should I feel about this? Should I destroy the mohawk helmet? Or continue to wear and enjoy it?

This leads me to an interesting thought: Now that our world is an order of magnitude more interconnected, perhaps it is far easier to see cultural appropriation than it ever was before, because it is far easier to straddle the border between two groups: The group that lays an original claim to something - a mode of dress or a ritual or even a phrase (like "spirit animal") - and values it highly, and includes it in a rich history -- and the group that is using the thing flippantly, without respect or thought, as an accessory or an affect, and may not have any concern for - or awareness of - the first group at all. Now, both groups can see each other. Now, people can go out to some random patch of the internet, and bump into something that looks cool and exotic, and pick it up and mess around with it in their bicycle gang or cocktail party, and post pictures of their exploits back onto the internet. And likewise, people can go online and see something hideous taking place with materials or symbols they revere - without even leaving their house - and get furious about it. And let the flame war begin, and let's all choose a side, and spread the word, et cetera.

So let me apply that thought to the question: Are geeks more likely to be "cultural appropriators"?

Yes and no. I think that when geeks are young, we were/are more likely to build our identity from exotic things, because a common thread in geekdom is a need to feed the imagination by reaching beyond one's stifling environment -- often the stifling environment of middle-class American suburbia. But on the other hand, being sensitive souls in defiance of conformity, we are more likely to take cultural appropriation seriously, and pursuant to that, are more likely to accuse other people, including each other, of cultural appropriation, and demonize the targets of our wrath in a way that shuts down discussion.

Putting it metaphorically, I think geekdom is acting like a dog with fleas chewing on its own leg. I think this is why so many people have become fed up with it and are ditching the label - and the forums, and the scene, and the conventions, and the crusades - because they are left feeling weak from compassion fatigue. And if they are their own worst enemy, liking things that reinforce a sense of the alien in other groups - subtly racist science fiction, free expression that is cultural appropriation in disguise, a spirituality that tries to synthesize the best of established religions and invites abuse from all of them - all in the quest for identity ... why should geeks try to silence those internal and external critics, when they can disengage and walk away? Let them argue and apply nasty labels - the weather outside is peaceful.

Or, perhaps more insidious - why not continue to do it but close the doors to outside (online) observers, effectively rebuilding the walls of separation that existed before - perhaps the same walls that led to the cultural appropriation in the first place?

When I was a geeky kid I was fascinated by all kinds of exotic things, and as I grew up I retained that curiosity. I have taken many of the things that I thought were novel when I was young, and connected with their deeper roots as an adult. That has colored my vision. That has made me aware of the acts of cheapening and appropriation that continue all around me. For me, the lesson is, I need to see these acts through the understanding lens I use for my younger self. I know my own culture was an exercise in hybridization and borrowing, but nevertheless, it felt real and personal to me, and was a basis for my community. If I'd been told, "you don't get this thing; it's mine," I would have resisted, and I would have felt right in resisting. Who is anyone to tell me what I can and cannot like, or think, or wear? I was already in a state of rebellion with my immediate surroundings, in a way that felt important and real. However, if I'd been told, "what you're doing is causing harm to others," and been given an explanation, that would have been different. Best of all would be an invitation to learn more, to get involved, and to make up my own mind.

Knowing this, I instinctively bridle at accusations of cultural appropriation when they sound self-righteous. When we assume that a given people's right to a given mode of expression is self-evident, and that the people who don't respect it, or immediately see it, are only ever acting in bad faith, we give those people a reason to disengage (and keep wearing their headdresses at Burning Man) leaving us to fester in our echo-chamber. We need to take what we know about how geek culture originated in massive appropriation, about how we never identified as "the oppressor" even as we were constructing it, but how we would voluntarily change if given a reason, and pay it forward.

(One interesting way to consider the problem is to compare it to the trouble the United States and China are having reinforcing each others' patents. How do they find compromise? Can they?)

So no, I am not taking an unreservedly sympathetic stance towards those who accuse others of cultural appropriation. Including those who do it by proxy, in order to defend someone else. Cultural appropriation is a battle over modes of expression. It is tangled up in First Amendment concepts of free speech and religion, of integration versus multiculturalism, of intellectual property versus art. I think "why" is an okay question to ask. I also think that a person's culture - even if someone else thinks it was appropriated - can feel very personal and important to them, and that some people who are "cultural appropriators" are deserving of sympathy when they are told that the thing they identify with is not actually theirs. Starting out by calling them assholes is unfair, and probably counterproductive. I believe there is a middle ground that needs to be held, using different words, or the same arguments will repeat, as they are prone to on the internet, and the same walls will stay up, or be constructed anew as we all filter out the side that we can't relate to.

I think that for me, the anonymous online battles are just not worth it. There is not enough dignity, and there is not enough connection with real world activities - in fact it seems like there is a deliberate detachment from it, as if writing an angry rant - or even an essay like this one - was an adequate substitute for action. I have no illusions about how little effect these words have. I know my online journal is not important; I just use it to try to organize my thoughts. But I don't need any witch hunts, or shame campaigns, and I'm all full up on righteous indignation.

Perhaps the real lesson for me here is, discussing anything political on the internet is a fool's errand. Why am I even talking about the soul of geekdom as a collective anyway, when at best it's like a herd of cats? Perhaps it's all a massive illusion. Perhaps I should just stick to making jokes.
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