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Cultural Appropriation: Calling ‘This American Life’ In to Accountability

AliceAlice H. is a writer, educator, dreamer, and social worker.  She is dedicated to supporting and encouraging the work of interconnection and allyship through anti-oppression work, storytelling, and communion with the natural world.  She works with the emotional healing of the heart, communicating the message to people that they have a right, no matter the circumstance, to be seen and acknowledged.  She believes through the sharing of our stories we traverse the process of healing our hearts, which enables us to be better stewards to ourselves, to each other and to the earth.  She derives great wisdom from her teachers in the animal, plant, and spirit world and seeks to share these learnings through her writings.  She is based out of Denver, Colorado.

Read more of Alice’s writing at her blog, Weaving Webs.

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I was recently listening to a This American Life podcast as I biked to work, and I became quite irritated by the story I heard.  A few days ago, I wrote This American Life an email with my thoughts and response to that specific story.  Below, is the email, which I would like to flesh out into a larger piece regarding the insistence that white folks step back and create/allow/demand space for other communities to share their own stories and to just listen to the stories that are already being told by these communities.

The story that was shared on This American Life was regarding the writing of The Education of Little Treea book that is still taught in high schools today.  I have not read this book myself, and the information that I share regarding it comes from the show.  The “autobiography,” which was written in the mid 1970s (not so long ago) claims to be written by a Cherokee man recounting his childhood growing up with his Cherokee grandparents and learning “the ways.”

The book became a huge success; it was at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, the author was on the Today show, and Oprah put it on her booklist in the 1990s.  While the book was being released, some folks in Alabama recognized the fellow claiming to be Forrest Carter as Asa Carter, a prolific white supremacist writer and Klu Klux Klan leader who wrote many speeches for the anti-civil rights, racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace.

“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” ring a bell?  Yep, that’s him, Asa Carter, who moved to Texas in the late 1960s, grew a mustache, tanned his skin, changed his name to Forrest, and began to claim Cherokee heritage.

And let’s be clear: these hateful words and others created a climate of fear and violence where four young girls were killed in a bombing of a church and where state troopers beat and teargassed civil rights demonstrators.  The information regarding Forrest Carter’s real identity came out right before the book was published, with little response.  Much later, the book was changed from non-fiction to fiction but can still be found in the Native American Section of bookstores today.

To me, this is the outrage and this should have been the focus of the program, or at least more throughly critiqued so as to still fit within the overarching theme of the show. The question that the program posited was whether Asa/Forrest Carter could have done a complete 180 degree turn in his life.

In my opinion this could never have been true regardless of if his views regarding race had changed.  This could not have been true because he was still a White man claiming the story of a Cherokee person, a story which garnered him much acclaim and, I would guess, profit.  The fact that this story is still being taught today in our schools only serves to perpetuate this racist notion that it is okay for White folks to claim others’ stories.

Let me be clear, White folks and other folks with institutionally backed power: THIS IS NOT OKAY.  I know that many have good intent and are unaware of the underlining unjustness of claiming another’s story or sharing someone else’s story through your socially normalized vantage point.  I know that many believe that our society has moved past racism and the need to acknowledge its deep wounds.  As such, we have moved towards a more insidious form of racism which is cultural appropriation under the guise of “honoring” and “sharing culture.”

This is a contemporary form of colonization, i.e. the claiming of something that doesn’t belong to you without any kind of contextual knowledge or true responsibility at the psychic cost of those whose culture is being appropriated.  To understand more about cultural appropriation, read Naomi Archer’s open letter to the British Columbia Witchcamp.

I know that many believe that they are offering homage to a culture that they admire, but this is not being an ally.  Being an ally is working in solidarity, not charity or sympathy.  It is listening to the stories that are being told, and sharing these stories with permission and guidance within your community.  It is examining the ease with which you and the stories of folks like you take up space in our society (your privilege). It is taking a step back. It is being uncomfortable. It is being humbled.

Please read Paul Kivel’s guidelines for being a strong white ally.  To follow is the email that I sent to This American Life with my thoughts on their portrayal of the Forrest/Asa Carter story:

Hello,

I was wanting to share my specific response to the first segment of 180 Degrees regarding Asa/Forrest Carter and The Education of Little Tree. This is no doubt an important story to share, but it frustrated and saddened me that the underlying racism of a White man (historically a White supremacist) claiming a Cherokee story that is still being taught in schools today (with and without acknowledgment) was not more critically examined.

Without this, your program unfortunately becomes a continuation of this type of racism.  It is true that today we (White folks) continue to take/share/co-opt the stories of folks of Color with good and malintent. But intent matters little when the impact causes pain, particularly when the privileges of one group is in direct relationship with the genocide and oppression of another.  This, I wished your story had mentioned, as well as how inappropriate it is for schools to continue teaching this story to our youth with made up words and history.

A story that continues to romanticize the spiritual Native American (which impacts our current justification of the racist trend in fashion and lifestyle) without sharing the story of genocide, of forced relocation, of boarding schools, of the prohibiting of spiritual and cultural practices that manifest today in disease and in pain is simply irresponsible. And of course these communities exist in and create great beauty today as well, we often forget that it all manifests simultaneously. Cherokee folks, Native folks – they exist and are here; they tell and write stories, and it is these we must hear and read in our schools.

It is not our role to tell these stories. It is our role to provide space for these stories to be told and to demand that White folks listen to these communities so that healing can continue. It is through honoring and hearing each others’ stories that we come together as a larger community, that we move forward into a time when we treat one another and the earth with more love.

I believe your program wants this change, and I am grateful for your program; it has touched me, educated me, and humored me for many years. However, at times you miss important points that should be highlighted, and the segment I mention is an example of one such opportunity.

One way you could have addressed this issue or become aware of it yourself is to have asked a contemporary Cherokee activist to share their thoughts on this story.  I do not doubt Alex Blumberg’s good intent in producing this story, but unfortunately he becomes another White man re-telling the story without asking folks from the affected community to share their thoughts.  Simply stating that the introduction to the second pressing of  the book was written by a Cherokee man does not do this.

Those that grow up under a system that normalizes this type of co-opting are of course prone to believe in its legitimacy.  I am also aware that folks within the Cherokee community will have differing views on the appropriateness of Carter’s actions, and this is part of the ambiguous times that we live in.  I would hope for your show, and perhaps you already do this, to hire some folks from the communities whose stories YOU are sharing, editing, crafting from footage YOU research and record to see and hear their thoughts on YOUR portrayal. It is in this way that we as White folks attempt to be accountable.

In conclusion, I want to make clear that I am not writing this email with anger. I am writing with the desire that true dialogue and reflection can take place. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

Best, Alice

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The Top 10 of 2013: Change From Within’s Year in Review

Happy New Year!

2013 was a transformative year for me and my writing.  My business and my blogging have changed and grown a lot in the last 12 months.  In a lot of ways, my writing here at Change From Within has taken a back seat to my writing for larger platforms, namely Everyday Feminism and The Good Men Project, which has been cool to see. As is my yearly tradition, it’s time to reflect on my writing of the past year and highlight those pieces that were most widely-read.

Over at Everyday Feminism, three of my pieces really stood out in terms of reception and hits:

‘That’s Racist Against White People’ A Discussion on Power and Privilege was by far my most popular piece of 2013 at EF with more than 80,000 hits.

Also worthy of mention from my Everyday Feminism writing in 2013 are Intent vs Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter and So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know.

At The Good Men Project, I had a few different pieces go bananas in 2013.

The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21“, a piece I co-wrote with Alyssa Royse, Julie Gillis, and Joanna Schroeder, was by far my most-read contribution of 2013 with more than 1 million hits on numerous platforms.

My Open Letter to the Rapey Frat Brother and the ‘How to Get Laid’ Generation also was widely read, getting picked up by the Huffington Post.

Change From Within’s Top 10 Articles of 2013

Over here at Change From Within, the posts that were most read speak to the changes in my own work.  More and more, I have tried to highlight the writing and perspectives of the amazing people in my community, and that’s reflected in the most-read articles of the year.  4 of the top 10 articles of 2013 were composed by friends and mentors!

Without further ado, here are the top posts from Change From Within in 2013:

10. Shaking Off the “Harlem Shake” Meme – Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation

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After “Racism, Appropriation, and the Harlem Shake” (coming in at #2 below), lots of readers were asking questions like, “So what are we supposed to do?  How do we actually resist cultural appropriation?”  In response, I wrote out a list of simple actions that we can all take to resist cultural appropriation around us.

9.  Standing Up to Racial and Religious Profiling

Kadra Abdi

After being racially and religiously profiled by the TSA in June of 2013, my dear friend Kadra Abdi wrote this powerful call to action with ways that we all can stand up to racial and religious profiling.  Her compelling story challenges us to think critically about our own judgments and how we can be part of the solution to this pressing problem.

8.  Rethinking Lisak & Miller: Checking the Math

After much criticism for my piece entitled “Preventing Sexual Violence – Rethinking Lisak & Miller,” I wrote a piece that tackled some of the math being used in criticizing my reconsideration of the groundbreaking Lisak & Miller research.  My friend Rida helped me run some mathematical scenarios that rethink the “predator theory” for who exactly we should be focusing on in our work to prevent sexual violence.

7.  Coming Out of the Woods: On Hugo Schwyzer and Accountability

In August, Hugo Schwyzer, a man who I have defended in the past, showed everyone who he truly is: a misogynistic, racist fraud.  In turn, I owed a lot of people apologies for my defense of this indefensible man.  Here is the public version of that apology.

6. 33+ Suggestions for Action After the Zimmerman Verdict

Justice for Trayvon MartinFor me, like many people, the “not-guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was devastating.  It wasn’t particularly surprising, but it was devastating emotionally and in its wider implications.  Thus, I was incredibly thankful when my friend and mentor Daniel Escalante emailed me with a list of suggestions for action that he (and others) put together. Now, a few months after the verdict, it is good for me to revisit these suggestions and recommit to action in 2014.  I encourage you to do the same.

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The Harlem Shake as Blackface – Panel Discussion at Hamline University

A few weeks ago, I had the incredible pleasure of participating in a panel discussion on The Harlem Shake and the meme that has since run its course.  I was invited to speak after publishing a piece called “Racism, Appropriation, and the Harlem Shake.”  The panel inspired me to write “Shaking Off the ‘Harlem Shake’ Meme: Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation,” but the most powerful perspectives on that panel were not mine, so I wanted to make sure my readers had a chance to learn from the incredible knowledge dropped at that event.

First up: Dr. Don C. Sawyer III, Professor at Quinnipiac University and The Harlem Son

“It’s just a dance to you because you don’t go into these places where the students are dealing with underserved schools, lack of music in schools, dealing with gun violence, dealing with the NYPD or the NYPD gang if you want to call them that, so you’re not there dealing with all of this, so that’s why this is not just a dance.”

Second: Dr. Daniel White Hodge, Intellectual, Professor, Author, Hip Hop Scholar

“Who gets to tell the story of Hip Hop?”

Third: Mariah Kenya Cannon, Hamline Student Community Organizer and President of the Hip Hop Collective

“When you say it’s just a dance, you’re taking the meaning from Hip Hop.”

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Shaking Off the “Harlem Shake” Meme: Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation

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Last night I had the incredible honor to participate in a panel at Hamline University entitled “The Harlem Shake as Blackface: A Critical Look at Cultural Appropriation.”  Some truly inspiring and powerful voices spoke their truth about the problems with, dangers in, and hurt that stems from cultural appropriation like that of the Harlem Shake meme (shout outs to Dr. Daniel White Hodge, Mia Jackman, DJ Francisco, Chris McQuire, Mariah Kenya Cannon, Dr. Don C. Sawyer III, Ryan Willians-Virden, and Antoine Duke for speaking their powerful testimonies and truths).

Once the video of the event is out, I will make sure I publish it here on the blog.

As others in the panel responded to oft-asked questions like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just dancing!” and “What is this cultural appropriation thing anyway?”, I spoke to a question that I’ve been answering a lot since I published “Racism, Appropriation, and The Harlem Shake: “What am I supposed to do to resist/stop cultural appropriation?”

To be clear, every single time that I’ve been asked this question, it’s come from a White person, and most often it came from a place of defensiveness.  While many folks of Color know exactly what they need to do to hold onto their cultures and preserve them in spite of White appropriation, we as White folks (even the most well-meaning among us) are usually clueless about how we can resist this subtle form of racism.

Because I’ve been getting the question quite often, I figure it would be easier to respond here publicly.  That said, I am by no means an expert, so if you have ideas or suggestions for people to resist racist cultural appropriation, please share them in the comments.

How People of Racial Privilege can Resist Cultural Appropriation

1. Listen to Varied Voices and Perspectives of Color

Cultural appropriation is, at its root, more often a product of ignorance than of malice, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful in its impact.  If people of privilege like myself did a better job of listening to and educating ourselves about the varied perspectives of people of Color, we would be MUCH less likely to act in ways that further appropriate cultural expressions from their roots and locus of control in communities of Color.

HOWEVER, this does not mean we should be going up to people of Color and saying, “Please teach me! I don’t want to be a racist any more!”  Frankly, folks of Color are tired of having to educate us about history, oppression, privilege, and justice.

There are lots of ways for us to listen.  As noted by Mychal Denzel Smith in his brilliant article “White People Need to Give Up Racism,” “White people have to diversify their media consumption.”  We need to read, listen to, watch, and reflect on the voices of a variety of people of Color in our media consumption.  If you want some suggestions of where to start, Smith offers some good ideas in his article.

And when we DO find ourselves in a position to listen to people of Color speak their truths, we need to shut up, listen, and stop thinking of ways that we can simply respond or push back.

In the case of the Harlem Shake meme, if more of the White folks who helped to launch this meme were aware of the life-saving force that hip hop music and dance has been in Harlem and of the history of the dance itself and of the ways that the culture of folks of Color is regularly stolen and repackaged by White folks, I like to think that most of them would have been less likely to participate.

We must remember that listening is the root of justice.

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Racism, Appropriation, and The Harlem Shake

If you aren’t familiar with the Harlem Shake craze that is sweeping the internet, you may have been under a rock for the past week or two.

I’ll let Know Your Meme explain it to you:

Harlem Shake

“Harlem Shake”, not to be confused with the hip hop dance style, is the title of a 2012 heavy bass instrumental track produced by Baauer. In February 2013, the song spawned a series of dance videos that begin with a masked individual dancing alone in a group before suddenly cutting to a wild dance party featuring the entire group.

It all started with this video:

Now there are countless takes on the meme:

The strange thing about this meme is that not a single person in any of the videos seems to actually be doing the Harlem Shake:

And while it all seems like just a bunch of bizarre fun, not everyone feels that way.

The REAL Harlem Shake

Though you wouldn’t know it from the meme, the actual dance known as the Harlem Shake is not where one shakes around as if she or he is having a seizure while humping things and wearing a silly costume.  It is part of the rich tradition of dance and the arts in Harlem.  Dating back to 1981 and drawing upon an Ethiopian dance called the Eskista, the Harlem Shake has long been a staple of hip hop dance in this predominantly African American section of New York.

And some of the folks in Harlem aren’t too happy about the meme:

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