I think we need to have a discussion about racial identity in America. And while we’re at it, let’s discuss cultural appropriation. With the exposure of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman living as a black woman, it seems as though the media and the general public are struggling to make sense of it all. Let’s tackle racial identity first.
Is it racist to advocate for a group of people that you were not born into? Is it racist to adapt elements of a culture from a group of people you were not born into? Does a majority from the culture or group have the right to cast out individuals because they don’t meet the superficial requirements to be part of that group? If you believe the answer to any of these questions is yes, you might believe the Jews were racist for participating in the freedom summer during the Civil Rights Movement, that Asians eating pizza is wrong or that the Nazis had a moral mandate to remove elements from German society deemed as foreign. Obviously, the answers to these questions are more nuanced than presented but a yes for any one of them is a strong rebuke of Rachel Dolezal and how she identifies herself.
I am not a scientist but from the research I have done and from my own anecdotal evidence, I have come to the conclusion that race is a societal construct – essentially, what makes someone white has been decided by people. Someone had to agree what white was. This includes having white skin, where one is from or their ancestral origins, the type of food one eats, and the arts these white people engage with. After it has been decided what makes someone white (or any other race), we as people like to point out differences, who’s better and who’s worse all while taking and borrowing elements of these racial/social constructs as their own. This has become a system that is imposed on individuals from cradle to grave.
As a Socialist, I have a low tolerance for systems of oppression and believe that the societal construct of race has been used to oppress and divide people. Regardless of how you may feel about Rachel Dolezal’s mental health, the choices she has made throughout her life indicate she is true in her cause to advance the rights of black people. Frankly, there are easier ways to advance in the workplace than to self-identify as black. It’s hard for me to come up with a malicious reason for someone who was raised around Black people and their culture to go to Howard University only to become the President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. She sounds like an advocate and comrade to me. Ultimately, does Rachel Dolezal have the right to identify with the culture she feels the most connected to? Does she have the right to find happiness in a culture she was not born into because of the color of her skin? I think she does. I don’t understand the nuances of the term “transracial” but I do understand that once culture is offered up to the world, it has no boundaries and everybody has the right to love and appreciate it as their own. Which leads me to the issue of cultural appropriation.
I would like to frame the issue of cultural appropriation in the context of the music we listen to and the music industry. Music is one of America’s largest cultural exports to the world. All over the globe, you can hear Blues, Jazz, Rock and Hip-Hop in all of their forms. The records from the original American artist can be heard in stores, nightclubs and discotheques. In addition to the original recordings, foreign artists have developed a passion for American music and began creating their own variants of the aforementioned genres. One of these artist is Australian-born Iggy Azalea.
Iggy caught some hell earlier this year from Azealia Banks in reaction to Iggy’s Grammy Nomination. Azealia Banks believed Iggy was exploiting Black music. Here is what she said:
“At the very least y’all owe me the right to my fucking identity and to not exploit that shit,”
Later in the interview she continued on:
“That’s all we’re holding on to with hip-hop and rap … I feel like it’s being snatched away from me or something … The blackness is gone.”
“We [African Americans] are the children of the people who perished in the name of modern capitalism and we deserve a piece of that fucking pie.”
I am just going to come out and say Iggy was a victim of jealousy and this outburst from Banks however incorrect she was represents the anger of some black folks from a history of oppression. Music is one of the most democratic art forms in the sense that at some point everybody borrows from everybody else. Yes, various genres of music can emerge from specific ethnic enclaves, however after the music is created and disseminated, inspiration is colorblind and may change the original source through that process. The problem is capitalism.
From the beginning of the modern music industry, exploitation was and is the name of the game. The abuses of capitalism range from not paying the performers royalties, stealing those royalties, stealing songs, crappy record contracts and while all those issues cause financial problems for the music creators, the record labels still made a shit ton of money. From the outside, the American Music Industry appears to be racist, and it is, because America is racist. That doesn’t change the fact that most business decisions are decided due to leverage – whoever has the most power wins.
Capitalism is exploiting the fissures in American society by making both Iggy Azalea and Rachel Dolezal a thing in the tabloid media. What they are in America are 2 individuals trying to make their way through a society that is divided within itself. Let’s focus on the real cultural appropriators, the Capitalists.