June 7th, 2003


appropriation, language and taboo

This post from the debunkingwhite community has got me thinking about taboos, and how easy it is to abuse context.

Walked past a UW frat the other day with a giant volcano and a garden-hose "waterfall", as they prepped for a "Hawaiian party". The eight white guys on the lawn with no shirts and flip-flops didn't see any irony. Then yesterday I saw the Electrical Engineering department (mostly white, a sizable minority of east-asians, and no visible/out members of other racial groups) having an end-of-quarter party with a Hawaiian theme ("Lei Party", read the sign.)

"Seems a bit culturally-appropriating, to me," I said to the white-punk-male-geek S. I was with. "Suppose it was a 'Country Negro' party? When is it okay to take someone's culture, especially when you're just picking and choosing the little bits you like?" S. laughed, and told me I was going to get busted "just like that guy at Cleveland".

My first reaction to cultural appropriation was sarcasm. Luckily, S. got it. But confronting this sort of thing's tricky, as whats-is-name at Cleveland seems to have uncovered. I appreciate that he was probably trying to speak out against homophobia, which is desperately necessary in Seattle public schools (and private, for that matter). On the other hand, I think using "nigger" in anger, even anger at bigotry, is a poison pill.

I'm curious if any of the folks reading this care to share stories about successes in confronting or overturning cultural appropriation, or dealing with language taboo, or any other analysis here.