This is going to sound strange, perhaps, but I feel bad for white people. Racism, of course, relies on a generic picture of whiteness, which requires privilege, cultural difference and culture itself to be invisibilised. In order to be counted as white, specificity of ethnicity and culture has to undergo depletion or even expulsion. That’s a heavy price and a heavy loss – for a world of benefits, of course. I as a non-white person have my difference and culture and specificity constantly pointed out to me, often in hateful ways. It’s an awful and fear-filled way to live. But it’s also a rich one, a way full of my history, my culture, my past, my family, my people, my connection. This is who I am. It is not an easy life, but it is mine. The idea of losing that, even for privilege that is for me frankly unimaginably substantial, sounds like pure horror. But I guess you wouldn’t experience it that way if it’s just your very privileged way of existence.
And I think that goes a little way to explaining why cultural appropriation happens; I don’t think it’s only a matter of white people thinking they ought to have have ownership over other people’s cultures. I think part of it is a loneliness and a lack they are looking to fill, because they have been told that only the other has culture. That lack, of course, is partly real loss, and partly not recognising that there are lots of cultural traditions among white groups. This is simply because we are all told that whiteness is the default, and it becomes difficult to recognise specificity and difference in there. Appropriation partly happens because there’s not a sense of connection to one’s own self, culture and community, but there is a sense of ownership and power.
While acknowledging this loss, it’s far more vital to acknowledge that white supremacy hasn’t just affected the cultures of non-white people by simply appropriating them. White supremacy has altered and destroyed (elements of) many cultures. Ravaging of cultures is violent, and it’s based in a long history of many kinds of violence. It’s gross, manipulative, and wrong. And this is why it feels strange to talk about the beneficiaries of this devastation as also experiencing loss.
But then, to enact violence – physical, psychic, linguistic… – is to lose yourself. It is to lose goodness, intregrity, and common human feeling. To do violence to other people and other cultures is to do violence to yourself and your own.
We need a way of encouraging white people to understand themselves and their cultures that is not a way of promoting whiteness as somehow superior. We need them to recognise that they are not the default, and that difference isn’t embodied in the other, but in the distance between who everyone is. To recognise cultures and identities means to specify whiteness, and therefore lessen white supremacy. When one is attached to specifics rather than a vision of generically great and default whiteness, one has a clearer sense of history.