Jotted Notes on Appropriation, Privilege, and Potential Allies in Positions of Privilege
Instead of being productive at a meeting, I was jotting down notes, thinking about what appropriation means to me in specific examples. This stems from the situation over Amanda Marcotte’s article on immigration as a feminist issue and the appropriation of women of color’s/people of color’s work. But the situation is bigger than her and this particular situation. The fact is that it happens all the time and this shit needs to stop. I apologize if the notes seem a bit spacey. Please also note that this is coming from my perspective as a Latina living in New York City, so these are very specific and centralized examples (except for the “Latin explosion” one). The list of suggestions at the end are in addition to the notes, and have been reiterated both in the blogosphere and out of it.
On Tuesday, I went into Yellow Rat Bastard, a store located in SoHo catering mostly to youth of the skater, hipster variety with extra cash to spend. A few feet beyond the bag check, as part of the decoration, I see incased cans of Goya and Vitarroz products. What is that to them? What does that mean to them?
Back up about six years to 2002, at a former job, they put on a “Latin/Salsa” theme for their annual fundraiser. Located in an upper-middle class, predominantly white neighborhood, this particular former job’s mission is to create a multi-million dollar public project that primarily benefits their constituency, again upper-middle class white families, who owe, not rent. Those who were opposed to this project included reasons that it would bring “other people” (read: not like them; read: people of color) into their neighborhood. In the fundraiser, Bustelo coffee cans were used as flower vases, which at the time I thought was a clever idea, but now I’m writing down these notes. The Bustelo cans, the Goya cans, only seem relevant in these public spaces, when it became relevant to them. And it is not for the same reasons to who it was/is originally relevant to, us. In their cases, it’s decoration, for us, it’s nutrition and a staple of daily life.
Back up two more years to 2000, the Latin explosion. The “discovery” of Latino celebrities, such as Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Shakira, hits the market, making people see that Latinos are located in other areas besides the service industry [/snark]. Latino culture, beyond Mexican cuisine, becomes a marketing tool, it becomes desirable, it becomes trendy, it becomes relevant, on the basis of exaggerated stereotypes and the never-dying thought of a homogeneous culture setting.
Jump eight years ahead to the present time to my current place of employment, a women of color organization in the broadest terms. Since we are in this particular situation, we do get contacted by mainstream organizations all the time, sometimes for a very specific reason. For this very specific reason, do they call looking for policy recommendations, input, tools or analysis? Do they look for suggestions or critique? No, they call looking for stories from our constituency (again, broadly speaking, women of color) so that they may enhance their own work and programs and for projects that focuses on women of color/communities of color (because they weren’t focusing on them before, per se). Or they are looking for these stories wanting to strengthen their proposal for X foundation with Y examples. For this very specific reason, our very specific role is solely as the storyteller.
Cross the East River to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the era of gentrification. Real estate agents advertise it and other Brooklyn neighborhoods as hip and upcoming neighborhoods, encouraging affluent individuals to “discover” these areas, negating every culture, every generation, every person who has lived in those neighborhoods for many years, decades, their entire lives. The culture, the history is silenced, even erased as businesses and institutes in the neighborhood are shut down. The same ignored, silenced people are monitored by landlords who are waiting for that moment that they fall behind on the rent, for that time that their lease is up in order to refuse renewal or announce that they are moving out due to rising rent and expenses. By cops in attempts to intimidate and pester people who are just minding their own business, however, daring to be in public.
We become irrelevant because, again, it becomes relevant for them to do so. With privilege comes the ability to deem other people’s perspective as relevant when they want it to become relevant or useful to them. We don’t have the ability as of yet to put our perspective in the forefront, unless they want to acknowledge it first, unless it will benefit them.
It is not to say that they are not genuine allies who are in a position of privilege. The critical issue is their ability to “identify” and place importance where ever it is deemed fit to do so, to the point of viewing the issue as their own, when the issue has been occurring in communities of color for a substantial amount of time in the first place.
For potential allies who are in a position of privilege, here are some suggestions that many have pointed to:
1. Listen to those who are/will be primarily affected by the issue;
2. Acknowledge that they are/will be the ones primarily affected by the issue. There is a great difference between discussing the issue and being affected by the issue;
1a & 2a: Do not, I repeat, do not seek out people affected by the issue in order to convert their perspective into a storytelling session!!!
3. Understand and recognize that there are many variables/factors/barriers at work at once; recognize that it stems from privilege;
4. Respect the work that already has been done, do not go into a situation expecting to revamp the mechanisms at work. Do not go into a situation expecting to be the hero or a savior. Suggestions are fine, but do not get offended if they are not incorporated into the process;
5. Realize that you have the option at any time to become involved or become removed from the issue given your position of privilege. Those who do not have it do not have the same luxury;
6. In realizing No. 5, also realize that you’re the one going into their space. You should not anticipate for them to join your space;
7. In realizing 1-6, also realize that they are people who do the complete oppose of 1-6. If you see this behavior occurring, call them out on it;
8. Whatever you set out to do in regards to the issue as an ally, remember the issue is not about you, it is not to benefit you. You may experience erosion in privilege. No, you should experience an erosion of privilege.
9. If you exhibit your privilege and you get called out on it: stop, shut up, back up, listen, watch, admit and correct your error(s). Do not expect others to correct it for you.
For further reading on appropriation and/or privilege (way better than what’s posted above), please visit the following blogs (I will expand this list in the next few days):
Brownfemipower’s Last Post
Aaminah Hernández: I Suck at Breaks, But It’s Gotta Be Said
The SmackDog Chroncles: Brownfemipower, Amanda, and Thieving WoC’s Efforts: Publicity or Plagiarism?
Dear White Feminists
A Book Without A Cover: Response to WAM! Comment