On the appropriateness of appropriation


So far we’ve spent our time on this blog talking about three things: Christianity, race, and feminism. Which is kind of funny — and kind of not — because, well, I’m white, male, and agnostic-ish.*

* It’s complicated.

I’m aware that I bring my white guyness to these topics, but I’ve tried not to be white guyish about it. Which is to say: I’m aware there are big gaps in my experience and outlook when I address these topics. Sometimes I even choose to remain silent on them.

But not always, clearly.

I do think my white guyness requires me to approach these issues with a degree of humility, a willingness to drop my defensiveness, and — above all — knowing when it is time to shut up and listen. I am probably not always successful at that. But I still think about these things, and writing in a public forum is one of the ways I do my thinking.

To put it another way: I’m aware these conversations have been going on a long time, that there’s been a tendency among white guys to grab the advantage by diminishing the personhood of non-white guys at the table. That’s wrong. So punch me in the face if you catch me doing that.

All of this might be a prelude to that face-punching. I’ve been troubled by the reception to a piece of art, made by a white woman, depicting Emmett Till in his coffin. Here’s NYMag on the controversy:

At the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, protesters blocked the painting from view, and over two dozen black artists signed an open letter requesting the painting be removed and destroyed because it co-opted black pain with a white gaze.

The artist, Dana Schutz, has pushed back, albeit gently. She said:  “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” She added: “Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection.”

So here’s where I have to tread cautiously.

There’s part of me that’s sympathetic to the protesters. (Not to their demand the painting be destroyed; that’s a quasi-fascist impulse that I’ll object to every time.) Over America’s lifetime, white people have made a practice of taking and breaking black bodies, taking and breaking black dignity, taking and breaking black culture. (We even have a new example this week thanks to Pepsi Cola.)

And yet…

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been reading Michael Eric Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.” It is indeed a sermon, and I fear that it mostly preaches to the converted — those whites who are willing to accept that America’s poisonous racial dynamic is carried out on their behalf, is at least partly their responsibility.

Dyson counsels his readers:

“Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile or two in the boots of blackness. The siege of hate will not end until white folk imagine themselves as black folk—vulnerable despite our virtues. If enough of you, one by one, exercises your civic imagination, and puts yourself in the shoes of your black brothers and sisters, you might develop a democratic impatience for injustice, for the cruel disregard of black life, for the careless indifference to our plight.”

It seems to me that if we white people are to get over ourselves, we have to do a lot of this empathetic shovel-work. For an artist like Schutz, wrestling with the most horrible images of America’s history is the way she does that work.

Is it “appropriating” an experience to engage it and wrestle with it the way Schutz has done? If it is, how is culture — which often thrives on remixing two different things into a brand new thing — supposed to work? Is our responsibility to avoid or engage? And who gets to decide it?

To me, the Pepsi ad looks very different from Schutz’s painting — probably because the Pepsi ad is trying to sell me something, and worse, is trying to sell me something that’s pretty useless. But I think, from what I read, see, and hear, there are some people who see both things as equivalent.

At The Atlantic, Jonathan Blanks offers this advice:

Slavery is America’s Original Sin, and the racism that evolved to perpetuate it is an inextricable part of our social fabric. Whenever any artist tries to confront that, they inherently invite expressions of the often chaotic, almost inarticulable pain that exists as a part of black experience in America. I think the artist must deal with the resulting legitimate criticism and dismiss the illegitimate criticism as they come. The key is knowing enough about your subject in the first place to distinguish between the two.

That … sounds right? It means that people like Schutz and people like me have a lot of work to do — a lot. A lot of shutting up, a lot of listening and reading and listening some more — and then, just when we think we’ve got our shit together, go back and do all of that some more.

We don’t get to casually engage. We don’t get to blithely believe in our own good intentions. We don’t get to not listen. And we really don’t get to take somebody else’s experience and present it as our own. Having done due diligence, having been cautious, there’s still a chance we’ll get it wrong.

My own solution to this? Keep walking — but walk humbly. There will still, inevitably, be stumbles along the way.

What do you think?

— Joel

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