It’s Black History Month in the United States and consequently time for the annual ruckus about relevance, racism, and multiculturalism. These are all matters worthy of debate, but I wonder what people think about another, relatively minor but potentially controversial issue: white folks pretending they are black folks.
This is commonplace in popular culture, from dreadlocked Europeans putting on the Rastafarian to rap artists like Eminem doing what whites have been doing for the best part of a century, nicking black music and tidying it up so that it doesn’t scare the horses. Such cultural appropriation can be good and bad, fostering a sense of community between people of widely differing backgrounds, but at the cost of reducing something distinctive and occasionally sacred to a fashion accessory, yet another homogenized item to be consumed or rejected according to taste.
But what about when the reverse happens?
I’m not talking about the loopier incidences of cultural imperialism that took place in colonial times, but something potentially more insidious. What would you say, for instance, to a middle-class white guy –actually, this middle-class white guy if I’m going to be honest about it– writing about a black African orphan cobbling together an education by reading European and American novels?
One pretext for this, apart from having a story to tell, would be giving a voice to the voiceless, speaking up for those people who are too poor, or too distant, or too alien to be heard amid the general clamor of our more parochial concerns.
But if you’re just slapping an African face onto a privileged European education, surely you are being quite as patronizing as a proselytizing missionary who pats the little dark people on the head and says they are ‘just like children’?
Well, perhaps not quite as patronizing as that, but you get my drift.
No matter how genetically ludicrous racial distinctions are, no matter how far we have come in eradicating the deranged fantasies of racial supremacists, no matter how global the global village becomes, there remains a perception of difference between peoples that demands a certain scrutiny of cultural borrowing and cultural lending.
What started me thinking about this was something entirely tangential, a report on the radio that orphanages in Britain are filling up with babies with dark skins, while would-be adoptive parents with pale skins are being turned away as ‘culturally inappropriate’. I was incandescent at what seemed like a craven acceptance of racism. Sure there will be problems, feelings of alienation, estrangement, but I’ve been dealing with problems of alienation and estrangement all my life. I didn’t need different colored parents to do that. I didn’t even need to be poor and marginalized. I did it all on my own.
And I suspect that, in the end, this is the most potent argument for somebody like me writing about a character with whom I superficially have little in common. Moods, humors, emotions, many ways of seeing and interpreting what is around us, and most of life’s fundamental experiences are universal. We dress them in different clothes according to the company we keep, apprehend them with different degrees of intensity according to circumstances and temperament, but what we are and the things that define us as people are much the same the world over.
That’s good. I feel better for that.
It’s not so much white writing black as bloke writing bloke.
Most gratifying. I’m good, me.
I might not have done much for Black History Month, but I’ve done my bit toward advancing vanity and massaging the collective ego.
Didn’t you know?
It’s also International Boost Self-Esteem Month.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace