something I literally can’t learn

and I speak freely when I write this
if a black emcee examined race there goes half their fan base, white kids
and this is so true. and we didn’t even have to fight the system
we just went and picked up the microphone too
and we got good at it so we should be rapping
but only supporting them is like burning Jimi and buying Clapton
now Clapton’s incredible. but no Jimi no foundation
so here comes history and the cultural appropriation

I reread Born Confused on the regular. That book blew the appropriation debate wide open for me, brought it down to a place I could understand from the ivory towers. The title described me so perfectly, too, in those fighting-fierce jingo-scarred years, 2001-2004.

What was I? White skin, blue eyes, dyed wild hair. Two mother tongues, a third that came too naturally: it wasn’t for the GPA or the college credit but the joy of fluency that I took French my junior year. I didn’t even take the AP exam at the end of the year. Even then I was skeptical of all this testing, I guess.

Lost when I looked around me in WASP America/rejected by it since I was seven. Lost in online social justice circles because I spent my babyhood around people of color and languages not English. The typical social justice warrior argues from a place of indoctrination, white Americans passing down white American attitudes. Mum might have been white but she was German and passing down something well different. I didn’t have relatives here until we uncovered the Petersons when I was ten or eleven so the doses of culture I got were hyphen-American because hyphen-American experiences were what I’d known, and I gravitated toward the familiar. I read everything, not just what was meant for my age and sex. I watched documentaries and BBC/ITV imports, not just sitcoms and seldom Disney (though I must say Nickelodeon was delightfully subversive in my youth).

My English is the bastard child of all the English-speaking places I have ever encountered, cultures and subcultures inclusive, because there is a piece of my brain that was activated when I was a baby and I can’t turn it off. I am the bastard child of everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve done, everyone I’ve loved. God forgive you if you hate me because I have pieces of me that don’t match my appearance.

hip hop is gentrified and where will all the people live

The thing is that I do genuinely love and appreciate what I appropriate. I learn from it because to take the culture without the learning is pointless at best. At best. This song? This is not the only hip-hop I love. I love music that speaks to me and it was speaking to me before Macklemore. But I can’t not examine my place relative to the places I go and the people already in them. I found ways into places I shouldn’t belong; was I only running into those places because I got kicked out of the ones where I was meant to belong? Or did I click on that Bollywood film because I loved Shah Rukh Khan in My Name is Khan and wanted to see another aspect of his work? And would I even have wanted to check him out in a Bollywood film if not for Bend It Like Beckham? What drew me to that film in the first place? Paths winding through doorways we don’t expect.

When I shop at the Indian grocery because nobody else is selling lychee juice, on the one hand I’m supporting a local business; when I shop at the Indian grocery to get my fix of the smells and the sounds, what am I actually doing? Does it matter that my dreams have been filled with international grocery stores most of my life? Does it matter that if I won the lotto tomorrow, I’d invite all the ethnic grocers in Rochester to become partners in an effort to import even more from wherever home happens to be? Walking into a store like that, a Wegmans of the world, would be the literal fulfillment of my dreams. But intent isn’t magic, right?

But I look at my feet, these feet that have walked on the ground of four countries. I think of my mother’s toe and the donkey in Ibiza and my wails of disappointment not riding that donkey back on the trail with everyone else. I think intent at all is better than careless disregard. I think I should have researched Germany instead of Northern Ireland when I was sixteen and seventeen and writing papers for Global Studies. I should have taken my Friedlander and explored Aktion T4. I should have researched how Germans took the rise of Nazism instead of assuming they were all okay with it. I have only ever voted in a sharply divided America, where in 2000 an election came down to a Supreme Court decision, not the will of the people.

Intent. Will. What do we intend when we explore, and if that exploration hurts someone else, what do we do?

I said I’m gonna be me so please be who you are
but we still owe ’em 40 acres now we’ve stolen their 16 bars

No love I bear to any culture erases the hurt my people caused. I can be caught between them, understanding the roles of oppressor and oppressed. So I would have been lucky to survive T4 (and I want a black triangle patch with those letters in white) — that doesn’t make me less a descendant of a people who sought to erase the Jews from the face of the earth. I will never not be sorry about that.

I can resent the shit out of everyone who ever thought eugenics was a brilliant idea. I can stop it happening again. I am a woman bearing the historical burden of genocide. I consider myself obligated to witness and to fight back against such injustices. We’re all people, no matter the words that describe us. We are one. I celebrate the words and love what those words mean while I acknowledge the similarity between us: that we are all people equally deserving of basic human rights, not just to survive but to thrive.

Every time I borrow, I have to learn. I balance the shiny with the gut-punch truth. “Because it’s cool” is not a good enough reason for me. That’s not to say you need more of a reason. It’s just that I do.

And now I’m only rambling; we have trod these paths before, you and you and you and I. Go forth and sing those sixteen bars. Go forth and look for little ways to give back the forty acres. Be willful, if you cannot be right. Don’t just stumble through your lives. Do what you do on purpose.

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