≡ The authentic artificiality of cultural appropriation: it’s no nonsense ≡

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Author Busisiwe Deyi writes about Cultural Appropriation in Africa is a Country, in the context of the SPUR restaurant chain. Although the text is about this specific brand, the arguments go for other situations.

What the fuck is happening in the fashion world these days that everyone wants to be Native American?

Or do they?

Of course they don’t.

Whenever a brand is promoting something what they’re selling is a promise of authenticity and that promise is usually associated with experiences and emotions.

So the question is: what ideas are associated with the notion of a Native American individual?

I’ll suggest a few for starters: genuineness, uniqueness, purity, integrity, simplicity, honour and so on.

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Before properly addressing Deyi’s artcile, I’d like to quote from the master. In Rhetoric of the Image, from 1964, Barthes wrote:

“Linguistics is not alone in doubting the linguistic nature of the image; public opinion as well vaguely regards the image as a site of resistance to meaning, in the name of a certain mythical notion of Life: the image is re-presentation, i.e, ultimately resurrection and we know that the intelligible is reputed antipathetic to the experiential.”

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Back to Deyi’s artcile, she writes:

“The idea being to give you an authentic Native American experience through its menu that consists of spicy beef strips, calamari, nachos Mexicana, cheesy chicken quesadillas. (…) nothing about SPUR is Native North American except for its use of a Native American chief-like figure on its logo and Native American-esque names and themes. In truth, rather than Native American experience or culture, the imagery used by SPUR is that of the frontier US West and Southwest. Spurs are what cowboys wore and it was the conquest of Native American land, the making them subaltern, which is subsumed in the image of the Native American warrior image in the brand (a brand also largely of Hollywood’s making).

(…)

The erasure of black and other minorities through the removal of cultural meaning and rendering of cultural symbols into one dimensional products or dumbification through commercialization is a staple of the corporate world. However, this racist cultural appropriation by corporations in their advertising is something we rarely explore in South Africa. By erasure I don’t mean absence, I mean symbolic annihilation. Symbolic annihilation is the process of erasure under or misrepresentation of some group of people in the media, this is usually based on race, socio-economic status or religion. A particularly egregious form is erasure through the portrayal of harmful stereotypes and/or invisibilisation through the reduction of history and culture into products or commodities that are then used for profit. This form of erasure is astoundingly offensive as it minimises entire histories and cultures rich with meaning and legacy, rendering them one-dimensional caricatures. This is by no means incidental but part of a system which is inherently racist and which maintains inequality through locating and concentrating privilege in whiteness. Wealth enables those at the top of the hierarchy to continue this system of racial inequality by recreating and perpetuating images of minorities that confirm ideas justifying oppression.

This makes sense of course, if an oppressor can maintain the idea that those they oppress are deserving of their oppression then it becomes difficult for the oppressed to mobilise against them. It reallocates the blame onto the oppressed and allows the oppressor to take comfort in the idea that their privilege is deserved. A collorary is that it allows the oppressor to engender a seraphic image of themselves in the imagination of the oppressed. Centring only them as capable of expressing complexity – a central aspect of being human. The act of dehumanization needs a parallel act of humanization in order to root its legitimacy.

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(…)

Racism is disconnected from the body. Complicity then is about the pleasures of consumption, some purported equality in the marketplace. Previously racist-capitalism was focused directly on the black body and mind as the primary sites of violence and/or exploited labour now that that avenue is unavailable it has morphed.  Racist cultural appropriation has slipped into the daily routines of normalcy and sediment into our cultural psych. The normalcy of racist mis/appropriation has made us complicit in our continued oppression. It is important we are constantly critical of the things we consume and patronise in South Africa.

Of course SPUR is not the only one to do this, OUTsurance did it with Ashley Taylor, who can forget “All Zee flavours Mochachos” offers and retailer Woolworths has a TV advert, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, with blacks singing ‘Asimbonanga.’ BTW, I love when black people sing; I have enjoyed church songs even though I am a reluctant atheist but the imagery of black workers singing whilst an appreciative white audience enjoys specticalized blackness makes me very uncomfortable. Within the capitalist-racist context of South Africa these images continue to reinforce the ideas which sustain systematic racial inequality. When you do not reflect alternative narratives of a people you often justify their continued oppression. Anyone who buys from Spur is – even if unwittingly – complicit in this.”

Complete article here

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