Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Let's talk social science! Part 1: "The body of the colonizer"

This is something of a continuation of my thoughts from the Avril Lavigne "Hello Kitty" discussion.  Possibly NSFW due to some images of underwear models, proceed at your own discretion.

(Love, peace, and inter-cultural chicken grease.)

Before we get started, I'd like us to remember that there have been a number of fantastic posts and perspectives on the topic of Avril Lavigne, cultural appropriation and othering in the past few days, and y'all should take a peek at at least some of them.  I'm trying to curate as many as I can here: we'll see if I can come close to getting them all :P :
I argued in my last installment that while Lavigne's video does engage in a bit of cultural appropriation (coming close to minstrelsy), it needs to be considered with nuance, and considered with Lavigne's background in mind as well before we tar and feather her for acting the weeaboo (a term I find grossly offensive for a number of reasons).

However, even though I defended Lavigne's choices in the "Hello Kitty" video, there is still much to discuss on the topic of cultural appropriation and ignorance (a term which I use in the most literal sense; not pejoratively).  Thus, therefore, hence and suchthings, I'm going to put my professorish hat on and address a few social science topics with a J-pop bent over the next...oh...week or so?  We will see how timely I can be :D

So, we're going to kick off this series (there will be at least one more part, if not two or three) with a somewhat controversial topic.  Why is it controversial, you ask?

Well, if you're reading this, and you're white of European descent, you're about to find out :P  

"The Body of the Colonizer"

(A cuppa for the empire your thoughts?)

When I was in India in 2008, one of the first things my prof told our group was to be conscious of the fact that, as people of European descent traveling where we were, we had "the body of the colonizer," and we needed to be mindful and respectful of that in our interactions with people and places.  This is very useful advice for people like us traveling in South Asia, because much of it (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, to name a few) was under British imperial control for quite a long time, and life was not sunshine and roses for many people native to these regions during this time.

India in particular was under control of the British Raj from 1858-1947, and before that, controlled by the East India Company from 1600 or so on.  In these nearly 400 years that the people in these regions lived under British rule, they lived with many things typical to the phenomenon of colonialism: things including, but not limited to:
  • Religious conversion (and all the threats to one's livelihood, personal autonomy, and spiritual growth that go along with this)
  • Slavery/indentured servitude
  • The imposition of laws which were based on a way of life that was not that of the land
  • The slow, slow degradation of relations between people of different traditions who already lived in the area.
This is an UBER-ULTRA-MEGA SHORT introduction to what colonialism and imperialism are (two subtly different terms), and the effects it has on the people touched by it.  This is also a prompt for you to go out and do some research on it, since I can't give a very extensive world history lesson in just one post :P  And India is far from the only place touched by European colonialism and imperialist ambitions.  Some other regions of interest:
  • South America: Chile and Argentina are the most famous examples by far, but the tiny country of Suriname also has a very entangled history with Dutch colonialism.
  • Australia and the people of Tasmania
  • New Zealand: If you haven't seen "Cloud Atlas" or "The Piano," well, here's your chance to get a quick glimpse into to mid-19th-century anthropology without sentencing yourself to death by academic writing (Trust me, it's fascinating stuff, but incredibly dry and jargony and racist and....yeah).
  • South Africa
  • Kenya: Wanna know how Nairobi became the capital?  Or what the word "nairobi" means? Well, go read about it!
  • Mount Lebanon circa 1839-1860ish: A good area to see not only what European colonialism's goals were, but Ottoman imperialism as well, which was at least as influential as the Europeans, but most Westerners aren't well-acquainted with that unless they've read a metric buttload of orientalists.
  • Israel/Palestine: See how I deftly avoided a massive Godwin here? (Wait, did I just jinx it?)
  • North Fucking Muricuh: Yeah, bitches, I went there.
  • South Korea: particularly how Christianity took so quickly after the Korean War in the 1950s.
  • And, of course, Japan.  Though this is much more a discussion on imperialism than colonialism.
The hardest thing for many people of European descent to consciously acknowledge when traveling abroad is not the fact that icky things happened between people who look like us and people who look like them; but rather that these things are still ingrained in the collective memories of other cultures; and that sometimes, trying to do as the Romans (or Delhites, or Johannesburgers, or Singaporeans, or Tokyoites) do just may not be enough to erase all prejudice.

Or annoyance.

Or fear.

To have the body of the colonizer means that one looks like part of a group of people who exert/had exerted undue power or dominance or lots and lots of influence over another.

As a person of European descent, I look like British women who employed Indian maids in their wealthy households.  I look like Dutch women who hired African people to work her (husband's) land for little to no pay.  I look like the the people who owned the sugar cane fields in Hawaii in the early 20th century.  I look like the disrespectful, ignorant American women who saw photos of geisha after the war, thought their outfits were lovely and exotic, and put on "kimono," etc., for costume parties or for fun or to make themselves look worldly and well-traveled.

And so does Avril Lavigne.

And so, quite likely, do you.

(What's pink, black, white, and obnoxious all over?)

Here we see the interaction (read: T-boning...) of two cultures who have a tense shared history.  

"...But wait...Avril's Canadian, not American!" you might say.  

Well, at first glance (our *first impulse;* that evil, seductive little trickster to whom no sentient being is immune), that doesn't matter.  On a philosophical level, it might, but immediately, it just doesn't.  That argument simply has no place here.  Why? (And here's where, for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to get super pretentious...) Because she is phenotypically similar to a people with a history of conflict with Japan.  

We're going to get super cuddly with this fun little technical word because, well, it's a lot more concise than "she looks different" or "she's not part of their race ethnicity," or worse "she's white."

Avril's phenotype matches that of Americans, and is also somewhat similar to the Portuguese researchers/missionaries/traders who started nosing around in feudal Japan in 1543.  (Note: this is a group of people whose appearance is VERY well-documented by Japanese writers of the time.) 

Let's go back to our other buzzword: cultural appropriation.  The reason that using/being outwardly fond of images that don't match one's phenotypically-assumed culture (yes, that's really all I think it boils down to), especially if *your phenotype has had a tense history with *their phenotype (PHENOTYPES ERRWHER, YOU GUYS), is problematic (holy shit, this sentence is already 4 lines long...) is because of how the colonizers tended to regard and use the cultures they encountered.

A very simplistic definition of cultural appropriation is "is the seizing of another culture without their consent. " (source, and great article, though the author uses the term "Orientalist" somewhat incorrectly. #foreshadowing) The word "seizing" is a bit absolutist and lacking nuance, but in some cases it is absolutely true.

And in some cases, a definition that sounds startlingly close to a definition of rape is exactly the kind of wake-up call our culture needs. 

(No means no.)

The ignorant use of cultural iconography reflects a time when that kind of laissez-faire attitude toward the exotic other was the norm in Western cultures, and while these attitudes are changing; while other cultures are no longer widely regarded as "aww look at the cute widdle primitive people," cultural appropriation is still a problem that needs to be addresssed because we are taking that for granted.

For a very long time, Western colonialists had a nasty habit of talking about the cultures they encountered politely as being "quaint," "exotic," or "unchanging;" and not-so-politely as "backward," "barbaric," or "simple."  Many writings by early European explorers, imperial ambassadors, anthropologists, tradesmen, travel writers, and even novelists will speak of South and East Asian cultures as though the people are children or highly intelligent animals, and that attitude has not completely disappeared in some circles.

The reality of the world we live in is that if you are of European descent, you have an especial responsibility to be aware of that fact; to be aware that we have the body of the colonizer.  (This is not to say that this is right or good or beneficial to the progress of humanity, per se.  It just *is.*)  And this, right here, is why we find ourselves so concerned with Lavigne's video.  And whether or not our criticisms on that matter are entirely founded, we should be concerned about it anyway.  We need to be critical about these things.  


(Kaylee the cat seems to think there is!)

There really is a happy part for us young Euro-type folks when it comes to fucking up the cultural appropriation *thing.*  


**I went to a conference on activism as an undergrad way back in 2009, and one of the workshops I went to was about diversity.  Even in Wyoming, only half-ish of the people who went were Euro-types.  But we had a blast.  We did exercises in pairs to demonstrate a metaphor about white privilege, and we talked about it without judgment.  But after talking about history and civil rights and everything in between, I became very, very conscious of the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes.

And it hurt.  A lot.

I went into the bathroom and cried for a while (yeah, I'm a bit of a touchy-feely super-sensitive type like that), and when I was certain I didn't look all puffy and shamey anymore, I walked out...just as one of the workshop leaders walked in.  She was Native American and worked for the counseling department, and was just an overall awesome person.  And when I saw her, the waterworks started all over again.  Yeah, it was kinda gross :P

She asked me what was wrong, and I just told her that I felt horrid about...well, what I was, basically.  I told her I hated the history of people who looked like me, who lived like me, who had access to the kind of lives that I might have.  And all she did was put her arms around me and say:

"That is a history.  That is not your history."**

Stay tuned for part 2: "Orientalism"  :D  LATERZ!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post!
Thank you for summing up a lot of the academia on the subject matter. It seems many people forget that there is hundreds of years of history behind the topic we simply call "racism", and most of those people incant racism if they are personally discriminated (discrimination is a problem, but not necessarily racism). FFS, I live with a name that has no relation to my family's traditional cultural heritage at the same time someone else laments "where is the place that white people can call their homeland".
Anyway, I'm being long winded for a comment (yet again). Great job, and I look forward to reading through your website.