Saturday, March 9, 2013

Appreciation and appropriation

I happened upon two things regarding white women and hip-hop this week. Each probably deserves a stand-alone post of their own, so I'm not even going to try to tie them together. First, we have Katha Pollitt from her book of essays Learning To Drive:
And yes, I do think that there is something embarrassing about middle-aged women who claim to love gangsta rap for its energy and confess maternal feelings for Eminem. In fact, even the thought of rap makes my heart surge with sorrow and fury because it is connected with other thoughts that are even more disturbing -- about the end of melody, the end of tender feelings, the end of any sort of verbal cleverness that requires a vocabulary of more than three hundred words, the end of two hundred years of black genius and jazz and gospel and Motown despite everything we did to them. [...] These are things you're not supposed to say. Unless you are a famous, elegant, brilliant black person you're not supposed to go around saying you hate 50 Cent and don't even believe that he was shot nine times.
This makes me uncomfortable, and frankly, a little angry. The not-so thinly veiled racism in the anti-rap sentiment, the "boomer knows best" tenor -- those are things my generation likes to pretend are truisms about second-wave feminists, and, as someone in that weird, liminal space that's not quite middle-aged, but definitely not young, this makes me embarrassed that I ever defended second-wave feminism as a product of its own era (which, I know, shouldn't be an excuse, but sometimes it does offer an explanation). I like Katha Pollitt; she writes wonderfully about aging -- about women aging -- but this just makes me sad. Rap has melody. It can be clever; it can be educational (I learned more about Black history from those early Public Enemy albums than I ever did in my mostly-white private school), and, unfortunately, it's an easy scapegoat.

(Just so we're clear, I'm not condemning Pollitt's entire body of work. I usually enjoy much of what she's written. I'm harder on writers I normally respect because I expect more from them. I don't think this is an unreasonable request.)

Then a few days later, I read this post on xojane where enjoyment ends and appropriation begins.
I’ll still lay a case for why this white girl loves rap, but now I’d like to ask how to go about loving rap as well. How can I profess to love for something that does not -- and should not -- belong to me? Isn’t it OK to love something without possessing it? Can’t I appreciate rap without somehow detracting from rap? What about relating?
Growing up, most of the people I knew, irrespective of race, listened to rap. It was part of the aural wallpaper of my youth, and I'm white. Can you enjoy something without laying claim to it? Yes, of course, but it isn't my place to answer that question. Maybe I've had a completely different experience with music, but I don't understand how ownership factors into the equation, or maybe I'm just blinkered by my own privilege. But then I think of this quote from Gloria Anzaldua, which speaks to me in a way that nothing else about writing has:
"Who gave us permission to perform the act of writing? Why does writing seem so unnatural for me? I'll do anything to postpone it -- empty the trash, answer the telephone. The voice recurs in me who am I, a poor chicanita from sticks, to think I could write?"
I completely understand this: writing was never offered to me as a practical career option. A number of people in my family couldn't read, and some couldn't read in English, but I am not Latina, and every time I reference this quote, it feels like I'm laying claim to an experience that's not really mine, no matter how much I relate to it.

Like I said, I really didn't really want tie the two together, but side-by-side, they're a pretty good example of feminism's failure at intersectionality (the racism and classism in the first example), and the sort of over-correction frequently seen in the SJ blog world where simply enjoying something can be deconstructed to uncover hidden privilege. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the credentialing that comes along with it has always bothered me because women are so often made to justify themselves and their words. There should be a balance.

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