On cultural appropriation and the fetishization and use of black bodies for profit: Why this shit is WRONG.COM
I’m sure that many of you have recently come across this photoshopped image of Willow Smith wearing this shirt:
Watching this circulate on tumblr and FB was/is painful and enraging for reasons that I will get into shortly. But before I do, I want to clarify that my point here isn’t to slander the person who made this shirt, but to hold them accountable to the ways in which they, a non-black QPoC, has deliberately appropriated black culture, black scholarly work, and black legacies to make a profit, none of which is (to my knowledge) is going towards any orgs or people who carry out this work. Believe me, as a QPoC artist myself I am all about the QPoC hustle and will support folks who are trying to make it out there. But after trying to have a private conversation with this person directly and having my attempts and concerns be dismissed and ignored, I feel like something needs to be said, publicly, to hold them accountable to their gross disregard for black people, our culture, our bodies, and our concerns.
Let me start from the beginning. A few weeks ago, I received a text message from thugzmansion asking if I would be open to modeling for this shirt. Initially, I agreed because, well, I love Audre, Angela, Gloria, and bell and their scholarly work has shaped my own framework of understanding of what it means and how to survive being a black queer womyn living in a place that hates all of these identities. Their work and legacy pulled me out of my feelings of isolation and has made it a bit easier for me to live in this world as a black queer womyn. I also strongly support the QPoC hustle and wanted to help.
But after having some time to sit and actually think about what I just agreed to, I started to piece things together and realize that this bish ain’t my friend and they definitely aren’t here to uplift and support black communities as an ally. I am aware that there is a beautiful history of black and Asian folks working together in solidarity, but the thing is, claiming Tupac’s legendary song title and his iconic face/body as a marker of your own online identity is not a sign of respect or solidarity, but a sign of cultural appropriation and fetishization of black people. Similarly, the branding and subsequent commodification of said Black feminists for the monetary gain of a non-Black QPoC is a form of appropriation.
(I want to pause here to note that I realize that Gloria Anzaldua did not identify as a black womyn, and that I am leaving her out of this particular discussion for the time being. I am still not sure how to talk about her inclusion of her in the shirt’s design, so I will be saving this part of the discussion for another time.)
Being bi-racial, I am particularly sensitive to the ways in which Asian folks (and speaking directly to my experience, Japanese folks) appropriate and fetishize black culture and black bodies. Why are people so hell bent on pretending that anti-blackness does not exist in other PoC communities?
I tried to explain this to them and invited them to engage in a dialogue about this. I also asked for them to explain their intentions behind making this shirt, but their response was lack-luster at most and resorted to claiming, essentially, that black legacies and black scholarly work is for EVERYBODY and all PoC are entitled to access it in the same way. The shirt is, apparently, meant to, “share their legacies in a public way that invites dialogue to those unaware.” They also claimed that though they are concerned about this shirt getting into the wrong hands, so to speak, that they cannot control who buys the shirt - that it is somehow beyond their control.
The thing is, although I believe that the works written by Audre, Angela, and bell are meant to spark discussion and shifts in consciousness for everyone, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I am talking about the deliberate use of black people and black legacy to sell your shit for your own capital and social gain. And besides, your shirt DID spark discussion, but it seems like you weren’t ready for the kind of discussion that calls you out on your shit.
Here’s what it comes down to:
- It’s WRONG for thugzmansion to have photoshopped their shirt onto Willow Smith’s body without her knowledge or consent to sell their product. It’s even worse that you were not being transparent about photoshopping the image. Our bodies are not meant for you to use at your will for your own purposes. We are not disposable, interchangeable, or here to boost your sales.
- STOP claiming that you don’t have control over who purchases or wears this shirt, because you DO. It’s YOUR product. You are the one selling it.
- It’s WRONG to appropriate black culture to gain ~Bay Area Radikewl~ points. This cultural capital is being scraped off of the backs of black artists, community organizers, and scholars on a daily basis and, again, we are not here to serve your purposes.
- It’s WRONG to claim that your intentions are to spark discussion when you yourself are not willing to have a real discussion about the cultural and social violence that black folks have to endure. It’s especially wrong that you aren’t willing to acknowledge your participation in it.
- It’s WRONG to dismiss black womyn and the concerns that they bring up about your use of their own culture, their own lives, their own bodies, their own work. Black womyn are constantly dismissed for being too angry and too dramatic. This minimizes our reality and pathologizes our reactions to the violence that we endure.
Anyway, I’m glad that people have already started talking about this. I’m glad that other people are pissed. And even though thugzmansion’s arrogance and blatant disregard makes me incredibly angry, I hope to be able to continue a kind of dialogue that’s rooted in our desire to learn and grow.
did i tell u that the other night i had dinner at michelle’s house and when she drove me home she pulled over, held my hand, burst into tears & said, “it is an honor to know you and dance with you.” i sobbed.
delineating the sequence of events that i fear most—it hangs over my head, it fills me w knots, it wakes me from sleep. it goes: i turn in all of my work (or don’t), fail my classes, get expelled, have nowhere to go, die alone & essentially disappear
dr. fredricks told me, “these are not irrational fears.” and i wish i could tell people that but they don’t listen. i answered anthony’s email and he admitted that he’d been too embarrassed to talk to me until now because he’s spent the last two years in and out of homeless shelters, applying to come back to school.
it’s time to have an administrative overhaul re: mental health—after two peers committed suicide when brown required 1 year off for medical/mental illness leave.. after one admitted to being homeless because he has no family.. kids like me with nowhere else to go fall through the cracks easily, and i am always terrified.
i haven’t signed a lease yet, but i put in a $200 deposit i can’t get back. i don’t know if i have anyone to live with but i know i can’t stay here. sleeping with your bedroom door locked does not make a home.
i sobbed in michelle’s car and thanked her. it is an honor and a rare opportunity to be fragile w someone so caring. she texted me this morning because she was in the hospital last night. she’s fine and there was nothing i could do, so i just cried in the library. sniffling at the computer cluster, someone asked me, “are you listening to a beautiful song again?” because that happened the other day. elliott smith snuck up on me while i was writing and then tears.
i want to feel like that’s ok. i cry about money (or lack thereof) every day. i cry about loneliness, too—sometimes it looks like i’m throwing a tantrum because i wish i were being held or kissed gently on the forehead & eyelids. sometimes i feel exposed and humiliated for being such a vessel for my feelings, but sometimes a woman holds my hand and tells me that she loves my big, bleeding heart and the lump of flesh and bone that comes with it, too.
|Guy:||What do girls do at sleepovers?|
|Me:||Pass the Bechdel test.|