Tag Archives: power

Cultural Appropriation and the N-Word

n word pic EDIT

Source: Flickr Creative Commons

“If the rappers can say it, I don’t understand why we can’t say it,” says a WASP man in the comments section of an online news article.

Cultural appropriation (when facets of an oppressed group’s culture are adapted by the dominant culture, and are essentially stolen from the oppressed group) is nothing new. Recently, Bantu Knots, an African hairstyle popular in the motherland and here in the diaspora, was featured on models in a Marc Jacobs fashion show. Afterwards, not only was he given credit for the centuries-old hairstyle, but they were magically renamed “mini buns.” And in cities everywhere, high-end restaurants on the “urban renewal” bus have taken slavery-era black/ modern-day soul food staples like chitlins, collard greens and other dishes as their own. Not only have these luxury eateries detached these foods from their cultural significance (slaves eating these foods because they were easy to access, simply because they were the scraps “massa” didn’t want – and turning them into delicious, filling meals for their families), but they have also attached a heavy price tag to them, claiming another culture’s food as their own and making a profit. Native American headdresses stripped of their meanings for fashion, large numbers of awards in rap and hip-hop (two music genres rooted in African story-telling and the African-American experience)  being given to people who don’t represent its cultural context and Halloween costumes trivializing cultural-historical figures (Middle Eastern princesses, East Asian warriors, etc.) are some other examples of cultural appropriation.

Clothes, fashion, food and music come to mind pretty quickly when thinking of examples of cultural appropriation, but what about words?

Like the N-word.

“If the rappers can say it, I don’t understand why we can’t say it.”

When a friend directed me to the comment thread, I knew what to expect, but I didn’t expect to see an adult ask such a question so honestly, so matter-of-factly. When I saw it, my stomach felt kind of weird – kind of like that feeling I had when I was younger (I was the only person of color in many of my classes) when a fellow classmate would comment on something (most of the time falsely) of African-American culture and add at the end “well my best friend is black” – as if that gives one a stake to some sort of claim…to an entire culture.

The N-word has an interesting history. I’m no historian, but in a nutshell, we can say that the N-word started as a means of oppression toward African slaves in America during the slavery-era. The use of this word, institutional degradation and involuntary servitude were all synonymous. This word was also the powerhouse behind the forced rape of enslaved African women including Mother Africa herself, the senseless killings of enslaved African men, women and children and in general, the dehumanization of all people and things of African descent. Some decades passed and the vile power behind the N-Word remained relatively the same, especially in the Jim Crow South.

In a nutshell, for the longest while, the N-word and its use left the African-American community powerless. But today, in many respects, that isn’t exactly the case.

Not just in some rap music, but for some African-Americans, the N-word has turned into a positive affirmation. A word used to describe a friend, a brother. For others, it’s still negative, but on their dime, not on the dime of another culture in an oppressive manner. This here is an acquisition of power, a seizing back of control that once wasn’t there. The taking back of a word a group of oppressed people once had no authority over, even though the word directly affected their own livelihoods, their lives and their deaths.

It’s one thing for an oppressed people to take back what’s essentially theirs, but it is a problem when a member of the dominant group – like the man who posted in the comment thread– someone still in this day and age with privilege and power no member of the oppressed group could ever attain (yes, even if he were president of the most powerful country in the world) – wants to snatch control away from the oppressed group just when it manages to muster up a morsel of agency over its enslaved past, fractured present and uncertain future.

It all comes down to power and control and in this country, some people want power and control so bad that they want ownership over words, even the words that don’t come out of their own mouths.

To the man from the comment thread and others like him: Next time you think about stealing ANYTHING from another culture, no matter who you are, what color you are, where you come from, or how much you may think you know, I can only hope you think twice.

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Lost Momentum

justuspicEDIT
Because I am sick and I am tired and I am slowly losing momentum.
Tired is the father that does all that he can
To raise his son to be an upstanding young man
Who gets with the wrong crowd and with a substance he can’t live without
And learns the hard way what a heroin overdose is all about
Terrified is the woman
Who doesn’t understand…why she was assaulted by the police officer man
His motive pathetic, the message subliminal — his inferiority complex made her a sex object slash criminal
She runs home to wash the dirt off in the shower while he runs back to the station to bask in all his “power”
Tongue-tied is the little girl who says she loves who she is
trying to love her skin and trying to love what’s within
while every tv screen tells her that her hair should be longer and her clothes should be tighter
and that she should stop reading so many  books and that her skin should be lighter
Tortured is the soul
That dies the same death damn near every day
Death by miseducation, death by exploitation…death by this immovable socio-historio-political situation
Miscarriage of justice, yes, but no one really makes a fuss
Because no justice just is…after all, it’s just us.

When School Hurts More Than it Helps

segregated classroom edit

Go to school. Get your education. Be better and live better because of it.

But what happens when school is imprisoning instead of empowering?

What happens when your teachers tell you of all the things you can’t do instead of what you can do? What happens when good grades become bad and bad grades become good, all in the name of peer pressure, manhood and being “hard?” And how complicated it becomes when grades are no longer black and white – when they are associated with race, when “acting black” and “acting white” and “acting” other ethnicities blurs positive and negative images, attitudes and ideals – full of gray area. Or when you’re too hungry to concentrate…to make the grades to get out the hood that’s keeping you hungry. Or when the school keeps testing you because you can’t pass the tests – but for your failure, they have no answer. Or when in general, school seems like the strangest, most distant foreign land, because nothing about it resembles who you are or where you’re from.

What happens when these things and more not only exist, but are also exacerbated under the school’s roof? What do you do?

You fight back.

If knowledge is power, you have to be willing to fight for it.

Kids don’t know the fight as well as we adults know it, as many of us have been there before, so essentially, the fight for our kids’ education is in our hands.

We can’t take everything for gospel, simply because a teacher, a principal or another official says it. My parents were told that I may be deaf and/or autistic at a very young age because I started to walk, talk and develop in general at a later age than most children. But then, all of that was debunked. But then I started school. I was tapped for the gifted program in school. Then, I got honor roll, and much later national honor society and other honors and today, I’m an author with an advanced degree from one of the best schools in the nation and God willing – it’s only the beginning. So many people I know have eerily similar stories, and they’ve gone on to accomplish a whole lot.

All kids are capable of greatness. We can’t let naysayers dressed up with fancy titles tell them otherwise.

We have to be willing to sacrifice for education, for if we don’t, we sacrifice our children. If he or she is struggling where you’re at and you’re convinced he or she would fare better in another area, do what you have to do within reason to make that move. Before I was born, my folks were young and struggling, and opted to go without furniture for a year to send my older sisters to a private school in Long Island, because it offered them a safer environment and better opportunities. An uncomfortable year it may have been, but the advantages of that sacrifice will last a lifetime. If we don’t buy into education, they surely won’t. Buy into it, no matter how much it costs. Temporary discomfort beats the permanent setback of the generations that follow us.

 Praise them in school. Many scholars reference the transition from third grade to fourth grade as problematic for kids, particularly African-American boys, as the nurturing from the teacher (the doting, the “babying”) drops significantly during that transition and as a result, grades drop . But technically, it’s not the teacher’s job to nurture our children – it’s up to us. The praise matters. We have to recognize their efforts and reward their accomplishments. We have to be active and interested in their studies. We have to be their backbone and their biggest cheerleader, especially during the younger years. The smallest strides need recognition just like honor roll and graduation. Don’t act like you don’t remember how good you felt as a little boy or a little girl when an adult noticed your good work.

When school hurts more than it helps, the story isn’t over. If we play our cards right, it’s simply a bump in the road. If we play our cards right and put up a good defense, we’ll win the fight.