Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

Glee, Why You So White?

So Gwyneth Paltrow singing Cee-Lo Green. For all the reasons this hurts and why it should not be even in the most hellish of nightmare worlds, go here: A Few Things About Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘F*ck You’ As Performed on Glee for an excellent, intelligent and hilarious take on why it is so not okay. I’ve dealt with a lot on Glee (I’m looking at you Matthew Morrison and your incessant need to rap) but this is the first time I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting the songs on my iPod. So the part of the post linked above that seems to be causing the most drama up and in the comments is this part:

The song is off-limits for white people
Unless! Unless you really want to match Cee Lo sound for sound. First off, the soul-pop package doesn’t mitigate this song or its message; it mainstreams it. It’s subversion on steroids, and watered down to high-school pop it’s about as subversive as Reader’s Digest. More technically, I guess there’s nothing keeping Paltrow from actually rhyming that “if I was richer/I’d still be wit’ cha,” (hello, Amy Winehouse!), but her whitening of the phrase is kind of… well, disgusting. Let’s face it: Gwyneth Paltrow singing any variation on “F*ck You” is like Pat Boone singing “Tutti Frutti,” and maybe even worse: At least he didn’t have to dance with Cory Monteith and Chris Colfer.

Okay so the inevitable response to such queries as this is to scream “If you said black people couldn’t cover white songs that would be racist, so this isn’t okay! It’s reverse racism!” Okay first of all that’s a straw man argument that has nothing to do with the initial reasons given for why it’s not okay. Second of all, racism (as many people have said over and over) is privilege plus power. Black people as a group have never had enough power to enforce a nation-wide prejudice on white people in the west which continues through media to this very day.

Ignoring that let’s address that argument as if it’s valid. See the problem is that it’s only valid if equality is the base and we don’t live in an equal society at all and Glee certainly doesn’t exist in a universe of racial equality. See when this season started I was already a little put out that football coach Ken Tanaka and glee member Matt Rutherford were written out of the show and essentially replaced with white folk. Beiste for Tanaka, Sam for Matt. This is no comment on the characters of Beiste or Sam (both of whom I actually enjoy) but to show the whitening of the show in terms of diversity, one of the things they were initially praised for.

In the midst of this look at the guest stars they’ve had on the show so far: Eve, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Neil Patrick Harris, Barry Bostwick, Meatloaf, John Stamos, Johnathon Groff, Britney, Olivia Newton-John, Josh Groban, Cheyenne Jackson and now Gwyneth Paltrow. With the exception of Eve they are all white and Eve doesn’t even get to sing during her entire one episode appearance. How many songs has Kristin Chenoweth had on the show so far? More than Tina, one of the “main characters” that’s for sure.

So why can’t we have some Broadway legends of color? Some Jennifer Holliday, Stephanie Mills, Rita Moreno, Lea Salonga, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald, Taye Diggs. Shoot at this point I’m willing to accept Carol Channing’s sketchy claim to some black heritage and cheer for her as a guest star. Or even some actors/musicians of color? Jennifer Hudson, Halle Barry, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, Enrique Iglesias, Lenny Kravitz. You could just prop Whitney Houston up in the corner and have her bust out some ‘Greatest Love of All’. Shit, why couldn’t Cee-Lo himself play the substitute teacher and sing his own damn song?

I’ve watched Mercedes get slowly pushed aside, until she is the only glee club member without any kind of romantic interest, or urge at all if the show is to be believed. The relationship between Tina and Mike crosses the line from cute to stereotype so many times it makes my head spin and the treatment of Santana, especially in this last episode with the whole Puck/Artie storyline has drifted far into the overly sexualized latina stereotype.

The way the characters of color end up sidelined so much has resulted in many, many songs by artists of color being sung by white characters on that show. The reverse is hardly ever the case. When Mercedes is given a whole song to sing it is most often a song already done by a black female artist. She doesn’t get to cross that barrier ever (with the exception of Rocky Horror which she got crucified online by Glee fans) while characters like Mr. Schuester and Artie do so on a regular basis. This is not a case of there being a basis of equality that has suddenly changed. This is a case of people beginning to notice that the show is getting more and more white and monolithic in terms of race.

Glee does not rest on a base of equality, just as the world itself does not. To argue the charge of reverse racism you basically have to prove that all things being equal the world isn’t already slanted against People of Color and other oppressed groups. I’m not saying that individual members of an oppressed group cannot be prejudiced but the charge of reverse-racism is erroneous and detracts from the overall question I’ve started to have with Glee, a show I love and would like to continue too love, Glee why you getting more and more white?

And don’t even get me started on the conflation of white, young boy and gay that happens on the series, that’s another post that will be going up later this week.

Unnamed Privilege: College Education

This post was inspired by some drama going on. See my vow to try and stay more connected with the internet over winter break has failed. I realize that while I’m out of class (which ends this week, emo!tear) the last thing I want to do is increase my stress level by dealing with idiocy online.  So all that is to say that I only know the gist of this drama as opposed to all the intimate details because I could not bring myself to wade through the hot mess but from what I’ve heard and the few posts I have read the basic gist is:  Elizabeth Bear made a post about Cultural Appropriation on her livejournal, a conversation happened in the comments of that post about Bear’s own problematic portrayals of POC and some of the wording in her post, Avalon’s Willow wrote a very interesting open letter to Elizabeth Bear regarding her work, it then became pile on Willow day and somewhere in discussing the difficulties of race and writing one of Bear’s friends and fellow author Sarah Monette jumped in with a defense that basically accused Willow and other criticizers of being “too emotional” and pointing out, without an evidence I might add, that they were coming from different directions one an academic, critical thought perspective and one an emotional perspective.

One guess which side she thought she was on and which side she thought Willow and other POC in the discussion were on. 

Okay aside from that sounding like the whole  “You are interrogating this text from the wrong perspective.” craziness from Anne Rice’s rant on Amazon.com when folks didn’t like one of her books it is such an incredibly problematic defense that it really shocked me to realized supposedly educated people felt completely comfortable throwing that into that discussion.

Note: When race is part of the discussion accusing someone of not being “educated enough” is a big hot button issue. Many People of Color grow up constantly reinforced with the idea that not only do we not belong in academia, we should not even try because we just aren’t smart enough. So to be having a discussion of race where a white person rolls in and basically tells a group of People of Color: “You’re complaints are invalid because you’re not smart enough” well it’s not exactly the best tool in the anti-racist’s arsenal is it?

And I assume I don’t really have to get into how “too emotional”, “too angry”, etc., etc. are silencing techniques used by the privileged to keep the oppressed from speaking about their situation honestly. Because it’s such an arbitrary judgment it can be used even against a completely rational argument and still be assumed valid by others because of the oppressed’s position in society.

But as I said because I’m not up on everything that went down and I don’t right now have the mental strength to wade through a bunch of fuckery I present you with some great links so you can read all about it should you want to. For more of a rundown of what’s going down I recommend:
http://rydra-wong.livejournal.com/ – she has multiple posts with links on her journal
http://seeking-avalon.blogspot.com/ – Avalon’s Willow’s open letter and other posts about it
http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2009/01/great-cultural-appropriation-debate-of.html – A round up of links
An awesome idea that’s come out of the hot mess: http://yeloson.livejournal.com/530108.html – The ReMyth Project

I’ve written a lot about cultural appropriation and will again but right now I rather post about a privilege that is never really acknowledged or when it is it’s only paid lip service too: the privilege of being college educated. Now it’s a fact of life that often those who have degrees are given preferential treatment in careers, social interactions, bureaucratic situations and just in general. People who enjoy this privilege often try to write it off by claiming it has to do with intelligence and being educated and not just the idea of ‘going to college’. This leaves me with one question. Who decided that colleges were the arbiters of intelligence  and the only way to acquire knowledge?

I wonder who it was that decided that other ways of learning – reading on your own, being in a more group learning environment, or just learning as you live your life – were somehow inferior. Doubtless those who could get into places of further education* went along with and perpetuated the belief that only those that exited the college system were worthy of respect. The thing is that most folks know that’s not true, most of us know people who’ve never gone to college but are among some of the smartest people we know.

I’m saying all this as someone who has seen my estimation in people’s eyes go up because I’m in grad school. And yes there is a part of me that revels in that because I worked hard to get into grad school but then there’s the other side of the equation – the automatic assumption that I deserve more respect for attending further education comes with the flip side ideal that anyone who did not go to college does not deserve that level of respect and in fact that they deserve less for never going to college.

The idea that some who doesn’t have a degree or didn’t attain a degree lacks the ability to read critically, to think through problems, to be a knowledgeable or intelligent person is prevalent and supremely problematic. And the idea that everyone who gets through college is smart is patently false. I’ve been to college so you can’t pull the wool over my eyes, a lot of my undergrad experience was dealing with total and complete idiots in my classrooms. So why do we cling to the notion that my decision to go heavily into debt for the benefit of a piece of paper somehow elevates me above people who needed or wanted to work right after high school? Why am I somehow more worthy of respect?

The privilege of being college educated intersects with a lot of other privileges.

The racism that is blatant in academia can not only stop people from attending college but can drive them away or funnel them into other majors professors deem “more appropriate”. 

The sexism that continues to convince women that they are worse than men at math and the sciences.

The classism of being able to afford college or it even being in your life plan after being constantly bombarded by societal messages that you as a “low class” person you could never walk through those ivory halls.

The unnamed privilege of being an American citizen and having more and easier access to places of further education.

Of course the above are all more complex and there are many more -isms both named and unnamed that intersect heavily with the idea of college.

All the bullshit that happens in the world at large happens at college but on a smaller scale which is not always a good thing. Professors can still be sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, isolationist, stupid or any other number of things, like within all groups of people there is a range of belief and action. My point is that college is far from a bastion of all things good, lovely, smart where people go in uneducated lumps and come out cultured geniuses.  And most who go through college know this but still fall into the perceptions of society. 

The fact is that were all affected by this attitude. It, as with many privileges that lack “-ism” names, is hardly talked about or acknowledged but it’s there and like all oppressions/privileges it can be internalized and is always self-perpetuating. My decision to even apply to grad school was hampered by continual doubts that “someone like me” didn’t belong in grad school. Even now I can’t tell you what exactly “someone like me” meant in my head but growing up we all are bombarded by ideas of what makes a “true college student”. 

So what can we do? The same thing we should do for all privileges that we possess, deal with your prejudices, be aware of it and when you might be using it, do your best to bring it up in certain situations.

What should we not do? Claim that somehow being college-educated makes us better than anyone else. You may know more about a subject than someone else but they probably know more about a different subject. To put it in a different perspective, had I rolled into a discussion and said that by virtue of being male I was right and all the women in the discussion were in the wrong because my experiences as a man shaped me into a decision-maker. You would laugh and mock me heavily but there are people who really think that. 

Having a degree does not mean you can think critically, or that you’re smarter than anyone else. College is an experience like any other in life – you can take the time to actually learn some things or you can skate through and not bother. Just because you hold the degree doesn’t mean your opinions are more valid than anyone elses.



*further education  – I use this term instead of higher education because I feel the term higher education is really hierarchical and problematic. Of course further education has its own problems as a term, still involving the idea of out-distancing someone else but at least the verbiage doesn’t automatically bring to mind ideas of being above others so until I find a better term I use this one. 

Media Friday – Singing With Soul [IBARW Edition]

Estelle is a rapper/singer/producer from across the pond who you mightknow because of her song “American Boy” featuring Kanye West.

I love her recently released album Shine I think it’s amazing but here’s the thing she’s nowhere near as heavily praised as some of the other “neo-soul” artists that have come out of Britain – Amy. Winehouse, Duffy, Adele. The difference is of course that all of those are white women who get cred for having throaty voices and singing “soul” music. There is a huge disparity in the way that the Music Industry treats white soul singers as opposed to black soul singers like Leela James, Jaguar Wright, Lina and more.

Estelle brought up the disparity herself in the Guardian, about Adele and white soul singers in general she says:

“She sounds like she heard some Aretha records once, and she’s got a deeper voice – that don’t mean she’s soul. That don’t mean nothing to me in the grand scheme of my life as a black person. As a songwriter, I get what they do. As a black person, I’m like: you’re telling me this is my music? Fuck that!”

And while I will say I have Winehouse’s and Adele’s albums I always feel uncomfortable listening to them, there’s a cultural appropriation happening that really bothers me. This is not to say white folks can’t sing soul, one of my favorite soul acts is Robin Thicke but there’s a way in which his music crosses the line to cultural appreciation instead of appropriation. It’s hard to explain but when he sings and performs it feels different, like he knows and cares about the community he’s interacting with as opposed to just caring about profiting from them. But Estelle hits the nail on the head, when listening to Winehouse, Adele and Justin Timberlake I can’t help but think – “As a black person, I’m like: you’re telling me this is my music? Fuck that!”