The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. – bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” (1992)
Stereotypes, however innacurate, are one form of representation. Like fictions, they are created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real. They are there not to tell it like it is but to invite and encourage pretense. They are a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening. Stereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make true knowing possible cannot be taken or are not allowed. – bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination” (1992)
I was on facebook recently and received a notification from a group of which I am a part called White People Conference [WPC] – Got Privilege? An online forum for people of all social locations to discuss issues of race, gender, and sexuality, WPC constellates around a critical interrogation of white supremacy at it shows up in instances of racialized violence—whether physical (via police brutality, for instance) or “symbolic” (via racist slurs, as an example)—in various contexts. It is also meant to be a space in which to offer viable avenues for white solidarity with the cause for racial justice.
The notification I received came from a woman of color who posted a video blog from white comedian “vlogger” Nicole Arbour with the following preface: “Who the heck is this, and WHAT is (are) her problem(s)?,” followed by the hashtag: “#whitegirlflexsherwhiteprivilege”.
Entitled “Dear Black People,” the six minute video is a tongue-and-cheek response to the nonwhite indictment of cultural appropriation on the part of white people who borrow or steal elements of food, music, style, taste, and vernacular from nonwhite cultures without assuming the burden of what it means to be an object of racialized oppression in a social system predicated on white racial domination. A social system in which cultural practices on the part of people of color have functioned as creative responses to exploitation and social dislocation in an historical context still living down the legacies of (chattel) slavery and segregation.
Arbour’s video engages racially charged humor as a means by which to deescalate crossracial conflict centered around claims of cultural theft launched against whites who borrow blindly and specifically from, in terms of this video, black cultural practices for the purposes of their own self-making. As a deconstructive move, the piece works to question the logic of such an indictment by way of Arbour’s acknowledgement that, yes, white people do appropriate from black culture, but not always blindly (that is, without understanding the history of black cultural practice), inviting “black people” by way of rather empty examples (i.e. black women sporting blonde hair weaves; black patronage of Starbucks; and black consumption of pickles, attributed spuriously to Polish people) to consider the possibility that appropriation is multi-directional—that is, appropriation goes both ways and is therefore something of which we are all guilty (or in which we are “innocently” implicated).
To illustrate the “conscientiousness” of her own appropriation of black culture as cool (i.e. “Your shit is just cooler!”) and literal consumption of it as spice (thinking here of her enjoyment of jerk chicken, as long as it’s not too spicy because of her “delicate” white girl palette, as a case-in-point), she situates her epistolary rebuttal to charges of cultural stealing in terms of a willingness to recognize that, though (chattel) slavery has ended, its residues linger in the form of wage slavery and the American prison system—each of which disproportionately affect the black population in America and which Arbour sees as “disgusting.”
Using her black friend Latoya as an “insurance policy” to further legitimate her thesis, stated in the form of a question—“Why can’t we all just enjoy whatever the fuck we want from every culture?”—Arbour engages in a form of blackface minstrelsy (embodied literally insofar as she dons a tight red design tee mottled with the cartooned visage of tilt-crowned rapper Biggy Smalls) that reduces her friend-turned-object Latoya to an absent presence in the play of her virtual performance of a blackened white identity.
In this, Arbour deploys what Toni Morrison calls an American Africanism (see Playing in the Dark, New York: Vintage, 1993) by which Arbour, as a white cultural producer, uses a one-dimensional black character as one would a stage prop by which to work out the ambivalences of her own problematic whiteness. She relies on the stereotypical image of an angry black female (the caricature-archetype Sapphire), played by Latoya, standing in as metonym for all black women, to construct a space in which she can contextualize, albeit precariously, her white performance of a blackness lampooned by her uncritical glorification of long nails and her impersonations of the guttural inflections of ghetto talk attributed to black people in the white imagination.
In this way, she participates in a fetishization of blackness that circulates within a transnational marketplace in which black bodies are bought, sold, and consumed as stereotyped representatives of a homogenized black culture, a cultural Other, from which we (i.e. white people) all can just take “whatever the fuck we want.” Arbour does this even as she attempts to establish intimacy with her black associates by picking apart stereotypes that associate blackness, namely black males, with criminality and the monstrous phallus, imitating a stuck-up and rigid white girl threatened by the sexualized and raced other.
Yet despite her feeble efforts to dismantle such stereotypes she reproduces them by telling black folks to keep the stereotype of the large black phallus, reinscribing a black male phallocentricism that black intellectuals such as bell hooks (see “Reconstructing Black Masculinity,” Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston: South End Press, 1992) and James Baldwin (see No Name in the Street, New York: Vintage, 1972) problematize as symptomatic of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Arbour reasserts white fascination with the black penis that comes to represent a specific kind of black manhood–one that is deeply misogynist, sexist, and homophobic–operative in both the white and black imaginaries and which is symptomatic of what Andrea Smith would call heteropatricarchy.
In her essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” black American cultural critic bell hooks gets at the problematic logic of such intimacy, pinpointing its inherent racism: “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other” (see Black Looks: Race and Representation, 23). In the case of Arbour, she engages, whether consciously or unconsciously, in an act of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ by which she romanticizes the pre-modern primitivism that blacks represent in the white racial imagination while calling out nonwhites, unjustifiably so and perhaps jokingly (it is difficult to tell how jokingly by way of her inflection and facial expressions), for the seeming hypocrisy, if not “reverse racism,” at play in their injunctions that whites stop appropriating.
Arbour enacts this kind of nostalgia, a variation on the Marxist notion of “false consciousness” (which is to say historical amnesia), by way of implying that she is not racist, particularly in light of the fact that, as she says, “I was not there!”, in reference to the “fucked up” historical fact of (chattel) slavery. Granted, she was not “there”, yet such a stance, often espoused by whites defensive of their privilege as whites when it is called into question, discounts the fact that, regardless of whether or not they were “there” when (chattel) slavery existed, their whiteness still implicates them in a history of oppression that manifests in the contemporary moment as the supremacy which affords them the privilege to “[assuage] the guilt of the past” (hooks, 25). It is the privilege to claim: “I wasn’t ‘there’ in the context of past oppression so I am not responsible for your present oppression.”
Meanwhile, claims of reverse racism made by whites such as Arbour against nonwhites, even if made in jest, evade the actuality of institutional racism and its disenabling effects on and in the lived experiences of people of color in today’s world. That structural inequality and systematic oppression along lines of race—to say nothing of gender and sexuality—still exist renders null and void the notion of reverse racism by nonwhites against whites. Blacks, unlike whites, are not in a position of racial dominance. Thus reverse racism on the part of blacks, in particular, and people of color, more broadly, does not exist so long as white supremacy is a reality. And it is.
Even when whites at the level of the personal, or the individual, make no clear move to dominate, oppression still functions through acts of “symbolic violence” by way of “microagressions” that occur along a spectrum of desire and fear. Arbour’s vlog could well be considered one such aggression through the politics of desire in which she engages for the purposes of exonerating white people of responsibility to a heightened awareness around the problems of appropriation.
As hooks notes, “The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other,” which is implied in Arbour’s vlog piece, even when there is no “apparent will to dominate […] takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection” (25). Hooks adds, “Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (25).
Certainly, Arbour expresses no explicit will to dominate, nor do I believe that such is her conscious intent. Indeed, “Dear Black People” functions as a gesture toward deconstructing that will to dominate insofar as it pokes fun, self-consciously so, at white people who complain about being underrepresented in public celebrations of multiculturalism (as per her ironic jab at a non-specified Caribbean Festival that has no “white girl float”) or at the white hypocrisy evidenced in the simultaneous call for the (white) right to bear arms and for the imprisonment of black men (to say nothing of women) on the basis of non-violent drug crimes. This is a commendable gesture toward crossracial understanding, but it really flattens the complexity of systemic racism while associating black folks (black men, in particular) with drug consumption. It meanwhile attributes social pathology in the black community with the bastardization of the black family: “When kids don’t have a dad, they’re going to act up!”).
In this way, Arbour identifies the seeming unruliness of troubled (black) children with the absence of (black) fathers who have been jailed by an unjust system of mass incarceration that targets black folks. In this can be heard the haunting echoes of the Moynihan Report. While it is laudable that Arbour makes historical linkages between the past and the present in terms of slavery and the slaveability of black folks (thinking here of Andrea Smith’s piece about heteropatriarchy), the connections she makes are tenuous at best. For instance, what are other socioeconomic factors that contribute to the oppression of black folks in this country? In what ways does she, Arbour, play a part in this oppression by dint of her own desire to appropriate? If slavery still exists, what part does or will she play in imagining an alternative whiteness for herself and others who recognize that black folks are victimized systemically?
Arbour’s social and racial analysis is ultimately thin, cloaked in humor that, despite its irony, reinscribes a notion of blackness as part of a larger commodity culture to be consumed by whites. The thinness of her racial analysis is perhaps best exemplified in her invocation of Bill Nye the Science Guy to argue that we are all part of one race–asserting a tired notion of race as biological fact that contemporary theorists of race have worked ad nauseum to upend, favoring instead a definition of race as a social construct, a category of identity, tied up in a system of white social domination. By espousing a universal theory of race and, in this humanity, one that universalizes experiences that are actually not shared between whites and nonwhites given the reality of racism, Arbour gives herself license to borrow without keeping in mind the fact that, just because we can recognize ourselves as part of one human family does not mean we can ignore the fact that our global society is structured according to a racial hierarchy–a divorced human family, as it were–that blind appropriation perpetuates in its unwillingness to explore or acknowledge that white and nonwhites are raced (and gendered and sexed) differently.
That this stratification remains an historical fact should check her, or anybody’s, assumption that sameness is present where difference exists. That such difference is an actuality demands a conscientiousness, a race consciousness, that Arbour fails to take on in her willfully color- and power-evasive desire for the Other. This is not to say that appropriation cannot function as a means by which to bridge current divides. It perhaps can do so, but only insofar as it is contextualized by a deeper and more incisive identification with and involvement in the larger historical struggle of the Other, whose cultural practices one is adopting, against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy–lest appropriation morph into a kind of blackface (or yellow, or red, or brown face for that matter).
Though she may acknowledge this struggle, Arbour relinquishes her responsibility for and accountability to the anti-racist whiteness she gestures toward in this video by essentially telling black folks how to behave. This is particularly evident, for instance, in her charge that blacks drop the “N-word” (i.e. “nigga”) from their music so as to make it easier for whites to enjoy what blacks produce without the attendant guilt or paralysis that may come with repeating, or being tempted to repeat, what amounts to an epithet when lip-synched by a white mouth. It elides through humor the possibility that the “N-word” may in fact serve a liberatory purpose, a means by which to re-appropriate or reclaim the linguistic signifier of subhuman status from which it derives and thus counter and resist the “symbolic violence” of that inflammatory term.
In the above instance we witness a self-absolution of responsibility to an honest interrogation of her own whiteness and the ways in which that whiteness is predicated upon the “innocent” consumption of black cultural production/products that seeks nothing more than to maintain its perceived innocence against the threat of black accusation, of being called out for racism.
In the end, what we are left with is not simply an unspoken longing to become the Other but, taking what hooks says above further and keeping Morrison’s trope of American Africanism in mind, a display of desire to “make the Other over in one’s image.” Were it otherwise, Arbour would neither be speaking over and against or for a monolithic and essentialized “black people”–signified by the lone and silenced black stand-in/representative Latoya–regarding the issue of cultural appropriation.
That said, Arbour’s act of “speaking for” is nowhere better evidenced in the video than in her dynamic with the essentially voiceless Latoya, whose visage haunts the vlog like the fleeting spectre of blackness Morrison locates in the white literary productions of authors such as Willa Cather, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ernest Hemingway. Unquestionably, Arbour links herself with the struggle of black folks for racial justice, yet the issue of racial inequality is overridden by her claim to understand experiences of structural inequality as a woman. In this sense, gender erases race in an equation that leaves a white woman—blind to the privilege which permits her to disregard the ways in which she is oppressed differently from her nonwhite Other by dint of her class status as white subject—as the sole spokesperson for a struggle that she both “gets” and does not “get”.
At the same time, Arbour fails to recognize the ways in which racial and gender oppression intersect within the larger confines of white supremacy, or white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She thus misses a moment to act in solidarity with blacks against a bigger systemic force that oppresses all of us, though differently, and in this acknowledge that whites too are situated as subjects in the struggle insofar as white supremacy is an assault on the dignity of the human person in general–not just nonwhites.
Speaking out of both sides of her mouth, as the saying goes, Arbour admits toward the end of the video to not fully understanding the “struggle” and asks for her nonwhite compatriots to explain it to her–thus absolving herself of responsibility to researching systemic racism, interrogating her whiteness and calling into question the privilige which allows her the lazy option of foregoing research into the “struggle” on her own (without taxing the already tapped reserves of people of color who are deemed fully answerable to white people for explaining racism).
Out of the proverbial other side of her mouth she then proceeds to “whitesplain” to black people one small part of their “struggle”—that is, the racially skewed aspects of the American prison system—preceded by her proclamation that what she “sees” happening to the black population is “disgusting” (without explaining her sympathetic, if not empathetic, identification with black blight).
This statement of recognition bookends the video’s opening sequence in which she plays on white desire for and fear of blacks by parodying white girls’ fascination with gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G. before beginning her salutation, “Dear Black People…” followed by the a clip of her, hands-up, shouting “Don’t shoot!” Fooling her audience into thinking that she is on some racist rant, she adds in subsequent clip, “…is what too many of you have to say to the fucked up po-lice!” She adds, “Oh, you thought I was going somewhere else with that. That’s kinda racist of you.” It is then that she introduces her friend Latoya, tokenized as testimony that Arbour is not racist and deployed as a back-up or legitimating factor (read “insurance policy”) in Arbour’s contestation that we need to get beyond the narrow identity politics involved in debates around cultural appropriation.
Similar to what hooks says of white filmmaker Sara Bernhard whose Without You I’m Nothing associates blackness with the struggle for liberation, understood as an effort to end racial domination and free up political space for the right to black self-determination, Arbour “places herself in a relationship of comparison and competition with black women [represented by Latoya], seemingly exposing white female envy of black women [evidenced in her glorification of long nails stereotypically linked with black women as well as in her staging of Latoya as prop], and their desire to ‘be’ imitation black women; yet she also pokes fun at black females” (38).
Though Arbour may be working to establish a context, through comedy, by which to “make light” of the “awkward situation” that is race talk for the purposes of constructing some modicum of crossracial solidarity beyond the policing of racial borders evident in the identity politics of race, she in the end appropriates blackness without acknowledging the debt she owes to what she perceives as black cultural practices in food, music, style, taste and vernacular—taking up space to mock white people (“white girls” in particular) as refracted through her understanding of the stereotypes into which blacks cast her white womanhood (or “girlhood” rather), that leaves no room for black women (such as Latoya) to do it themselves. The video concludes without a trace of blackness, used and left behind as a vanishing Africanist presence by which to situate and defend Arbour’s blackfaced whiteness without any inkling of how, riffing on hooks, “the Other leaves her” (39).
While I can appreciate the notion that cultural appropriation is multi-directional and often times seemingly natural to the fabric of our exchanges with each other within and between cultures, particularly due to the fact of intercultural flow in a global marketplace where ethno-racial boundaries are so easily transgressed, I question the stability of Arbour’s argument that we should be able to “enjoy whatever the fuck we want”—even as she attempts to lay some groundwork for candid talk across the color line at the level of cultural production (in this case, comedy). Lastly, I question her capacity to speak for all white people (the video is subtitled: “What we’ve all wanted to say to black people…”). As a white person, I cannot in clear conscience say that she speaks for me.
What is lacking from Arbour’s largely social, versus political, analysis is the space to explore in a more self-reflexive way her own relationship to the stereotypes with which she engages to speak about and for black culture/people and, in so doing, “shift her positionality” (as with the character of Traci in John Waters’ Hairspray, which hooks upholds as a cultural product in line with the agenda of black liberation), in order to invite a more sustained “engagement in a revolutionary ethos that dares to challenge and disrupt the [white] status quo” (37). There is no such sustained engagement in Arbour’s satirical response to the issue of appropriation; the finer nuances of racial analysis fall by the wayside for the sake of one-liners that preclude the possibility for deepening the dialogue about race with a critical cognizance of how power operates racially through the flows of the cultural marketplace–precisely where we find Nicole Arbour’s video. Ultimately, it seems unclear as to what Arbour is trying to accomplish.
As with what hooks says of Bernhard’s film, Arbour’s “Dear Black People” “walks a critical tightrope” insofar as it “mocks white appropriation of black culture, white desire for black […] even as [the video] works as a spectacle largely because of the clever ways Bernhard ‘uses’ black culture and standard racial stereotypes” (39). In this way, again riffing on hooks, it does not really go against the grain. It hints at a critical politics of appreciation for black culture and even identification with the black struggle for liberation, yet it falls short of going any further to disrupt white supremacy and de-colonize the white mind (diseased by white imperialism) at the site of desire (the black body) precisely because of the ways in which it flattens cultural difference, white-washing the debate around cultural appropriation through its defense of an uncritical and in so many ways power- and color-blind multiculturalism which preys as a matter of white enjoyment on the flesh of the fictive black Other.