A Dystopian Utopia

Diversity in the 80's and 90's

I said I would discuss the visions my peers and I had of a racially and ethnically mixed future. These ideas have affected my perceptions of recent behavior among younger individuals that I consider extreme and divisive. I wondered if this was something unique to myself or an open-mindedness held by my “generation”. I say that last term loosely, because we are considered Generation X yet most of us are caught somewhere between them and those that follow. The events of my age cohort, plus personal experiences, have likely created a unique outlook on these issues…

First, let’s start with my home life. I was raised in a Caucasian suburban household by Caucasian parents from Caucasian families. One side came from rural, working-class Western New York… the other were middle-class transplants from New York City out to the country. One common tie between both was high intelligence and a focus on education. Both parents were college educated and so were my maternal grandparents; although my paternal grandparents weren’t, they were both smart individuals and my grandfather was a jack-of-all-trades and generalist. I lay this out to show that the first things my families taught weren’t racism or division, but to be open to learning and to think critically about everything. Despite starting my life in a predominantly Caucasian culture, I never thought about race or ethnicity until much later. The color of someone’s skin or the accent of their words were no different than their height or whether they were left-handed.

Flash forward to growing up in a suburb of Washington, DC where the demographics were about to experience a major shift. All through the 80’s I’d grown up knowing mostly Caucasian kids from my neighborhood but being just as friendly with anyone. Despite being bussed to schools in poor Black neighborhoods, my interactions were mostly confined to my gifted programs and I still was ignorant of any divide. A friend was a friend, regardless of their race or ethnicity; by the time I was in Middle School, I had friends who were Black, Asian, and Indian and that was just who they were.

The late 80’s, early 90’s saw a serious shift, not only in my environment but in my experience. Prince George’s County changed from 37% to 51% Black almost overnight as families moved out from Washington, DC. Unfortunately, instead of blending together, a great “White Flight” occurred, with areas that used to be mixed suddenly dominated by African-American residents. Many of these were working class or poverty-stricken families, and with them followed negative changes. Shopping centers began catering solely to Black clientele, youth participation in gangs and drugs caused crime to rise in quiet suburban neighborhoods, and a venomous attitude toward Whites created a hostile environment. A new cultural movement taught African-Americans not to mix with Whites, but instead to look down upon them and cling to the African cultures that were stolen from them.

At this point, I was being bussed into a school that was 90% Black. Peers who had long been friends would no longer talk to me because of the color of my skin. I was physically attacked in my own neighborhood because a new Black gang had moved in and were asserting their dominance over the remaining White kids. In my High School I sat through classes, the only Caucasian student, as a Black guest speaker would spit vitriol toward Whites the likes of which Malcolm X would cringe at. We even had one teacher who liked to play Spike Lee movies on half days, just to kill time. I watched as other students refused to stand for the National Anthem but would jump up and roar loudly for “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, apparently ignorant of the “every” part of that title. Until I found my place and friends, I even experienced physical assaults on my person all because my race offended someone.

You would think this would drive any sane person to the same extremes being doled out. Instead, the end of High School sparked a new trend: alternative cultures. I ended up finding my place with a motley crew of artists, druggies, metalheads, punks, and other outcasts. Although still primarily Caucasian, there was room for everyone to smoke a cigarette and talk about the detritus of life. I met one of my best friends at that wall, an African-American woman who became my twin in so much and remains so to this day. This environment showed that we could all unite together under a single culture, regardless of race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. and sparked a new vision of the future. I wasn’t the only one who saw it, as many of these same people are still my friends today and hold the same beliefs.

As college opened up, I began to embrace the alternative lifestyles that were open to everyone. I was not a White suburban kid, I was a pagan metalhead and my friends joined me regardless of their skin tone. Alcohol (and more) flowed free at social gatherings and I found that race didn’t matter when you were working minimum wage jobs and just wanted to have a good time. My worlds expanded to areas long thought off limits racially. I would spend all night at a music festival in Baltimore, chill at a friend’s house in the tenements on Eastern Avenue, and ride with some people to pick stuff up on SouthEastern DC. Sure, I recognized the difference between my race and those around me, but to those hanging together and partying it didn’t matter. We all walked, talked, and dressed alike, no one giving a second thought to that individual of a different skin tone.

During this time, the 90’s roared on, with Hollywood and music reflecting our vision of the future. Crime, goth, and cyberpunk movies showed blended cities, where the working class and poor consisted of all races and ethnicity. The only divide was between the haves and have-nots, and my circles envisioned a society where we railed against the corporate masters… not each other. Music blended, with rock and rap, country and pop, and electronica invading everything. There was no white or black music, anyone could rise in any genre and all music could find its mix. Our language reflected this, with no “Ebonics” or “AAVE”, but instead a language we referred to as “DC” or “PG”. Dialect was not based on skin tone or ethnicity but on location and experience. When we looked to the future we knew we had a lot of bleak problems, but racism was not supposed to be one of them.

Move on to today, and suddenly racism is back in the topic. A half-Black President brings the worst out in people, sparking more outrage and lies from opponents than any previous office holder. Courts in southern states defend perpetrators of race-based crime, when you thought they’d learn their lessons decades prior. In the midst of this, many younger generations become so outraged they retort with similar behavior, creating further racial and cultural divides in the name of “holding on to their heritage”. They claim people aren’t allowed to talk or act like them, because it’s “appropriation” and deride those who don’t agree with their vitriol or isolation. Worse, they claim that the sins of European colonization past preclude any Caucasians from having valid complaints or opinions… and in so doing, end up guilty of the same behavior they rail against.

What happened to that vision of my age cohort? This blending of races, ethnicity, etc. into a singular entity. We were separate based on beliefs or finances, never on the color of our skin or our heritage. Yet suddenly the divide comes back and we stand here, confused at the behavior not only of the racists that lied dormant for decades but also at our own younger peers who seem to oppose a blended society as vehemently as White supremacists. Is there hope to move past this momentary set back and return to a unified path? My hope is that our vision isn’t dead but simply waylaid by other issues. Resolve those and once more the concept of Black, White, Asian, etc. culture will fade and we’ll go back to joining as a singular, global society. Oh, it won’t be perfect, full of environmental disasters and corporate greed, but it will be our own little dystopian utopia as far as race is concerned.

Why So Angry? Racism and Some Millennials.

Unity

Recently, I had participated in several conversations with individuals a good decade (or more) younger than me. Usually this isn’t a problem; despite approaching 40, I have similar interests to the younger generation including music, television, movies, etc. Sure, I recognized differences in their perceptions because of their inexperience, but I could chat with my teenage daughter with the same enjoyment as someone from my age cohort.

As time went on, though, I saw a serious anger in some of these individuals regarding racial issues. I sided with them on concerns, like White Privilege, the inherent racism of the justice system, or gender inequality in the workplace. I am an advocate for diversity and equality and I joined them in posting my disdain at the injustice found in America. Yet, somehow this wasn’t enough…

Instead of finding more allies, I faced vitriol and divisiveness on scale with the very people we were fighting against. I was not allowed to talk about my own experiences with discrimination, because (as a White Male) I would never understand them. Talks about racism devolved into semantics over what “racism” is rather than acknowledging experiences and learning from them. Requests to calm conversations and hate, including constructive approaches toward change, were met with derision and attacks.

Upon looking into similar people, I found entire blogs dedicated to belittling anyone who didn’t agree with their view on racism, appropriation, political correctness, etc. It was as if these individuals felt they were the sociocultural police, and that anyone who crossed their hidden lines was automatically the enemy. This was doubly so if you were privileged (i.e., White, Male, and/or Christian), as you would never be accepted as an ally in the fight for equality.

I talked to a number of friends, preferably of a different ethnicity or gender, to gain perspective. Was I, as a White Male, missing something? I’d already learned the hard way that “racism” was defined differently, something I accepted and added to my repertoire. Was it true that I was always the enemy and would never understand? That I couldn’t participate in any non-White cultural activity lest I be accused of appropriation? My friends disagreed and concurred with my first thought: these people were blowing things way out of proportion. There was a difference between being upset about a social justice and being so anti-oppression you end up being discriminatory yourself.

I felt a bit better that my perspective was not skewed, at least according to them, but then I wondered. Was this a generational issue or a social issue? Were my friends the minority and I simply hung with open-minded individuals? Or maybe the people I was talking to were the minority, and many millennials were as progressive as my cohorts? A few conversations with others of younger age said they’d seen this, but they thought it was just those people… not their peers.

Was there something less progressive about some millennials when it came to changes in culture? To understand that more, I guess I should discuss what I (and my peers) foresaw as positive sociocultural progression… in the next post.

Appropriation, Emulation, or Appreciation?

katyperry-cultural-appropriation

There’s a lot of talk about the problem of “appropriation”, meaning the usage of cultural practices, clothing, words, etc. by a non-member for their own purposes. Like the concept of political correctness, though, there seems to be contention over what is considered “appropriation” and what is considered “appreciation”. When is a person taking for their own use with disregard or disrespect… and when are they simply emulating popular culture? Is there a line, a gray area, or an all-or-non mentality? Who is the decider on where any divisions lay?

Let’s take a look at Nipponophiles, or “Weeaboos” as they are more vulgarly known, and their obsession with Japan. At what point does appreciation for Japanese anime, manga, food, and culture cross that line into appropriation? I have looked through a number of blogs, opinion pieces, and discussions and it seems like they focus on two aspects: respect and awareness. Are you doing this in complete respect to the originating culture? Those who take only what they want just because it’s “cool”, such as stealing certain words or gestures or downing traditional matcha like a Starbucks tea, are guilty of appropriation. Worse are those who do so without any knowledge of the culture itself, such as tattoos in kanji or wearing kimonos as daily garb. Are you doing something with understanding of the culture it originated from and differences with your own? Those who want to believe they’re Japanese and latch onto the culture because they cannot handle their own are appropriating. We can be respectful and participate without ignoring who we are and the origins of the other culture’s practices.

Despite these two factors, there are other aspects that make people irate that I question their veracity. At what point can a person use Japanese terminology and gestures without being guilty of appropriation? Many bloggers upset at these acts claim you should never use Japanese words and mannerisms if you’re not speaking Japanese; to enhance one’s primary language (often English) with the occasional phrase is crossing the line. My problem is that this doesn’t account for linguistic evolution or those languages that are already mixed. What about Hawai`ian Pidgin English, a recognized language that uses English at its base yet blends in a variety of other languages, including Japanese. Is it appropriation to say, “I need to shishi”? Is it fine when you’re in Hawai`i, where the term is regularly used? Or is it acceptable for anyone who has been around said language? And then there’s the English language itself, which the American dialect contains close to 100 words originating from Japanese. Tycoon, soy, tsunami… judo, Shinto, anime… even the dreaded “kawaii!” have all melded into our language and are in dictionaries. Is it appropriation to take words from elsewhere or is it intercultural exchange when they enter your vernacular?

Another example is the claim that certain ethnocentric practices are limited to that culture. What about practices that are recent, often stemming from assimilation of other popular cultures? While many may agree that the inappropriate wearing of kimonos is appropriation, the line is less clear on recent trends including anime, J-Pop, and Harajuku styles. Are these inherent to the culture at hand or are they popular (and transient) enough to be open to anyone appreciative? Is an American who likes to wear cat ears, wear Hello Kitty backpacks, and yell “Kawaii!” appropriating or simply emulating a new aspect of global pop culture?

Another issue is who determines the line between appropriation and appreciation? Most of the blogs and articles about Nipponophiles are written by Americans of Japanese descent, upset at what they see as insensitive and ignorant acts by others (primarily Caucasians). Yet many celebrities who emulate Japanese culture are doing so in Japan, in concert with Japanese businesses or organizations, often for Japanese audiences. Who is really the determinant on whether someone is appropriating or appreciating? Is it solely an issue in America by PoC-Americans directed at White Americans, stemming from the battle with a culture of stereotype, bigotry, and racism? Another concern is whether appropriation is limited to Caucasians or if it is found whenever anyone uses aspects of another culture. There is an obsession with Orientalism in American Hip-Hop that could be considered “appropriation”, and the American Wild West is often emulated in many foreign countries, including Japan and South Africa. What about intra-European emulation, including Celtophiles and Nordophiles? Are Americans who wear kilts or runes as guilty of appropriation as the others?

This seems to be like political correctness, a hotbed of debate over whether someone is being culturally insensitive, ignorant, or outright racist. Someone may take offense, but the problem is determining if the offense was intended or existed at all (in the eyes of said culture) and what can be learned. I was once told by someone that “American Indian” is offensive and that I should use “Native American”; in turn, my grandfather (who was part Cherokee) said they were stupid, he had no problem with the term “Indian”, and maybe they should worry about more important shit. As we become a global community, we certainly have to be prepared for intercultural conflicts, cultural sensitivity, and use critical thought in our words or actions. Yet, we must also be prepared for the blending of cultures that has occurred since Roman times, including assimilation, appropriation, emulation, and all the other “-ations”… all so we can become a singular nation.