I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. / I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek — / And finding only the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.” (Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”). 

Watching this last episode, I was struck by the argument between Jada Buford and John Condne about a YouTube video that shows a black woman cornering a white guy with dirty dreads because she believes that he’s a cultural appropriator. At one point, the guy tries to walk away and the girl grabs him, attempting to restrict his movement. 

“You’re saying that I can’t have a hairstyle because of your culture? Why?” the white guy asks. 

“Because it’s my culture,” the black woman responds. 

Buford, while condemning the fact that the woman “touched” the hippie, said that the woman nonetheless had a right to confront him. 

“That is cultural appropriation,” Buford said, before Condne asked her, “How does anybody claim a hairstyle?” 

I think these exchanges (both the YouTube confrontation and the conversation between Condne and Buford) are emblematic of where we are as a country when it comes to racial understanding. For the most part, blacks and whites are talking right past each other. 

The point about cultural appropriation, or the practice of the dominant culture adopting aspects of a minority culture as its own, is not the act of adoption in and of itself (and, besides, not all claims of appropriation are legitimate). The point is the power imbalance that is laid bare by the perceived cultural theft. 

As Buford noted, a white guy gets to wear dirty dreads without also having to wear the psychological and emotional burden of being a black person in dreads, which is something altogether more hazardous. 

It takes the comedian D.L. Hughley to drive the point home. Megyn Kelly said recently that she didn’t see anything wrong with wearing blackface. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to look like Diana Ross? 

“That’s fine,” Hughley said on his radio show. “But looking like Sandra Bland will get you killed. On Halloween, black face will get you candy. Try wearing it to get a raise … I think the minute you put on blackface, your credit score should drop and your cholesterol level should go up.

“Here’s the thing, you want to be in blackface? You should do it. We should have Halloween on election day,” Hughley said. “That way you get to go to the polls in black face and they get to help you suppress your vote. Everybody wants to be black until the police show up.” 

I’m not suggesting that a white person wearing dreads is tantamount to a white person wearing black face, but the same underlying point extends to both instances. Again, the power imbalance — and the myriad fatal ways that it manifests in black people’s lives, as Hughley shows — is the reason why the perceived appropriation is so offensive to blacks in the first place. 

So would-be change agents should apply most of their energy to righting the structural imbalance of power, rather than on policing relatively superficial offenses (by all means, if a white kid wants to go around looking unkempt that’s his right). 

But the world is upside down. I’m afraid some people will come away from America to Me, particularly after watching the scene between Buford and Condne, thinking, “Look, the out of control political correctness and social justice warriorism of the college campuses has invaded even our high schools.” 

Meanwhile, they’ll gloss over the brute fact that most of the blacks at OPRF are situated at the margins, marked, so to speak, by the hazard of their skin, and comingled with others marked by all manner of vulnerability into a virtual underclass (one that mirrors that in the wider society).

In his 2009 book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes that after the civil rights and sexual revolutions of the 1960s, the “demands for new rights (which would have meant a true redistribution of power) were granted, but merely in the guise of ‘permissions.'” 

Zizek writes that the scope of what people are allowed to do in a permissive society is broadened “without actually giving them any additional power,” (i.e., you can work in the cafeteria, but you can’t get the keys). 

Zizek then quotes the French linguist Jean-Claude Milner: “Do not talk to me anymore about permissions, control, equality; I only know force. Here is my question: in the face of the reconciliation of the notables and the solidarity of the strongest, how to make it that the weak will have powers?” 

We should end our collective viewing by beginning to grapple with that question —collectively.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com   

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