Thought of the Day: Cultural Appropriation

Basketball bores the shit out of me. But I have to tip my hat, assuming that is something distinct to my own culture and not some vile act of appropriation which will garner me condemnation from some other culture who has laid claim to hat tipping, to Jeremy Lin. Lin is a basketball player from California whose parents immigrated from Taiwan. And this season he took to the courts sporting some fairly ridiculous-looking dreadlocks.

Kenyon Martin, a retired basketball player who was born in Michigan and raised in Dallas, made headlines when he called out Lin for his new hairstyle, accusing him of “cultural appropriation.” Apparently, adopting styles that one group of people has claimed as its own is a bad thing. Which seems odd to me, because I’d think a group of people who have endured a history of abuse and oppression would actually take some comfort and perhaps even a little pride in what Martin claims is Lin’s desire to be a part of that group. I would think that Martin would celebrate the fact that Lin and others are openly embracing what they feel are traits distinct to his culture.

Lin certainly touched on this point in his initial response, noting that both players are members of racial minorities and suggesting that “…the more we appreciate each other’s cultures, the more we influence mainstream society.” He also astutely called out Martin’s hypocrisy, pointing out that Martin has Chinese tattoo’s. Clearly Martin had no problem appropriating Lin’s culture, yet was quite upset when Lin apparently appropriated his.

As the debate played out publicly, few have acknowledged the racist undertones in Martin’s remarks. For example, he referred to Lin as “this boy” and “these people.” Imagine the outcry if Lin had referred to Martin in such terms? It makes me wonder if David Duke should be angry with Martin for his cultural appropriation of terms deeply rooted in white Southern racist culture?

It’s also important to note that Lin is not a racist, and therefore his adoption of a hairstyle that’s widely considered to be a “black hairstyle” is not meant to mock or offend. This is not a case of a Klansman who is spending $50 a month in tanning salon so his skin can look less white. Lin plays in the National Basketball Association, where 74 percent of his colleagues are black. He has been surrounded by blacks and black culture for most of his life. And getting dreadlocks is evidence of how much he has positively embraced that culture.

For his part, Lin penned an insightful piece about his journey to dreads. Clearly his intent was to sport a hairstyle that was popular among his teammates and friends. Which reinforces my belief that anyone who supports black culture should celebrate Lin’s decision to get dreads as a positive affirmation of that culture (if indeed that’s what dreads represent, but more on that in a moment).

First, let’s acknowledge that hair is more than just hair in black culture. The afro has been seen as a black-positive hairstyle, much like dreadlocks, because it’s seen as more “natural.” Conversely, straight and smooth hair, often artificially created through a nasty-ass process known as “relaxing” it, has been seen as Uncle Tomish, trying to emulate white culture. And if you are unfamiliar with all of this, I highly recommend watching Chris Rock’s documentary on the subject.

But back to dreadlocks, their origins, and what they may or may not represent. This hairstyle was made popular by Jamaicans, specifically the Rastafarians, which leaves me wondering if Martin’s family comes from Jamaica. If not, then shouldn’t he be apologizing to Jamaicans – or at least the Rastafarians – for cultural appropriation? And to that end, why hasn’t Martin called-out other basketball players who are guilty of cultural appropriation, being non-Jamaicans who have appropriated the dreadlock hairstyle from Jamaican culture, such as Chris Bosh, Marquis Daniels, Kenneth Faried, Brain Grant, Latrell Sprewell, and Etan Thomas? Has he held his tongue because they are black? And, if so, does that make Martin a racist?

Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not any of those aforementioned basketball players are third- or fourth-generation descendants from Jamaica, or perhaps Rastafarians, in which case the hairstyle would indeed be a part of their cultural heritage. Which raises the question of how much of a connection does one need to a particular culture to justify their alleged appropriation? And since science tells us we are all descendants from Africa, doesn’t that make this whole discussion kind of silly?

I don’t understand cultural appropriation. For starters, what specifically defines a culture? And what about distinctions within what’s presumed to be a distinct culture? Are there not cultural distinctions between black Americans, black Africans, and black Caribbeans? And, if so, are they allowed to borrow freely from one another simply because of the level a melanin in their skin?

Is there a white culture? And if so, are there things that non-whites are not allowed to appropriate from it? For example, should black women be allowed to straighten their hair, dye it blond, or wear wigs that achieve the same affect, given that those hairstyles are more traditionally associated with white culture? Should there be an outcry against blacks who wear Timberland boots and North Face jackets, both of which were initially popularized by whites?

Making these kinds of distinctions can get very confusing for those who complain about cultural appropriation. For example, is a white person not allowed to use a touch-tone phone, caller I.D. and call waiting because they were invented by a black woman? And is a black person then not allowed to use any phone because it was invented by a bunch of white guys, one of whom went on to create the lab in which the aforementioned black woman made her inventions? And would the latter fact negate her inventions because they were made in a lab created by white culture?

Given the world we live in, where cultures have been living together for ages, what makes something truly unique to a given culture? Koreans are believed to have invented pants, so does that mean the rest of us are appropriating Korean culture when we wear them? Should we apologize for our pants?

What makes such things distinct to one culture and not another? Is it because someone from that culture created them, or because someone from that culture borrowed it from another and then popularized it through their own culture? And who do you need to ask permission from before you “appropriate” something? Is it simply a question of acknowledging its origins and respecting them? If so, what exactly constitutes acknowledgement and respect?

Finally, is this really about culture, or is it about race? Are these claims of cultural appropriation nothing more than a backlash against years of deep-seated racism, or a way to reinforce racial stereotypes? Are they intended to be a form of cultural racism, or is that just an unpleasant byproduct of trying to hold onto cultural identity on an increasingly assimilating world?

As you can see, I have a lot of questions about cultural appropriation. And there don’t seem to be a lot of clear answers to any of them. But perhaps the most poignant question of all is whether or not we want to be drawing more lines between one another.

I, for one, have seen far too much racism, hatred, and bigotry in my lifetime – based on everything from race, religion, culture, and nationality. And it mystifies me why anyone, particularly someone who has likely endured a lifetime of overt and institutional oppression, would want to foster more of that in our society by trying to use something as simple as a hairstyle to build even more boundaries between us.

 

Thought of the Day: Sheeple

I love to hear people say the word “sheeple.” It reveals a lot about the type of people they are. These are the kind of folks who would eagerly pay $29.99 for Alex Jones’ Blu-ray on how to make an aluminum foil hat (for a good laugh, and quite possibly a good cry, watch John Oliver’s take on this blowhard, in which he mockingly uses the term “sheeple”).

Sheeple is a fake word, a made-up term used to describe people who blindly follow a false truth…something that is made up. It’s a hybrid of the words “sheep” and “people.” Yes, that’s how clever these people are.

And what’s really funny about it is that they are using a made-up word, which in and of itself is a false truth, to describe people who they believe are blindly following a false truth. The word is meant to mock others, but by definition it also mocks those who use it.

I think there ought to be a word to mock the people who blindly accuse others of doing the same stupid shit they themselves are doing, so I followed their example and made one up for it: “hypocridiot.” It’s a hybrid of the words “hypocrite,” for someone who criticizes others for that which they are guilty of, and “idiot,” which basically sums up the type of people who listen to these lunatics and blindly follow their nonsensical theories, clueless to the fact that they are the ones who have actually been duped.

Thought of the Day: Bicycle Licenses

I love bicycles. And I think we should do more to turn our urban centers into bike-friendly places. In fact, I’m all for restricting access for private passenger vehicles and offering incentives to companies that cater to cycling commuters, including places to safely store one’s bike and on-site locker rooms so employees can shower and change into appropriate work attire after riding their bikes in on a sweltering August morning.

But I also think bike riders need to be licensed, at least in urban environments. Now I know what you are thinking…it’s a bike, for Christ’s sake. True, but one only needs to casually observe the behavior of cyclists in an urban environment like New York City to see the wisdom of this.

On one hand, New York is awash with professional cyclists who deliver food and other items on bikes. Many of these cyclists seem to either not understand or refuse to follow the laws concerning riding a bike in this city. They regularly ignore traffic signals, ride against traffic, and even ride on the sidewalks. And to compound that, a lot of them have what can best be described as a serious attitude problem, as if the rest of us are just obstacles in their way – even when we legally have the right of way.

On the other hand, with the expansion of the Citi Bike program, we also have many more casual riders, including tourists. And not only are these cyclists more likely to be less-skilled riders than those who own their own bike, but they are also less likely to be aware of the rules and regulations for safely riding a bike in this city.

This combination of aggressive and indifferent veteran cyclists along with the influx of inexperienced and ignorant new riders is a recipe for serious problems. And while the cycling community is the first to cry foul whenever one of their own is killed or injured by a negligent motorist, and rightly so, they tend to scoff at the idea that any of their kind are guilty of bad behavior – let alone the need to be licensed and regulated. It’s like dog owners, who always insist that they clean up after their pets, yet there is still dog poop everywhere you look. It’s never their fault…someone else is always to blame.

Licensing may seem harsh, but if you are a safe cyclist, then I imagine you would welcome such a measure for your own safety, to protect you from the reckless riders who pose just as much of a threat to you as they do to everyone else. Cyclist can easily reach speeds of 20-30 miles an hour, which are sufficient enough to injure a fellow cyclist in a collision, let alone a little old lady crossing the street. And now many of the delivery riders in New York City are using electric bikes, which can reach those same speeds without the need to even pedal. Plus, they ride these under-powered motor scooters as indiscriminately as some do conventional bikes, except now they can have a smoke or check their smartphones while they’re riding because they no longer have the need to even focus on pedaling.

Cyclists have demanded bike lanes. They deserve them – and more. And the city has complied, adding more than 1,000 miles of bike lanes to date, with at least 50 new miles being added each year – all at the taxpayers’ expense. The problem is that many cyclists use these bike lanes at their convenience. Imagine if motorists used the roads at their convenience, driving along sidewalks, through bike lanes, and across any pavement whenever they felt like it?

Despite the addition of all these bike lanes, you will still see some cyclists riding in other lanes of traffic, and even on the sidewalks. And those who do use the bike lanes we’ve set aside for them, at their demand, often use them inappropriately. Some travel in the wrong direction, riding against traffic, which is a hazard to both pedestrians and other cyclists (not to mention a risk for motorists), simply because they are too lazy to ride a block over and use the proper bike lane (again, imagine if motorists were just as lazy).

It seems like some of these bike riders only care about themselves. They want to be protected from everyone else, and insist that motorists and pedestrians both adhere to the laws and regulations, yet they totally ignore the laws and regulations regarding their own behavior. For example, most cyclists, though few will admit it, completely ignore traffic signals, preferring to weave through pedestrians and motor vehicles at intersections – even though the people and cars have the right of way. Be honest…if you are a cyclist in New York City, do you always stop at red lights and wait until they turn green? No, cyclists in this city do whatever the fuck they want. They want everyone else to have to obey the rules except for themselves.

We have made rules for motorists, to protect cyclists, pedestrians, and other motorists. As a result, more people feel comfortable riding bikes around the city (ridership has increased by 150 percent). Now it’s time to make – or at least start to vigorously enforce – rules for cyclists as well, to protect pedestrians, motorists, and other cyclists.

 

Thought of the Day: Capitalization

As a writer, I always strive for proper grammar. Like a musician, you need to know how to play the instrument if you want to make good music.

And as an atheist, I do not believe in God, Jesus, Satan, Allah, or Zeus. Yet these are all proper nouns, referring to deities that many hold dear. So, like the Moby Dick or Ishmael, I may not believe they actually existed but I still capitalize them. And you should, too. It is grammatically correct. Grammar Akbar!

As you may have noticed, I did not capitalize atheist. Some might argue that it is a belief system and therefore should be capitalized like the nouns that refer to the followers of other belief systems – such as Christian, Muslim, or Jew. But an atheist is not technically an adherent of a belief system. There is no actual atheism, either. There is not some doctrine held by those who do not believe in any sort of deity. In fact, that term is typically only used by theists who need to force us into some sort of category based upon their own belief system. They can only think of people in terms of their belief system, with their world clouded by their own religious views, so they assume that we are a religion of non-belief – or perhaps even anti-God. And, in fairness, there is a strain of militant atheist who act like it’s some sort of religion. Though I imagine a lot of it is just good clean fun, like my friend who insists that his mother is a devout atheist, because she doesn’t go to church every Sunday. Atheist Akbar!