Talking Body: Local artists challenge cultural appropriation outrage


Senior Graphic Designer

Talking Body feature

By Managing Editor

When Rachel Dolezal, a former chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was “outed” by her parents as a white woman after years of portraying herself as a black woman of African-American heritage, people were outraged. 

Seemingly overnight, the long-time civil rights activist and former professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University became a national obsession. Through years of researching African-American history, Dolezal crafted her black identity—tanning to obtain a darker skin tone and mimicking African-American hairstyles. Born a white woman, Dolezal had adopted the identity of a black, African-American woman. 

Many deemed Dolezal’s crafted identity an act of cultural appropriation—the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different, more dominant culture.

Drawing on recent incidents similar to Dolezal’s, including Iggy Azalea’s backlash for rapping with a “blaccent” and Kylie Jenner’s cornrows, which were heavily criticized by 17-year-old “Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg, many believe cultural appropriation—especially of black identity by whites—in the U.S. has reached a new peak.

Despite this, some, like Jack Collier, a local artist and a 2014 fashion studies alumnus, claim cultural appropriation can be totally acceptable.

“Cultural appropriation is a neutral term,” Collier said. “It’s a word we use in academics to describe a phenomenon that’s been happening ever since we’ve had cultures and groups of people [with] their own belief systems traveling around…. There are positive ways that cultural appropriation can happen, and there are negative ways, too. The term itself is a naturally occurring, neutral thing.”

Collier said cultural appropriation can demonstrate appreciation for another culture and allows people to express themselves as they identify, rather than how others think they should behave based on their ethnic backgrounds.

According to Collier, there is nothing wrong with “a white girl wearing a bindi or MIA shooting a video in Africa.”

“Most people are defined by not [their] identity, but the identity others see [them] as,” Collier said. “It seems counterproductive in our day and age, that people would want to reestablish the lines between gender, race, class and more that we should [instead] try to knock down.”

To explore this idea, Collier organized “Body Politics,” an event held in June at a gallery in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. The theme? “Come as you are not.” 

“Body Politics” invited people to explore through fashion the relationship between identity and several factors, including gender, class, race, religion, experience and time. Attendees were encouraged to “create, desecrate, appreciate [and] appropriate.”

Collier had two goals in hosting “Body Politics.” The first was to provide a platform, both online and at the event, to discuss the components that contribute to a person’s identity. His second goal was to instigate. He wanted his views to be challenged.

“I’m not arrogant enough to say I have answers to any of this,” Collier said. “I’m giving you my take, but I would rather be the asker of questions. This isn’t about my opinion, but it is about the discussion. Whether I end up on the right or wrong side of this, at least those conversations were had.”

Collier created a Facebook page advertising the event, but faced harsh criticism for its theme. Some expressed interest in attending but others, such as Ashley Ray-Harris, a 2013 alumna from Williams College in Massachusetts with a triple bachelor’s degree in English, history and German, took offense at Collier encouraging cultural appropriation from a position of privilege. Collier is a white male—part of a vast majority.

“He detracted from what could have been a powerful piece about minority identity experiences,” Ray-Harris said. “He centered the event around the white understandings of appropriation—‘Well if a minority can do white people stuff, isn’t it OK for me to do their stuff?’”

Collier acknowledged his white, male privilege but said the event was not focused on the idea that white people should be able to borrow from other cultures. All of its performers were people of color, and all were invited to explore the relationship between identity and a number of factors—not just culture.

In the days leading up to “Body Politics,” criticism for the theme peaked online. One commenter deemed the event “white nonsense,” suggesting it was an act of terrorism.

In spite of the backlash, the event was largely drama free, according to Collier, who said people discussed the subject matter respectfully.

“[No one] was judged or called out in our space,” Collier said. “[Everything] was an open dialogue.”

Jazzeppi Zanaughtti, a local artist from the Lincoln Square neighborhood, was booked as one of the performers. Zanaughtti, who is mixed—her mother is white and her father is black, used the night to express how being mixed isolates her from both sides of her identity at times. She painted her entire face black, noting that she did not think of it as blackface because she retained all of her natural facial features rather than emphasizing red lips or big eyes.

“The point of my look was that I’m not white enough to be white, I’m not black enough to be black, but either way someone’s going to be offended by whatever I’m doing,” Zanaughtti said.

Zanaughtti said cultural appropriation allows people to interact with other cultures and learn from them.

“America was built on [cultural appropriation],” Zanaughtti said. “Everything we do in our everyday lives, from what we listen to, what we eat and what we wear, do not solely stick to one culture, so cultural appropriation is an everyday thing for everyone. I don’t believe that it’s fair someone can tell me what I can and can’t do.”

Abhijeet Rane, a senior performance art & new media major at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, performed at the event to compare Rane’s personal identity to external perceptions, calling the night “an opportunity to decide for myself what I am as opposed to people assuming what I am.”

Rane is an international student from Mumbai, India. Not currently a U.S. citizen, Rane dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Underneath the costume, which was removed during the performance, words like “terrorist” and “browney” were painted on Rane’s chest and a fake gun was strapped to Rane’s underwear, illustrating stereotypical views of Southeast Asians.

“If you were to look at me, you would describe my culture or my identity as being Indian or being male,” Rane said. “If you were to ask me to define my culture, I would say it includes Bollywood movies, butter chicken, high heels, ‘The Amanda Show’ and ‘The Rugrats.’ All of these are my culture, but you don’t see it that way because you have a fixed definition of culture [and] identity without letting me define these things for myself.”

Rane said cultural identity is based on experiences, rather than allowing outward appearance to define it.

“When you talk about a person’s culture and identity, it’s framed as someone deciding how you’re supposed to identify [or] what you’re a part of,” Rane said. “It’s messed up because it takes away the opportunity for someone to define their own identity.”

Rane said cultural appropriation is not necessarily negative.

“There’s this trans activist, [Kate Bornstein], and she has this quote that is ‘Do whatever you want, just don’t be mean,’” Rane said. “I like to apply this because there’s mean appropriation and there’s appropriation that isn’t actually harmful, so that’s the line—when does a person get mean and why is a person being mean?”

Collier agreed that cultural appropriation can be harmful at times.

“Preferably it would be done with a knowledge of the history and culture from which you’re borrowing,” Collier said.

However, Collier said there are examples in which a culture has been stamped out or greatly harmed, such as Native- or African-American cultures, which both have a strong history of oppression.

Sean Andrews, an assistant professor in the Cultural Studies Program, said it is difficult to predict when cultural appropriation is acceptable.

“If you’re looking for a guidebook of when it’s OK to have cultural appropriation, you’re never going to get that,” Andrews said. “We live in a time when there are college campuses across the country where periodically—you don’t even have to wait long—there’s going to be a frat party, and people are going to come in blackface or something [else] deeply offensive.” 

However, Andrews said it is possible an event encouraging cultural appropriation could be provocative without being offensive if parameters are set so attendees could explore culture in a way that is respectful.

On the other hand, Ray-Harris said cultural appropriation is inherently harmful.

“It is offensive because it is the act of a powerful and privileged majority stealing cultural artifacts from the minority for monetary or social gains,” Ray-Harris said. “Cultural appropriation is fashion designers stealing from black communities, white writers stealing minority phrases or sayings for publicity and laughs [or] people with race and class privileges believing they have a right to cultures that are not their own simply because they ‘appreciate’ them.”

Andrews added the term “cultural appropriation” has a negative connotation because the process has watered down or eliminated many cultures.

He said cultural appropriation can be a naturally occurring process.

“[Culture] builds on the past,” Andrews said. “The only way anything means anything is if we have reference points derived from previous conversations and representations. Culture is always a process of appropriation and reappropriation.”

This process is commonly known as acculturation: when members of one cultural group adopt the beliefs and behaviors of another.

Ray-Harris said she believes the “Body Politics” event was misguided because cultural appropriation involves a person from a dominant culture stealing from a culture with less power.

She said because Rane is not a member of a privileged majority taking from a minority culture, Rane is reclaiming identity, not appropriating culture.

“‘Body Politics’ was not cultural appropriation,” Ray-Harris said. “It was cultural and identity reclaiming, [which] is when minority groups resist stereotypes forced on them and define their own identities…. Any person of color will tell you the ability to simply be ourselves without someone telling us we’re ‘not minority enough’ is a struggle.”

Andrews said there seems to historically have been a preference that gives people of majority groups the “cultural authority” to appropriate.

“We could go back to [situations] like Elvis Presley taking black blues music and reworking it, [but] there’s a pattern here,” Andrews said. “Dominant culture[s] seem to [have] a kind of authority to appropriate at will, and the things they appropriate from other cultures are more accepted when they appropriate them than they were in the original.

Ray-Harris said she would have rather seen an event framed around cultural reclaiming, not appropriation.

“I hope an event occurs that actually does what ‘Body Politics’ hoped to do,” Ray-Harris said. “I hope that event is led by people who want to listen to and respect the complex history that people of color aren’t allowed to forget. Anything less is another benefit to white-privileged society.”

Collier said he plans to turn “Body Politics” into an ongoing series, possibly with more themes focusing on various aspects of appropriation.

“I appropriate time periods, culture, ideas about gender, morals, history—I appropriate liberally,” Collier said. “I’m inspired by everything going on around me, the people around me, the experiences other people have had—I appreciate all of it and can borrow and stitch it together in new ways. I love that.”