Rebel Music: The Birth of a Revolution

Frank WalnIt has been proven time and time again that music has the power to transcend the bounds of society. Always on the side of the oppressed, it lives within the souls of those that cling to it like a heartbeat. It has transformed countries, sparked movements and inspired those who are open to its message.

MTV’s show “Rebel Music” showcases youth around the world who fight against oppression through music. The most recent episode highlighted Frank Waln, Inez Jasper and a handful of other Native American singers/rappers from various tribes across the US and Canada. I’d definitely be lying if I said that I expected a show like this to come from MTV. Regardless, it’s something that needs to be talked about widespread. Too many times the voices of the oppressed are stifled by those unwilling to hear the cries. The only thing that loves company more than misery is ignorance. The episode brought up so many important issues, particularly the negative effects the Keystone Pipeline would have on Native American lands, extremely high suicide rates among Native American youth and the disproportionately high number of indigenous women in Canada being murdered.

Watching this episode, it was sad but not surprising to hear that so many issues that Native Americans are facing are some of the very same issues are currently being protested across the country by the black community – police brutality, cultural appropriation, longstanding stereotypes that further perpetuate and sustain our oppressions. In likeness of Black Lives Matter, Native Americans are also seeking a voice in the conversation with #NativeLivesMatter.

I want to make it clear to anyone who feels as though focusing on both of these movements will diminish the other that that is not the case. I stand behind both movements because, while our cultures are different, our goals are the same.  Our oppression binds us together, but it is only our solidarity with each other that can (and will) break the chains that colonialism has tried so hard to keep us in.

For those of you interested in the episode, here it is:

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Media Diversified: An Appreciation Post

So I think it’s time for a little shoutout. I started this blog a few months now, but, during that time, I’ve come across a handful of blogs that prove to be precious little gems in a sea of thoughts.

One of these gems is Media Diversified. It’s a blog dedicated to diversifying the media landscape. The non-profit organization blog features dozens of writers and academics from all walks of life, from all parts of the world. It’s refreshing that they don’t shy away from any and all topics that interest them – from oppressions of people of color in films to the exploration of Afrofuturism.

I will say that I’m slightly disappointed that they are based in the UK. A blog like this would NO DOUBT have such a positive reception among the ranks of activists and feminists across the US, especially in light of the numerous police brutality videos that have been flooding social media with the help of the American people. With a blog similar to this, the US could definitely see more organized protests and leaders emerge from the depths.

Once you browse through their blog, you’ll definitely want to reblog and share A LOT of the articles you come across. However, they do have reposting guidelines that you’ll want to look over before reposting any of their work.

Chocolate, Cowboys & Cultural Appropriation

image by Jen Mussari

image by Jen Mussari

The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo has been a staple in Houstonian history far longer than I can remember. Filled with mouth-watering turkey legs, bedazzled clothing and cowboys, it is the essence of what the world thinks Texas is in the purest, most stereotypical form. Whenever I go to the Livestock Show, I usually ignore everything else and go straight for the chocolate toffee (yeah, I’ll risk the cavities, thank you). But this time, well, this time was different.

While I walked around I couldn’t help but notice all of the jewelry and clothing that claimed to be “Texan” yet had obvious Native American influences. Some of these vendors even took it a step further and sported actual company names such as Bing Crosby Indian Art and Tribe America Leathers. At one point, I even walked past a blue jean jacket with a Native American chief wearing a headdress. Before I cried foul, I decided to talk to some of the booth owners to try and clear up some of the questions I had.

The owner of Tribe America Leathers immediately started telling me about each product. He told me that the tapestries and other items were created by different Native American artists. In fact, one of the tapestries I had just picked up had a tag attached with a short bio and picture of a Native American woman. Still dubious, I decided to ask him one more question, one that I knew would either cement or break the validity of his business in my mind. I asked how much of the profits made at the Houston Rodeo would end up going to these tribes. As soon as the question escaped my mouth, I knew I had hit a nerve (or at the very least bumped it). All of a sudden he didn’t seem so keen on helping me anymore. Still moving around his booth, he answered with “almost half” before adding that he gives “them millions and millions of dollars all the time.” Hmm…thank you for your white savior complex.

After this encounter, I decided to check out a few more booths. One that caught my eye in particular displayed posters of what I assumed were white women dressed in Native American garb. Since assuming doesn’t confirm doubts, I went over, pointing at rings that caught my eye and asking what the symbols on them represented, to which the woman stood silently before stuttering her (wrong) answer.

From these encounters, I walked away with several major realizations, all of which illustrate the dangers of cultural appropriation:

 1. The Lack of Cultural Context

Though many of these vendors might know how to manufacture these products, they lack the necessary knowledge about the cultural significance of what they are selling. By selling these products with no valuable context in which to understand them, Native American artwork, jewelry and clothing become nothing more than trinkets that make one seem “enlightened” and “cultured.“ Do not be mistaken. Owning all of these “trinkets”  clothing and jewelry does not give you genuine insight into diverse, indigenous cultures. Native American culture is not trendy. It is their way of life.

2. The Lack of Native American Representation

Of all the vendors who sold Native American-themed art and clothing, NONE were run by Native Americans. While I do understand that many Native American artists might not have the access or financial standing to open their own stores, serious conversation about the lack of Native American representation in mainstream America is a real problem that is long overdue. Their absence will no doubt lead to the further erasure of Native American peoples. It is, in every sense, the continued cultural eradication of a people that have inhabited this land long before any of us showed up.

3. The Need for Cultural Preservation

Cultural preservation is so important for those that have been and continue to be on the fringes of American society. This society, American society, has done an injustice to Native Americans. I will speak for myself when I say that I know very little about the tribes that reside in this country. The descriptions given to us in history books have unapologetically painted the picture of “savage,” of a people that have been conquered and successfully erased from the American narrative. We owe it not only to these tribes but to ourselves to make sure that Native Americans don’t continue to fall prey to the archetypes given to us by colonialism.

4. The American Double Standard

The double standards in this country never cease to amaze me. I’ve seen a good number of girls posing in photo shoots with headdresses perfectly positioned on their heads, woefully ignorant to the cultural importance of what they represent. These actions are not condemned or even acknowledged by the majority of American society, but let ONE person falsely wear a Purple Heart and it becomes a crime.

5. Economic Exploitation

This seems to be the least talked about consequence of cultural appropriation. When I spoke with the owner of Tribe America Leathers, he explicitly told me that almost 50 percent of the proceeds went to Native American tribes (Navajo to be specific). Yet looking at his website, it says that he makes ALL the clothing himself. I’m honestly not even upset at the fact that he lied to me. I’m more disappointed that he used Native Americans under the guise of inclusion.

6. Buy from Legit Sources

I wholeheartedly believe in cutting out the middle man and buying authentic products from the source. Do your own research. The only thing I own that belongs to Native American culture is a dreamcatcher. I bought it from an authentic small shop on the Galveston Strand when I was around 14. The Cherokee woman who owned the shop explained the intricate process she went through in order to make it. It’s a pretty small dreamcatcher around $17 but I had no qualms about buying it because I knew the quality of the product was worth it.

Again, I want to stress that there’s nothing wrong with buying products that belong to other cultures. As long as you educate yourself throughout the process, you won’t become a perpetrator of cultural appropriation. Remember, products having Native American influence are not synonymous with products made by actual Native American artists.

Whitewashing in the American Education System: Why Shakespeare Isn’t Enough

It is no secret that I grew up having more books than friends. I’d spend hours losing myself in the fictional narrative, devouring page upon page of mythical story lines. I fell in love with these alternative universes that seemed so much more magical than my own. But it wasn’t until years later that I realized how problematic my perceptions of these characters really were. I never questioned why all of the characters I’d created in my mind fell neatly within the frames of Eurocentrism. The only times that didn’t happen were when book covers or descriptions of the characters’ physical features were included.

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The first time I explicitly remember reading a novel from someone who wasn’t white and cisgender was in my 11th grade AP English class. My teacher, Mrs. Seward, had us read Things Fall Apart written by African novelist Chinua Achebe. It told the African narrative that was so clearly missing in required reading. What made this book even more valuable was the reason it was written: as a response to The Heart of Darkness, the problematic, racist sentiments from the viewpoint of European colonialists.   If I hadn’t read this novel, I would NOT have seen the genuinely beautiful side of Africa that is rarely, if ever, portrayed by visitors from the outside.

Throughout my educational career, I’ve been subjected (yes, subjected) to reading novels written by white men from centuries ago. While some of the novels were worth a read, I could never get rid of the feeling that something was missing from the experience.

It’s no secret that novels written in the 18th century were riddled with Middle English that today’s modern English speakers find difficult to comprehend. And yet we still read them, encouraged by teachers, professors, the elite to “try and understand…really dig down deep.” Yet classmates would comment on not wanting to read a certain book because phrases or sections were written in a language other than English.

Fast forward to my senior year of college. Last semester, I decided to take an honors Intro to Humanities class. Throughout the semester, I started feeling increasingly more upset and couldn’t figure out why, until it hit me: here I am, in college, experiencing the same lack of diversity in required reading that I did in high school.

The lack of diversity in the humanities is not an issue that needs to be looked over. The humanities are the core of society, the study of human culture. By limiting required college curriculum to novels and plays written by people of European descent, educational institutions are explicitly saying that no other voices, cultures and traditions matter. With the overabundance of required literature centered solely on the European POV, the invisibility of other narratives prevails, a reoccurring wound caused by ignorant neglect.

More so than not, many students don’t read books unless required to do so by the public education system. So when they don’t see themselves or their experiences represented, what does that leave them with? I should not have to minor in African American studies in order to learn more about my people’s history. Nor should any other group of color, especially those whose influences have heavily affected European culture and have gone uncredited throughout history.

Why It’s Not Really About Superheroes

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After being asked by TMZ whether or not she’d be playing the part of Green Lantern, Michelle Rodriguez thought that was “the dumbest thing [she’d] ever heard. Because of this whole ‘minorities in Hollywood’ thing. It’s so stupid….stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own.

Fans took to social media in response to Rodriquez’s comments. Of course, she posted a video on Facebook clarifying her statement she made Friday night.

Here is a quote from her video:

What I really meant was, ultimately, at the end of the day, there’s a language. And the language that you speak in Hollywood is successful franchise. And I think that there are many cultures in Hollywood that are not white that can come up with their own mythology…instead of trying to turn a girl character into a guy or instead of trying to turn a white character into a black character or Latin character, I think that people should stop being lazy, and that people should actually make an effort in Hollywood to develop their own mythology.

Let me be the first to say that I admire Rodriguez for taking roles that many women probably either wouldn’t take or wouldn’t be cast in. But what Rodriquez fails to realize is that there really aren’t “many cultures in Hollywood that are not white.” I have yet to see accurate depictions of Asians, Middle Easterners, Africans, Hawaiians, Native Americans, Aboriginals and other POC in major, big-budget films. The sad fact is that we don’t see many people of color being cast as major characters. In a Time Magazine interview, Fresh Off The Boat star Constance Wu talks about how important it is “to see Asians in those leading roles because it changes…the anglo-heteronormative status of TV.” Having a few people of color in a movie is not diversity, it’s tokenism.

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ZAHARA in Spider Stories

Throughout the centuries, people of color have created long and rich histories of storytelling. However, these story lines have not been adequately embraced by Hollywood. The underrepresentation of people of color in comics doesn’t stem from “laziness” on the artists’ part. There are plenty of comics that do an awesome job at illustrating diversity, including the
cartoon Spider Stories by Nigerian-American brothers John and Charles Agbaje.

In regards to comic-based films, recreating traditional superheroes into figures that people of color can relate to is not “stealing,” it’s a cultural cohesion vital to sustaining diversity. While superheroes are fictitious, thriving in a world of crime and chaos, they often create racial discourse in pop culture. So until the billion-dollar movie franchises in Hollywood can get it together, America can’t claim to be a melting pot.

So First Thing’s First…What is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality

Artwork by Miriam Dobson

 

Note: Click image for full illustration.

If you’re a self-proclaimed feminist (or just an awesomely informed person), then chances are you’ve heard of the term ‘intersectionality’ at some point in time. But for those of you who are coming across this word for the first time, well, this post is for you.

So…let’s get to it.

To grasp the concept of intersectionality, let me first explain the term ‘feminism.’

In the broadest sense, feminism is the belief that women should have the same rights, merit and opportunities as our male counterparts and that being a woman should not be viewed as a disadvantage.

Intersectionality, on the other hand, goes far beyond the fight for equality among the sexes.         The term was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 work. It not only recognizes the system of oppression between the sexes, but also acknowledges the interconnectedness of multiple oppressive systems. These systems can include gender, class, ability, age, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other forms of identity.

The goal of mainstream feminism is for women to effectively integrate into the present system. While this is needed, it just simply isn’t enough. The system itself is the problem. Being “welcomed” into a broken system isn’t the solution.  We must condemn the system that has unapologetically been built by groups that are now marginalized by that same system.

This is why my feminism HAS to be intersectional. Because I’m not just a woman. Because I’m not just black. Because I shouldn’t have to pick and choose which oppressed group I identity with that day.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that the theory of intersectionality has been fully understood, accepted and embraced by “mainstream” feminists. Despite that, I’m hopeful that the feminists of my generation will continue to embrace the many faces of feminism, including my own.