by Jon Ward
In response to last week's American Studies Research Seminar, presented wonderfully by A. Robert Lee in a talk entitled "Postcolonial/PostIndian: Literary and Other Representations of Native America", combined with the timely reading of some interesting blog posts about the cultural appropriation of various Halloween outfits, I started to think about the importance of words and images in maintaining racial oppression, and the need to be aware of the potential cultural implications.
One of the great aspects of Lee's presentation last Wednesday was addressing the importance of the perceptions of "Indianness" within American popular culture, and an example he gave was of sporting teams who appropriate Native American culture (such as the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs or the Washington Redskins) without sensitivity towards the damage this has upon the position of Native Americans within society, and the power this appropriation has upon the "imagining" of this group within American consciousness. As an English audience member, I was initially surprised and dismayed by this practice, but then at my own ignorance of the cultural histories these team names appropriate and obscure.
In thinking about this, I remembered a particular experience I had when I was living in the USA; on a few separate occasions, I was referred to as "African American", either in conversation with me or people describing me to others. (One time an individual ludicrously described me as "the African American guy with the British accent"!) As someone who neither identifies as African, American or indeed African American, I was initially surprised by this appellation, but in the discussion of this identity signifier with one of the people who had used it in conversation with me, his response was that he then felt he had no words to describe me which were both accurate and inoffensive. While I respected this attempt to avoid offending or upsetting me, my reaction to this statement was a feeling of erasure; in a world made intelligible through language what happens when there are no words for you? Do you exist? How can you be understood? Do you possess any agency?
In connecting my anecdote with Lee's talk and the opinions outlined in the aforementioned blog postings, I have to worry about the relationship between words, images and racial oppression, and the frequency with which cultural appropriation happens without acknowledgement. And what do we do about it?