Recently I was invited to a ‘conscious rave.’ I had no idea what that was, but I decided to check it out. What began as a simple invite to a party ended as an eye-opener to how problematic the conscious community is when it comes to race and cultural appropriation.
At the rave, I witnessed a circle of white university kids, many of whom had backcombed their hair into oblivion to resemble dreadlocks, playing the guitar and singing Buffalo Soldier – even injecting pseudo-Jamaican accents into the chorus. This was followed by a gross attempt at Indigenous throat singing, which, being a traditional Métis kid, still strikes a nerve in me as I type this. A few months later, one of the vocalists from that group would snap at an anthropology professor for using the term ‘Aborigines’ to describe Indigenous peoples from Australia, claiming that ‘they’ve actually hated that term for centuries.’
Having grown up enjoying the luxuries of white privilege, while simultaneously witnessing the clear advantage I had over people of color who share my lineage, the race problem within the conscious community can be summed up in a sentence: The conscious community is unconscious of its own prejudices.
WE HAVE WORK TO DO
Let me clarify: I am in no way claiming that I am not a part of this problem. I didn’t grow up in an environment that offered much racial diversity, and the only times I took part in traditional ceremonies was during summer vacations with my grandparents. I’m learning every day that I still have a lot to unpack within myself and my own life. Nonetheless, being aware of my own prejudices doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility of pointing out that the conscious community needs a wake-up call when it comes to taking a peek at theirs.
Perhaps one of the most pervasive issues in the conscious community when it comes to race and cultural appropriation is the ‘color-blind ideology,’ defined by Megan A. Burke for The Society Pages as ‘ways of talking and thinking that affirm our belief in individualism without recognizing the many remaining barriers to equality.’ This way of thinking tends to run rampant in the conscious community because of its convenience. We’re celebrating diversity at a surface level, while failing to acknowledge the ways in which inequality still exists.
Despite the fact that the conscious community tends to be at the forefront of bringing up issues of inequality, it’s also where disparities tend to replicate themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cultural appropriation that takes place in terms of style and dress, and the vehement defense that the wearers tend to engage in when confronted by those who belong to the culture that the garment or style originated from. Just look at the comments section on Instagram of a white person with ‘dreadlocks.’
One of the phrases I hear the most often regarding this appropriation is that it isn’t really appropriation, it’s ‘appreciation.’ There are a few problems with this. First, appreciating something implies that you understand it – and understanding a culture is difficult enough that there are ethnographers who will spend literal years studying people in a place that is foreign to them. Reading an article on Wikipedia or your activist blog du jour doesn’t give you the full picture or understanding. Second, as Jarune Uwujaren points out in her article on cultural appropriation for Everyday Feminism, Westerners tend to push our culture onto others, and then they demand bits and pieces of the assimilated peoples’ culture in return. Assimilation gives us an unfair advantage, because it creates a situation where the assimilated can’t push back when we exploit the desirable parts of their culture. For me, I see this in the popularity of dreamcatchers as a type of home décor for white people who still cross the street whenever they see an Indigenous person walking towards them.
The third problem, and probably the most aggravating issue for me, is the fact that the conscious community tends to not recognize the ways in which they participate in appropriation. In a sense, the conscious community overall tends to wilfully ignore their own prejudices and bad behaviours when it comes to racial disparity. They also tend to get really, really upset when they’re called out by people of color.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
First of all, listen when a person of color tells you you’re doing something inappropriate. I can’t stress this enough.
Second, when confronted with a situation where you’re offended by something someone says or does, take a few minutes to think about why. Were they being rude? Or does it contradict something you believe? Why do you believe that?
In case you’re wondering – yes, I did get asked to be at another conscious rave. I declined. Until the conscious community can get its shit together when it comes to the issue of race and appropriation, consider me unconscious.
Published in the Spring 2018 issue. Get it in digital or print here.