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Archives for : Cultural Appropriation

Passing While Black: Black Man Becomes the Indian Liberace?!

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

panditLast week The New Republic posted this fascinating story about the famous Indian singer Korla Pandit. Known as the “Godfather of Exotica,” he had his own TV show that ran in the 1950s and had an impressive recording career as well. He was rich, married –to a White woman – and accepted in Hollywood as, well, an acceptable exotic. The only thing was, Korla wasn’t what he seemed.

From the New Republic:

Like most everything in Hollywood, it was all smoke and mirrors. His charade wasn’t his stage name—it was his race. Korla Pandit, born John Roland Redd, was a light-skinned black man from St. Louis, Missouri. It was a secret he kept until the day he died.”

So, how did he do it dear readers? How did a Black man from Missouri become The Godfather of Exotica? By playing off the cultural ignorance of the American people, of course. All John Roland Redd had to do was slap on a turban and voila, instant Indian. He also invented a fantastic back story and liked to talk about spirituality and peace. What’s not to love? Considering the fact that there are a grotesque amount of Americans who still believe our president is a Muslim simply because of his name, it really can’t be too hard to fool us as a people. We’ll believe anything if it feeds into cultural stereotypes. The truth is, Redd’s whole act was one big stereotype, including the turban with the shiny gem he always wore. He claimed to be a Hindu, but Hindu’s don’t even wear turbans, that’s a Sikh custom. But why quibble with details, America?

It really is a fascinating story, especially considering how bold Redd was with his deceit. He wasn’t going to quietly pass, he wanted a big life as a musician and this ethnic farce was his way to get it and apparently he played it out until the end. I wonder if he was giving the finger to the world when he drew his last breath? Like, “Suckers, I Got Over!”

There is a new documentary about Korla Pandit, called Korla that I cannot wait to see. I love stories like these because they completely fly in the face of the idea that Black people had no agency in their ability to “beat the system,” plus it is another example of how fluid identity is, largely based on skin color and hair texture. Apparently Redd’s hair was shiny, black and straight. Do you think he could have pulled this off if he had kinky hair and skin a bit darker? Oh, the possibilities.

So, dear readers, what do you think of Korla Pandit? Do you think Black people knew his secret? Apparently he got itchy around other Indians because clearly they’d be able to smell his lies. Will you be watching the film? Check the trailer and I’ll bet you’ll want to. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Peace!

Defining Blackness: My Take on Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal, she's not really Black, but she feels like she is in her head.

Rachel Dolezal, she’s not really Black, but she feels like she is in her head.

It’s not as though there hasn’t already been enough written about Rachel Dolezal, the White woman from Montana who has been passing for Black for the last decade. Still, I feel I have to add my two cents to the raging controversy over this woman’s actions. Actually, I have more than two cents to add and I don’t really want to say a lot about Rachel, as much as I want to talk about identity politics in general.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that Rachel Dolezal belongs in a Gillian Flynn novel. If Gillian Flynn wants to write a sequel to Gone Girl, where the main character fakes, not her death, but her race, thanks to Rachel, all the lies, trickery and fake hair machinations have already been figured out. And I’m sure Gillian would write a far better ending than the real Rachel has so far, which has been to offer lame excuses for her preposterous lies. The woman claimed she was born in a teepee, was beaten like a slave and that her adopted Black brother was actually her own child. Those are the lies we know for sure. As the saga unfolds, I am sure more lies will surface. And then of course, there’s the big, enormous lie about her being Black. And that’s the big, enormous lie I believe we should discuss.

Coincidentally, the day before #NotBlackRachel-gate erupted, I had just seen the documentary film, Little White Lie. In the movie, filmmaker Lacey Schwartz explains how she grew up believing she was White, despite the fact that she had brown skin and kinky hair, unlike either of her parents. As it turns out, Schwartz’s mother had had an affair with a Black man but never told her daughter, her husband or any of her family members. What makes the film and Lacey’s story so compelling is that despite her obvious Black features, everybody in her family and mostly White community bought into this “little white lie.” When she entered high school in a more diverse community however, Black people immediately caught on that this girl had to be Black, but it still took four more years for Lacey to learn the truth about her heritage.

As I work on my current book, Same Family, Different Colors , I am constantly learning how significant skin color and hair texture can be in determining a person’s identity. One can be too dark to be considered beautiful and Asian. A person can be too light to be authentically Black. And yet, even though simple gradations of skin tone can alter the way a person of color is treated within their own community and by society at large, people like Lacey Schwartz and Rachel Dolezal seem to suggest that skin color is irrelevant when claiming identity. And if not irrelevant, it certainly is not the main determinant in racial categorization.

Lacey Schwartz has brown skin and curly hair, but for 18 years lived as a White person and experienced the privilege that Whiteness confers. Even today, living as a Black woman, she still feels she maintains some of that privilege. Rachel Dolezal changed her hair and darkened her skin but not in an extreme way, but just enough. But I would posit that it wasn’t her external appearance that guaranteed that people would accept her claim to Blackness. It was simply because she claimed she was Black. She said it, she claimed it, so people believed it. Black people come in all shades so why couldn’t she be just a light-skinned Black woman? As Schwartz proved in her film, even if it’s hard to believe, people generally don’t question a person’s stated racial identity. Look at the actress Rashida Jones, the author Lise Funderburg, or hairstylist and entrepreneur Anthony Dickey. They don’t read as Black, but they all have a Black parent. So, why couldn’t Rachel be one more? That’s the world we live in today.

I don’t care to try to get inside of Rachel Dolezal’s head to understand why she did what she did. But I also don’t think it’s very odd for a White person to want to be Black. Everything Black people do is imitated and appropriated by people all over the world. Our hairstyles, fashion, music, language, religious expression, even the narrative of our struggle is co-opted and embraced by others. Despite the fact that we are publicly abused, shamed, demonized, and killed on city streets, there is no other culture in the world more imitated than Black American culture. I get it. I get why someone might feel an affinity to Black culture and want to not only admire it but claim it, be a part of it, be embraced by its members, not just be an ally or a friend. In other words, not be an outsider looking in but a member of the tribe. Who wouldn’t want that? But at the end of the day, as I learned in the first grade, we don’t get to try on different ethnic identities like new fashion trends.

To me, if Rachel Dolezal had a lifetime membership to a tanning salon, permed her hair, married a Black man named Tyrone, sang in the church choir at the local AME church and named her children Jamal and Kenya, that would be fine. It would be clear she felt most comfortable in the Black community but she would still be White. And honestly, some people might assume she was part Black simply because of her actions, and in that way, without lying on any forms or inventing ancestors that don’t exist, Dolezal could have passed for Black as many people do today who either have ambiguous features or because of their lifestyle. But there is a major difference between committing yourself to a community you feel an affinity for and co-opting a culture and living a lie. You can’t invent a history without expecting the truth to come and bite you in the ass one day. Lies are just lies and they destroy families and other people’s lives. Just ask Lacey Schwartz. The “little white lie” her mother told destroyed her nuclear family and the close relationship she had with her father.

At the end of the day, I think Rachel Dolezal is an interesting character who probably has some mental health issues she should take care of. But I do understand a White woman wanting to be Black so badly, she’d lie about it. Personally, I thank God all the time I came wrapped up in this fine brown packaging. But if there is a takeaway from this whole episode, a teachable moment if you will, then it is to ponder the fluidity of racial categorization and identity markers. I’m not saying that we need to find a different way to define Blackness, because in my mind that’s pretty damn clear. You have to be born Black to be Black. And Black is not about the color of your skin, it means you have “recent” ancestors from Africa. That’s scientific. But from a visual standpoint, it is hard to detect Blackness and even though White Westerners have been trying for hundreds of years to qualify it, quantify it, and put us into a box, they still haven’t figured it out yet. Rachel Dolezal thought she’d figured it out, but clearly didn’t get the memo about Blackness requiring real Black people in her family tree.

What do you think dear readers about this whole thing? I’d love to hear your takeaway. Got my pencil so I can take notes.

Peace!

#Flashback Friday: Motherhood as a Competitive Sport

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

Recently a New York Times Op-Ed piece ran that suggested Black mothers were better mothers than White mothers. Besides the multiple comments berating the writer for daring to suggest such a thing on the New York Times website, one Black woman wrote a pretty scathing take down of the Times piece in the Washington Post, pretty much shaming the Times writer for resorting to Mammy stereotypes to promote Black motherhood.

Mommy Competitions go global

Mommy Competitions go global

And all of this just further perpetuates the mommy wars that really, in my opinion, is a lot of media hype and an attempt to commercialize our most fundamental job in this world, raising our children. How did this ever become a competition? It reminded me of a 2012 post I wrote, “Motherhood Olympics: Is Parenting the New International Competition?” in response to Tiger Parenting, French Mothers knowing best and a slew of other ‘who does it better?’ angles on the motherhood thing.

Personally, I do enjoy learning about how other cultures parent, because there may be a tip, tool or heck, just a really cool recipe that may prove beneficial for my own mothering style. That’s how we learn. But trying to decide who gets the gold medal for motherhood just seems silly, because last time I checked, there weren’t any perfect children on this planet.

Happy Friday, Meltingpot Readers! Enjoy this video that captures the mommy wars just perfectly.

Ms. Meltingpot Has Questions. Do You Have Answers?

Ms. Meltingpot Has Questions!

Ms. Meltingpot Has Questions!

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

From time to time I find myself questioning things in this crazy game we call life and wonder if I’m the only one asking. Maybe it’s because I don’t have cable or because I rely on my children to explain a lot of pop culture references. Or maybe it’s because I prefer print over e-anything and decaffeinated coffee is my drug of choice. In other words, it might just be me who needs answers, but maybe not. Either way, if you can shed some light on my queries below, please let me know.

1. Why does social media make our lives less social?

2. Why isn’t a Snickers bar with almonds called a Mars Bar?

3. Why would you name a food store, Bottom Dollar Food? Exactly who is that supposed to appeal to?

4. Why is Lena Dunham famous?

5. Ditto for Taylor Swift?

6. Are Kim Kardashian and Kanye West an interracial couple? And if so, why isn’t that a big deal to the people who care about things like that and shouldn’t they be on an official list or something?

7. Who still eats margarine in the 21st century and why?

8. If White people (and Asian and light-skinned Latinos) believe Black people are inferior, ignorant, unattractive and otherwise undesirable, why do they turn around and copy everything we do?

Peace!

Can White Girls Co-Opt the “Booty?”

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

I’m trying to wrap my mind around the current “glorification” of big butts, brought to you by the likes of Kim Kardashian and Iggy Azalea, aka, not Black people. Recently Vogue magazine declared that we were living in the “Era of the Big Booty,” and actually credited Jennifer Lopez with starting the trend. Excuse me?

Then today, I finally get a chance to check out the video behind the infectious pop song by Meghan Trainor called All About that Bass. Basically it’s a self-love anthem for those girls with extra junk in their trunk. I assumed Meghan Trainor was Black, but she’s not. She’s very White. Check out her video:

So, at first I was feeling kind of duped. And then I was feeling like I was living in a Bo Derek braids moment all over again. (If you don’t know what the Bo Braids moment was, you can read all about it in my book Hair Story.) Really, White girls are going to get the credit for popularizing big butts? Did Sarah Baartman (aka the Hottentot Venus) die in pain and humiliation in vain? Can Black women get the credit for anything? Anything? And please note, that Trainor uses mostly Black women in her video which kinda says to me that she’s using Black women to bolster her claim, which gives credence to my theory that this is a co-opting moment.

But then I had to check myself? Well, at least ask myself this question. Do Black women own big butts? Is that something we can legitimately claim? Clearly not all Black women have big butts and many White women do. So, is my indignation misguided or misplaced? Is this the wrong issue to get worked up about? I had to wonder. And I’m still wondering. I don’t have a well-researched answer. I only know how I feel and that is that once again, it’s only when a White woman embraces it, can Black beauty be acknowledged. #sadsadsad

What do you think about the booty issue, dear readers? I’m so totally listening.

Peace!

Wednesday Round Up: Pelo Malo Means Bad Hair in Venezuela, FYI Miley Cyrus isn’t Black and Remember the March on Washington

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

It’s Wednesday. Time to see what the world wide web is offering up for those of us who like our news both colorful and tasty. Here’s what I have for you:

pelomalo1. You know I’m obsessed with Black hair, but I’m sooo not the only one. There’s a new movie, screening at the Toronto International Film Fest called Pelo Malo (translation: bad hair) about a cute little boy  in Venezuela who believes straightening his curly hair will change his life. It’s a movie about identity and family by Venezuelan director, Mariana Rondón. Check the trailer and tell me what you think.

2. I don’t have time to watch TV these days, but I still heard all about Miley Cyrus’ controversial performance on the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night. Apparently Cyrus decided to completely shed her child star status and reinvent herself as a sex-crazed maniac. Some people interpreted her new attitude and style as being “Black.” I watched her bizarre and distasteful performance and could do nothing more than shake my head and feel sorry for her parents. Thankfully, author and advice columnist Demetria Lucas was able to analyze Cyrus’s act with insight and clarity on The Root and made some really good points that I agree with 100 percent. Check it out here.

3. And finally,  I think everybody is aware that we are celebrating the anniversary of the legendary March on Washington. To some, that march feels like ancient history, but many of the people who took part in that historic moment are still alive and can truly put the progress or lack thereof of American race relations and civil rights in perspective. The Huffington Post actually spoke to some of those people – the ones who actually marched – and compiled their memories in a nice video.

What are you reading about these days, dear readers? If it’s nice and tasty, please share.

Peace!

Wednesday Round-Up:Selena Gomez, Really?, “The Burden of Being Black,” & Babygirl’s Birthday!

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

Today is a special day in the Kinky Gazpacho household. It’s babygirl’s birthday! I can’t believe she’s two already! I can still remember the day I found out I was pregnant with her, yet interestingly, I hardly remember the whirlwind that was the first 24 months of her life. Luckily, I write things down, so I can always go back an re-read what really happened. Here’s a re-cap of her birth story, if anyone else wants to trip down memory lane with me.

And even though I’m in a celebratory mood, what with planning a big family birthday bash for all three of my kids – who were all born in June & July – I am still reeling from the Zimmerman verdict and all of the subsequent race conversations happening in cyberspace and offline as well. I was really impressed with this essay on Racialicious about the ‘burden of being Black.’ I really identified with the author, and not just because she spent time in Spain. Check it out. What do you think?

Don't come & get this. Cultural appropriation? Yes or no?

Don’t come & get this. Cultural appropriation? Yes or no?

And finally, are your kids into Selena Gomez? Her new song Come and Get It seems to be on the radio 24/7 these days. Personally, I’ve never really paid much attention to the songstress because I didn’t find her all that talented or interesting. But one of my college students, who happens to be of Indian descent, clued me in to the fact that many Hindus are annoyed that Gomez has been wearing a Bindi when she performs this song at various live events. She’s been asked not once, but twice to stop wearing the Bindi as decoration as it is disrespectful to the Hindu religion, but she apparently could care less. I find this extremely troublesome. As if there isn’t some other way Gomez could decorate her body that didn’t involve appropriating another culture’s religious symbolism. Really, Selena? Really? Is fame so important to you that you will denigrate a religion to sell records? Really?

Peace!

French Kids Don’t Get ADHD? Really?

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

He may not look sexy but because he's French he is sexy. Mait Oui!

He may not look sexy, but because he’s French he is sexy. Mait Oui!

As if we didn’t already gnash our teeth over the fact that French women don’t get fat even though they eat cheese and French children aren’t picky eaters and French men are just really good at bringing the sexy even when they look like Gérard Depardieu. Now we have to contend with the fact that French children don’t get ADHD.

Even though this article was written last year on PsychologyToday.com, it just appeared in my Facebook newsfeed last night so I read it. The first line had me intrigued: ” In the United States, at least 9% of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and are taking pharmaceutical medications. In France, the percentage of kids diagnosed and medicated for ADHD is less than .5%. “

How can that be, I wondered? In a nutshell, it’s because Americans define ADHD as a chemical imbalance where the French see the disorder as a result of environmental factors. Please read the article for yourself and assess the author’s argument. Personally, I think it is a slippery slope and kind of careless to suggest that French parenting — aka superior parenting — is the reason French kids don’t have ADHD. Because that argument then implies that American parenting is so bad that we have spawned a generation of kids with severe mental disorders.

That being said, as a true meltingpot mama, I’m always open to learning how other cultures raise their children, especially if they seem to succeed in ways that we Americans consistently fail. Of course, nobody is perfect. And no single culture has a lock on perfect parenting and this seemingly constant holding up of the French as ‘perfect’ can be annoying. And please don’t get it twisted. I’m not hating on the French. Naturellement pas!  I’m just annoyed with the silly Americans who think emulating the French will solve all of our problems — from belly fat to annoying kids. Come on, people.

Okay. I am done. If you have anything to add, you know I’m listening.

Make it a great Monday.

Peace!