Ask Momo: 9/17/15

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Hey Momo,

My friend and I are still (I know, old news) kind of reeling from that amazing moment at the VMAs when Nicki came out to remind Miley what was what. It’s not that I stan for Nicki or anything. It was just so f—ing satisfying to see Miley put into her place while wearing those fake-ass ugly dreads and generally being a mess. I am so over these pop stars who pick and choose what parts of black culture to use to promote their own sorry asses. I guess that’s the whole history of pop music, but whatever.

Anyway, while I was talking to my other friend about this cultural theft and he (kind of rudely, I think?) was like, “But you have that blanket…” So, he’s talking about this Indian (Native American? Idk what term to use, sorry) blanket my parents and I bought while visiting South Dakota when I was a kid. I’ve had it for a long time and really love it. It has this really pretty red and yellow woven design on it, and I use it around the living room while I’m watching TV and stuff.

What I want to know is—do you think owning this blanket is also cultural appropriation? I’m feeling really conflicted because I would hate to participate in something that I personally hate in others. But no matter how I try to justify it to myself, I can’t really explain why it’s not really cultural theft. What do you think?

—Allison

Dear Allison,

What a roundabout way to ask a question about a blanket. That is truly catlike, and I applaud you.

This is not a question with a clear answer, because there’s not always a line between cultural appropriation and not. One rule of thumb (it’s an expression, you know I don’t actually have thumbs) is usually: if you have an inkling that it’s cultural appropriation, or it makes you feel uneasy, you should steer clear of it. It’s like asking yourself if you are being racist or not. If you have to ask, you usually are.

But it’s not always that simple, as I said. What makes Miley’s cultural appropriation particularly gross, for example? Because of the double standard. Miley, as a white girl, has the privilege of literally singing about how much she loves weed, and twerking, and doing whatever else, and people will always make an allowance for her. Women of color, especially black women, are not afforded the same privilege. Miley uses black culture for profit, taking what she likes (as you said) and leaving the rest. Let’s not even think about her using her fame and platform and all the culture she’s profited from for any kind of signal-boosting or advocacy. That’s the problem with cultural appropriation. It usually flows toward those with power and cultural authority, leaving the producers of that culture empty-handed or even denigrated.

Now to the question of your blanket. I don’t know the circumstances. If you have been thinking about this a lot, and can’t find a way to explain it even to yourself, then perhaps it does smack of cultural theft. But I think there’s a slight difference for a couple of reasons. Ostensibly, you and your parents bought this on an Indian reservation—and so the money for this craft went to the community from whence it came. The producers of this blanket, self-exoticizing or not, benefited from the exchange. That’s already a difference from cultural appropriators like Iggy Azalea or Miley, who only take, and only when it suits them.

The other difference is that you aren’t using this blanket to build your identity—unlike Miley, who uses twerking and whatever the hell else to build the “bad girl” image she makes her money from. This is also why owning this blanket is slightly different from, say, going to a festival and wearing an Indian headdress. You’re not facing the public to say, “look at what a special snowflake I am because I have the privilege to steal from another culture.” (I guess. I mean, I don’t know your life, and if you are doing that, please stop immediately.)

As for why owning this blanket does sound like cultural theft? That comes from the lack of specificity in the way you describe it. Cultural appropriation is usually nonspecific. Think Katy Perry in “geisha” costume, making money off of a distorted image of “Asianness” that has very little to do with any real knowledge of the subject. You don’t want to be in the same camp as these cultural thieves? Great. Learn your history and where your blanket came from. A little awareness goes a long way.

Dear Momo,

I’m the office manager at my office and try to build good relationships with all of my coworkers. One of the secretaries, let’s call her ‘Becky,’ simply refuses to become friendly with me and I’m not sure why. It’s really frustrating. Becky is African American, and so I’ve tried to talk to her about issues that matter to her. I’m an interested supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and often try to bring this up with her, but to my surprise she often rebuffs me or seems uninterested. I thought I would finally have someone to talk about this with. What can I do to engage her or get closer to her?

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

What is wrong with you? If the woman doesn’t want to be besties with you, leave her the hell alone. Why should she go out of her way for you? What does she owe you, just because you think black lives matter? Do you want a medal?

 Is this lack of chumminess with you impacting her job? I’m guessing not. So take a step back. As another wise cat once said: I don’t know you, or what you want, so get out of my face or I’ll scratch you.

Dear Momo,

What do you think will look better for homecoming: a long dress, a short dress, or a crop top with a full skirt? My friends all have conflicting opinions. Thanks xx

Dear dress-quest,

My dear, I’m a very visual creature. Without pictures I have absolutely no idea what to tell you. Still, I think you know what I’d say. Choose the one that makes you feel most beautiful, and don’t forget to pick something with some give in the tummy area so you can eat your fill at dinner and dance your night away. Have fun!

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