by Janani Balasubramanian
A couple weeks ago, I was at another one of those Very White Gay Bars (I know: I need to stop going to those) with a few POC friends. The music was ok, so we cleared some space on the floor and tried to ignore the scenery (‘Everyone here is a White Man,’ one of my friends remarked). The music, the dancing, everything stopped for a while and we were expected to watch a performance interlude. It started with some poetry and a viola–interesting, if not the most transformative art experience of my life. By now another queer South Asian friend and I had moved up to the front of the room. Another performer was introduced and a dubstep version of a classical South Asian raga came on. Bad news. Alarm bells. ’Let’s go,’ I said, pulling my friend’s arm, ‘this is about to be some basic shit.’ My friend insisted that we stay. I won’t go into the details of the performance, but let’s say it involved a White person in a sari, Shiva-style body paint, some gyrating, and way too much Om Shanti. Even in appropriation land, this was terrible.
Afterwards, my friends and I started shouting things to the effect of ‘appropriation isn’t cute’ and ‘you’re full of racist shit’. The performer approached us and explained that it ‘wasn’t appropriative’ and that he had ‘been trained in India.’ And that he just wanted ‘to share the culture to people who wouldn’t have been exposed to it’. Even worse. We spoke to the DJ and organizers about the problematics of it all, and then bounced. The performer’s friends approached us outside and explained that their friend was crying inside, that he has a deep connection to India because he grew up there. When later we wrote up the whole incident and blasted it on Facebook, several of the apologies we received were intended to assuage any ‘pain’ or ‘offense’ that we had taken, and to commit to creating accountability mechanisms to produce shows that would not be ‘offensive’ to POC.
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So here’s where I take issue with all of this. Most of the above responses (like many, many responses I’ve seen to call-outs) sequestered their response in either a) the apology made to the person(s) making the call-out or b) the group to whom their behavior is supposedly ‘offensive’ (in this case, POC). That isn’t the point. In this case, I’d be way out of line to claim victimhood in this appropriation. I’m a privileged non-Black person of color in Brooklyn, a borough rife with gentrifiers, and my presence here facilitates the creation and profit of Very White Gay Bars. I’m complicit in this shit. It’s not that I feel offended that the performer appropriated ‘my’ (South Asian) culture, and I’m also not sitting at home crying about it. What I witnessed, and called out, along with my friends, was a blatant act of unchecked White supremacy. In this case, it’s an act that perpetuated the kind of Orientalism that constructs South Asia as an exotic place, where the people and culture are more magic than human and therefore appropriate targets of material and military domination–a place where the United States can play imaginary war games with its drones, for example. Calling out the appropriation is not about me, or any of my friends being sad or offended. I want to hold space for acts of appropriation that generate emotional damage and/or trauma, but in this case, I’m not sad or offended or victimized: I just think it’s fucked up.
Việt/mixed-race disabled queer writer Ngọc Loan Trần sums up why constructing responses to acts of oppression as individual/emotional is politically fraught:
oppression is not a feeling. reducing it how to a community “feels” they are being treated minimizes the violences that are enacted upon them, makes structural injustices a matter of perception of individual acceptance or rejection of oppressive conditions. oppression creates feelings, definitely. it creates trauma, internalized conflict, dissonance, confusion. but oppression is not a feeling.
In this incident, the emotional narrative also looped back to the White person (‘he was crying’). Much has been written about White tears (you can even buy them), so I won’t go into detail, but briefly: the emotional response you have to a call-out does not somehow invalidate or alter the call-out’s political claims.
To be clear: I know that there are always emotions involved. Participating in, witnessing, and responding to oppressive acts will always carry some degree of rage, sadness, anger, or any number of other feelings. Those feelings do require care, healing, time, etc. What I’m saying is that those feelings are a result of the systemic fucked-up-edness of those oppressive acts, not the other way around. I don’t want responses and apologies all about feelings; I want political accountability.
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Janani Balasubramanian is a South Asian literary and performance artist based in Brooklyn. Their work deals broadly with empire, desire, microflora, ancestry, apocalypse, and the Future. They’re a regular contributor at BGD, and one-half of the spoken word duo DarkMatter. They’re currently working on their first sci-fi novel, H. You can read more of Janani’s work at queerdarkenergy.com.
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