Cultural Appropriation

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When my son Darshan was in nursery school I remember walking him there on one of those gorgeous days of Boston’s long-awaited spring. The hood was bumping and the hot cars blaring. I said “Darshan, can you hear that?” “Is that Puerto Rican music?” he asked. It was Hip Hop, so I said “no, but we were there from the beginning.” Today I wonder if I should have said yes, and if it was a mistake to limit Puerto Rican music to salsa and other Caribbean beats. (Don’t forget where reggaeton is from either).

This post isn’t really about cultural appropriation, which is real. And my friend Malia Lazu does a much better job of looking at colorism here - The Bruno Mars real controversy? Race is make believe. I’m still regretting all the grief I gave her about whether she was Black or Puerto Rican in the immature understanding of identity politics of my early twenties. 

The post really is about movement fundamentalism, which I recently explained as:

A way of holding the cause for justice very much like a religious fundamentalist would. It is a growing trend in the spaces that I’m in. It comes with self-righteousness and policing of each other and each other’s language. It leaves little room for curiosity or dissent. It silences people and makes folks really afraid to say or do the wrong thing. It is highly judgmental, overly certain and intensely declarative. It is also how we signal “belonging” in these spaces, who is in and who is out, it comes with very specific signaling and a sort of competition for purity of thought.

You see, I grew up in an intentional religious community that exhibited fundamentalist tendencies. When I see the way social discourse is expressed and practiced today, I definitely know that it looks the same, smells the same, tastes the same and feels the same. This ridiculously offensive Bruno Mars controversy would not even be an issue without this turn towards fundamentalism. 

There is a deep seated, perhaps primal, human angst that longs for something that is pure and good. This drive for purity inevitably leads to exclude, and then exclude again, and then one more time, until there is just a few who hold the truth. We forget that in any conflict the tendency is to become the mirror image of your opponent. May the heavens protect us when these few come into power, because it always means blood.

When I’m facilitating I will invite participants to clench their fist tightly (try it now, as tight as you can). I will invite them to feel their body, their mind and their spirit when this fist is clenched. I will then invite them to keep their fist closed, but to loosen the grip (go ahead, let go, just a bit). How does that feel?

That thing that we are holding on to will not fall from the looser grip of our hands. But by holding it more loosely, we become more flexible, more adaptive, more aware of what surrounds, more capable of meeting whatever comes. It might become necessary to clench our fist again. But it’s not wise to live that way. It is too narrow, too contracted, it will waste our energy and diminish our life force.

Most of the things that movement fundamentalists are holding are actually true. These are truths that should be held, propagated and defended. But to hold them tightly is to keep them small, and it makes us small, and the next thing we know, we are coming at a young Puerto Rican man for making the music that our ancestors have long made our own.