July 13, 2013 – A Feather is Never Really Just a Feather
Final day, best learning. Today we got to let everything nearly fall apart, and then put it back together. We finally had a deeper experiential understanding of “intercultural dialogue” as a practice that involves conflict and conflict resolution. We got past the (tricky) comfortability of cultural relativism and the idea that we are all just “one big globalized society” in order to recognize the consequences of power and privilege. LGBTQ politics often stop at narrow definitions of what constitutes a queer issue. When we recognize that all issues are, in some way, queer issues, we begin to engage in intersectional justice. This allows us to get beyond one-dimensional concepts of “safe space” to a movement where we challenge the complex, layered, and interconnected nature of oppressions.
Let us explain how we went from art project to deep understandings of intersectional justice. One project group still had to stage their event today, so they brought items for decoration and costumes for creating a new queer ritual. We watched face paint and feathers come out of the bag with keen awareness. Cultural appropriation is risk for some artists if issues of agency, co-optation, race, and colonization are not familiar to them.
The trainers watched closely as the project participants made choices about how to dress using the materials they brought. As feathers were fastened to hair and headdresses came into being, Haven pulled aside the project leader to talk about the long history of colonization from Europe that enacted a genocide against indigenous people in the Americas and continues today through exploitation of land, bodies, and labor to support white supremacy. They also spoke to another participant to see if we could ignite some thoughtful group reflection on the project before a racist pageant took place.
The ideas toward anti-racism were aired, but they didn’t alter the course of the project that had culturally specific signifiers like bindi, feathered bands, and a caftan. Without any internal movement to see their work in the larger context of cultural codes, spiritually endowed markers, and the history of colonization that links all individuals to old and new legacies of oppression, the QueerArtLAB team made a choice: we will not stop this act from taking place, but we do not support what it represents and we will not publish it. We will, instead, host a discussion on this act in order to critically reflect.
Our announcement stalled the project immediately, and then sparked a two-hour conversation on the steps in the shadow of Spanish Cultural Heritage, in front of Casino de la Reina. This was truly the first time many of the participants had thought about this notion that an item – a “simple” feather or splotch of face paint – could be anything more than they intended…that intention isn’t always the end of the story.
It feels important to share the arguments against QueerArtLAB’s stand and the reasoning we provided here. These ideas are not new; in fact, they are offered up so often that it’s vital to point out this patterning as a reflection of cultural ideology and intentional ignorance cultivated by systems of oppression.
1. The participants’ group did not mean for this feather to be evocative of Native Americans/indigenous people, so we didn’t do anything wrong.
Intentions are virtually irrelevant. A feather is never just a feather because of centuries of genocide, cultural appropriation, and commodification of communities of color. The use of feathers may not be intended to carry that heavy history, but it does, and ignorance of that reality is not a free pass to use them anyway without consequence. Shared knowledge is surely empowering, as far as responsibility and choice reflect the gained awareness of the impact of our action(s). And even if doubts and need to get more information about the subject are still in place, the answer should always be to err on the side of caution and not do that thing – if you want to consider yourself part of an anti-racist movement.
2. That meaning isn’t what we meant/not everyone would see it that way/not everyone here sees it that way.
Nearly everyone in the group is considered white and owns white privilege in their countries of origin and/or residence (Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain), and more generally in Southern Europe. Everyone but 2 people here definitely has an EU passport. Being white and holding a Global North passport while debating about the “aesthetics of racism” is a contemporary strategy to hide structural racism and its consequences. Even though in the continental Europe context the word “race” has been erased and silenced for decades (and shoved aside into post-colonial and cultural studies), a white person in a headdress is a white person in a headdress, and that will never be anything but racist.
If the standard is that an indigenous person is asked to be present to verify whether this is true, then you, as a white person, are centralizing your opinion on the matter on equal footing with an indigenous person. That is a problem, as there are not enough indigenous people to follow white folks around to verify racism. Moreover it is the responsibility of white folks to take leadership in their own lives, identifying and uprooting racism by their own wits.
Those who want to debate what is their right to have/perform/lay claim to/dress up as are focused on the wrong question: it is not about “what can I prove I am entitled to?” but “how do my choices impact people of color?”
3. Well, if it gives offense, then I won’t do it.
Racism is not situational, as in it’s not wrong because someone happens to be present in the room to inform you that they were offended. Racism is wrong because it upholds a system of thought, practice, and social structure that is oppressing people of color. Any participation in that system is unjust on its own terms.
If a racist tree falls in the woods and there are no people of color or white people of conscience around to hear it, it is still racist. Offense is something to be avoided, but it is not the measuring stick for how we decide what to do or not do. The measuring stick is a matter of ethics, and aware and responsible choices are its expression.
4. This is an American thing. I didn’t do this because I am not American.
We just happen to be standing in Spain which is hugely responsible for sending Europeans over to the Americas to slaughter the indigenous populations through murder, disease, destroying ties to their lands and community relations, removing children, forced sterilization, and cultural colonizing through religious imperialism, agricultural practices, and foreign economic systems.
But this training could have been anywhere: as European citizens or legally residents in a EU country we are all implicated. When we eat a banana for 19 cents with our breakfast, when we hold a passport, when we benefit from programs and government funding that has amassed much of its wealth and power to accumulate riches through colonization and exploitation of natural resources and labor of the people of color, we are implicated to varying degrees based on our personal identities.
White supremacy is global, and white activists we need to understand it as such. Fighting racism or cultural appropriation isn’t a QueerArtLAB thing or an American thing, it’s a global thing.
5. I don’t have privilege because I am a woman/queer/poor/ etc. white person.
The experience of oppression is definitely widespread: life is complex, and is really hard a lot of the time because so many systems are stacked against people who aren’t in the treasured class of white/straight/able-bodied/gainfully employed/passport holding/Christian that exists in most of our countries.
Nevertheless, being a white person, speaking the “right language” of the country, seeing one’s self reflected in skin color of those who govern the country, the EU, the World Bank, the IMF, or the United Nations, holding a Global North passport, means that we are in the white club. Even if a white person is disadvantaged in some respects, a white person still holds privileges that mean a lot for their well being in this world. If you are a white person who doesn’t feel like you hold the white club card, would rather not see it or claim it as true, then you are feeding the problem. You are one less white person who acknowledges the power they hold so they can do something about tearing down the system of white supremacy: when the power and privilege of whiteness aren’t recognized, we are reflecting structural racism, receiving its bounty, and finally participating in its continuing.
The conversation continued for another couple hours. We went from hopping mad or confused to hearing and speaking sharp truth and asking questions with ugly and honest answers. Awareness and knowledge of what really needs to be asked went up a few points today.
The lessons today were: people with privilege are always responsible for their own decisions. White supremacy would love to keep white folks ignorant, but it’s not an excuse. That QueerArtLAB doesn’t support racism is a foregone conclusion. Today’s discussion wasn’t about being a “good white”: this is about being in the work and process, and in being accountable at all times.
QueerArtLAB remains ready to continue this conversation with you at any time, online or in person as we are able. We are serious about anti-racist work.
The feather can never again be just a feather. Today it was an explosion. And from that explosion many of us learned some of the best skills for thinking critically about who we want to be as artists and activists in this world.