When it comes to the topic of cultural appropriation one just has to look around and see that eyes start to roll, mouths start to clench while some just prefer to stay zipped shut. The last years we’ve seen celebrities pop into cultural appropriation landmines and as result, burn into the backlash. Native American headdresses, bindis at Coachella and Mexican sombreros have by now become clear symbols of “don’t dos”. Yet, nonetheless, it’s not always easy to know when someone is doing cultural appropriation especially when it comes to something as fluid and dynamic as drag.
For instance, at this year’s Yo! Sissy, Berlin’s international queer festival, someone was asked to remove her non-binary drag look of Samurai-Geisha after some complaints. As a newbie to the queer community here in Berlin, I decided to reach out to some active members in the city’s LGBTQI circles to discuss a topic nobody and everybody likes to talk about. To which extent is drag “drag” and how do we differentiate an artistic performative act of gender and society from the latter, the appropriation of someone’s culture? What does it mean exactly and how should it be treated in relation to drag?
On the definition of cultural appropriation
“I think it’s a super complex issue…I like to think, for example, in the U.S. context where you know, white audiences in theaters wouldn’t hire black folks and put ‘em on stage but would instead paint their faces black as a way to make fun of black people but also to just be black on stage – you know? That’s the clearest example of cultural appropriation and the problems around it. Just white bodies putting on a black body because they wouldn’t actually engage with a black body – it’s this kind of body snatching kind of thing […] Thing is: culture is something that is going to spread, it’s going to make its ways around, it’s going to move – it has wheels. Problem: when people make money out of things that have been innovated by people of color. For example, if you don’t hire the black girl who’s voguing but you hire the white blonde woman instead. It’s like with twerking, why is it that Miley Cyrus gets known for twerking when people have been twerking all over the place not just in America but also in Africa? Cultural appropriation is also when people get recognition for things they didn’t innovate. Well, recognition and coins, because in the end of the day is also about who gets coins. It’s about how come some people don’t get the same power, capital, recognition, visibility and all these sort of things meanwhile others who didn’t even innovate that culture do?” – Madison Moore, a DJ and cultural critic straight from NYC, living in between Berlin and London.
“As a white person, my thoughts on this subject probably matter the least and are most likely tainted by the meat hooks of white supremacy imbedded deep into my psyche through my cultural upbringing. However, I feel like I’ve learned a little bit about the subject through listening to conversations with my friends who have been more directly affected and by making my own mistakes publicly and listening and learning to the subsequent fall-out. Cultural appropriation is the ignorant misuse of the objects, aesthetics, styles, or traits from cultures not one’s own in a way that is often mimicking or mocking. This is done usually by a group of people who are in positions of power. This action does not lift up or give power to the appropriated voice, but instead uses the source material without credit or honor to the originators.” – Parker Tilghman, one of the founders and directors of Yo! Sissy festival, also known by his stage name and Drag persona, Pansy.
On cultural appreciation (or appropriation?)
“What is more upsetting for me is when someone who’s using cultural elements couldn’t use it in a more creative or original way. They just imitate it, so that they look like a Japanese person for example…and it’s not even that when I see that it’s hurtful, but they just look stupid – which for me, makes it very uncomfortable to watch…” – X (person decided to stay anonymous), an active member in the voguing community, part of Come Extra Fly Voguing Session – organizer of this year’s The Bold Ball.
“I think you need to be able to have a conversation. For example, I started seeing lately a lot of people walking around with braids and cornrows. When I started seeing white women with braids I thought of my mother who braided my sister’s hair when she was younger, but she did that because it saved time and she wouldn’t have to touch it for like a week. Now… when a white woman wears braids, do you realize that this could be taken as something fashionable whereas when my sister does that she could be discriminated at the workplace? So… on one hand cultural appropriation is about the coins bit and erasing the marginalized people who actually created these forms while, on the other hand, appreciation could veer as fetishism like, “oooh I just really like this African headpiece” – uh-really…are you sure? So when it comes to this I think people should be able to have an honest conversation about these things without getting all salty about it and answer a basic question, like what does this mean to you? I wanna know. I don’t think there’s an actual difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation because in the end I think appreciation can veer into fetishism which is also not good.” – Madison Moore
“This line is thin and often mistreated. Cultures have been shared for millennia. Sometimes through peaceful and agreeable exchange, and others through colonization and murder. Artists borrow inspiration in order to create. It’s the intention behind the action that dictates the difference. The level of power exchange must come into account. Is the work empowering or enslaving?” – Parker Tilghman
On whether or not drag gets a free pass
“I don’t know. Drag exists because of incorporating aspects of different cultures. Drag is a mimicking, a caricature, a mirror to the beauty and ridiculousness of society. Drag is an exaggeration and an examination and many times will be insulting, aggressive, and even wrong because at it’s best drag should challenge people to think about their place in the fallacies of the world. Can that sometimes be racist? Yes, very much so because society is racist. Does it have the power to call out, combat, and correct that racism? Yes, very much so.” – Parker Tilghman
“No, not even as a drag artist… sometimes I’m shocked that some drag artists feel like they can say anything about anybody. I love how drag culture has this quick wit and sharp tongue but why stand there and shade about another race or culture? I don’t understand why this makes people laugh…why make other people look bad in your performance? Perhaps it’s a lack of creativity… Same goes with Afro-wig or blackface, I absolutely condemn that as drag performances. If someone would come in wearing an Afro-wig and make racist jokes I wouldn’t even let them come in.” – Mic Oala, cultural producer and one of the organizers of Berlin Voguing Out and the Black Lives Matter Berlin Month.
“For me it actually depends on what is a “free pass” in anything people do. Does that mean you are a Drag Queen and you can just do whatever you want to create your look? Then I don’t think that’s possible. But I do think if you have a pretty strong argument behind your art, because drag can be about many things as well, you know? It can be about your look like “oh, I just wanna look fabulous” or it can be something very political that you want to convey, or it’s about a comedy character that you wanna portray. And it also depends what kind of effects you wanna bring to the table, if you are a professional drag queen or if you’re just doing drag to discover your own identity. And then of course, it also depends on what your personal background is because with so many people you can’t just tell by how they look like that they, she, or he is from a certain place or come from a certain cultural heritage and how they were brought up by as a person. So I think it’s a tricky question just to answer or does he or she get a free pass about that or not.” – X (person decided to stay anonymous), an active member in the voguing community, part of Come Extra Fly Voguing Session – organizer of this year’s The Bold Ball.
“White people should stop using the cultures, faces and bodies of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour as costumes and superficial decoration to satisfy their hunger for “the exotic”, period. It doesn’t matter if it’s Madonna or a white drag queen. It’s about whiteness and how every white person benefits from the centuries of violent oppression of anyone who is not white – being a queen or queer or working class or a punk doesn’t negate whiteness. It’s not the oppression olympics. This is a common fallacy among white people: they don’t realise that every one of them benefits from white supremacy. This doesn’t mean that they don’t face other hardships in life based on other aspects of their identity and experience.” – Nine Yamamoto-Masson, a Berlin-based artist, curator, cultural theorist, translator, activist and community organiser – also a panelist at this year’s Yo! Sissy.
On cultural appropriation, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus: Is there a difference between someone who profits from someone who “dresses-up”?
“No. “Profit” doesn’t have to be huge financial profit: accruing cultural and social capital (i.e. getting praised, being seen as cool, gaining positive attention, fame…) is also profit. This question already shows the problem: this notion of “dressing up” is insulting. Our cultures are not costumes to put on for one night, our faces and features are not a fun make-up people can wear for a few hours, it’s insulting to see our cultures and bodies turned into offensive ignorant caricatures. Black, Indigenous and People of Colour often face ridicule, discrimination, social backlash, violence for features that are celebrated when worn by white people. Just don’t do it. Have some creativity, there are so many fun ways to develop a look that does not steal from other people’s cultures.” – Nine Yamamoto-Masson
“I think Miley and Katy are clueless white girls who want to be friends with black girls so bad (because, let’s face it, black girls are the best), but have been sheltered and conditioned by white supremacy to have no idea on how to play together with them. They are inspired by the work of black artists, but then they take it and try to pass it off as their own in a naive and racist attempt to be a part of it. There are most likely a lot of white men in the studio encouraging this behavior. A lot of money and fame are made under these circumstances on the work of non-white people without the proper credit or exchange given. Can collaboration happen through cultures appropriately? Yes, but far too often the voices of color are silenced and placed as backup dancers. All popular music as we know it has been originated by people of color: jazz, rock n’ roll, disco, house music, and techno. All of these genres have been colonized and appropriated by white people to the point that their black originators have all but been forgotten by white society. This must change, and in order for that to happen people like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus need to go away and let their black sisters take the spotlight.” – Parker Tilghman
On Madonna in her “Vogue” music video: Cultural appropriation or not?
“No, I would say no. Because actually in that video, all of the dancers are actually in the voguing community. And I also imagine in the social background in the production of the video and of the song, she actually explains in that song that it’s actually from that voguing culture. So, I mean I think, what she has done with that video could be seen already as cultural appropriation but personally, I don’t find it to be […] it’s also about how you give back to the community, for example nowadays there’s a lot of people who just call people out when they see a white person voguing but without actually knowing if that person has been walking balls for years or if they are part of a House or if they actually support other House members.” – X (person decided to stay anonymous), an active member in the voguing community, part of Come Extra Fly Voguing Session – organizer of this year’s The Bold Ball.
“Definitely yes, but here’s the thing with Madonna: in an interview Rolling Stone asked her, do you wish you were black? In her answer she said how she grew up amongst black people and how she would put wires in her hair so that it would bend to different places just like with black people’s hair. So yes, definitely cultural appropriation…” – Madison Moore
On cis straight women playing “extreme feminine” drag: Cultural appropriation or not?
“Hell no. More of this please.” – Parker Tilghman
“Well, again, for me this is like what is her argument? I’m not really following the arguments behind Faux Drag yet, but there is a community right now who’s doing this or like, developing this art form, and I do think that drag is supposed to evolve, just like all kinds of art form. What is Faux drag, what is the motivation behind it? So I can’t really say if it’s cultural appropriation or not.” – X (person decided to stay anonymous), an active member in the voguing community, part of Come Extra Fly Voguing Session – organizer of this year’s The Bold Ball.
On Nicki Minaj in “Your Love” music video: Cultural appropriation or not?
“I don’t have a yes or no, I just have a why?” (laughs) – Madison Moore
“Yes, she messed up but it doesn’t bother me as much as when white people do it. I love Nicki.” – Nine Yamamoto-Masson
“I would say yes but for me also, it doesn’t bother me that much… but I can see why people would get offended by that. Another thing about that is, when PoC people use that kind of elements is kinda, for me personally, different than other people because it’s also a question about the power dynamics of what’s happening right now in the world. This argument of cultural appropriation, the reason why it’s hurting people is because of the imbalance of power and the racism that comes with it. I feel like, if all kinds of cultures in an ideal sense came to be equal one day than this would just be appreciation and everyone would actually be able to give and take back from each other in the same way.” – X (person decided to stay anonymous), an active member in the voguing community, part of Come Extra Fly Voguing Session – organizer of this year’s The Bold Ball.
Photography & Words LILLIAN DAM BRACIA