Note: Within this document I occasionally use the word “Privilege” with capitalization to indicate the proper noun. This is to differentiate a social inequality between two groups whereby one has social capital that the other does not, from simply being granted a boon by an authority figure such as a gold star from a teacher that allows an extra cookie at snack time.
The stage magician duo Penn and Teller have a TV show. It’s called “Penn & Teller’s Bullshit” and the basic aim of the show is to critically, and snidely, analyze concepts and tropes that have a great deal of social currency but not much fact. They have episodes that make fun of PETA, alien abductions, exorcisms, and they have an episode dedicated to the debunking of the American myth of the moral superiority of buying organic food.
The organic food episode frolics, revels really, in the absurd claims of some ‘healthy alternatives’ to genetic modification, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides. It has a taste test section, which demonstrates that people who claim organic food tastes better actually prefer the taste of non-organic produce using the blind forced choice method that’s a staple of such skits, telling the participants one item is organic and the other isn’t and making them figure out which is which (at one point they give up all pretense and just cut the same banana in half with hi-larious results). They prove that the term ‘organic’ is not universally applied. And in particular they spotlight the ‘typical’ family of organic purchasers.
Not surprisingly, given the tenor of the whole series, they pick a couple who are so cliche they can only be described using in-group class signifying modifiers: they’re ‘modern’, they’re ‘eco-conscious’, they ‘love mother earth’, they’re even wearing tie-dye shirts, and they have a ‘reclaimed’ piano that they use at one point to sing at the camera a song from their ‘indie folk band’ catalog. Yes, they’re in a band.
And with slightly glassy eyes and all, they are our guides. They both sound mildly stoned, or stupid, and they’re used as a baseline to which the episode repeatedly returns to see what nonsense thing they’ll say next. By the end of the episode I was left wondering what their day jobs were. I’ve heard their stuff, there’s no way they’re making enough to buy organic with that music.
But what stood out to me about this couple wasn’t their over-the-top, formulaic to the point of suspicious, depiction. It’s that they live in a 2 bedroom apartment, and they’re both pale with absolutely no discussion of a Native heritage. Yet they have a tipi in their backyard where they eat lunch. You read that right, a tipi. No reason, they just have a tipi. They even say that, “And we have a ‘tipi’.”
I discuss things at work, as so many in the world do. One of my coworkers loves the show and speaks of it frequently. I have a slightly more nuanced appreciation of it. I get what they’re doing, and it’s frequently funny or slightly informative, but it’s infotainment and they use far too much hyperbole for it to be simply thoughtful analysis. They’re stage magicians after all, misdirection and playing to the crowd is what they do. To make my point, when discussing the organics episode in particular, I bring up the couple with the tipi. All that I meant by that was that it was a set-up, they’re trying to make the average organics enthusiast look like a moron, so they picked some morons. Unintentional shills perhaps, but not people who are genuinely educated about anything, let alone buying organic in particular. Not all of us are that idiotic about what ‘organic’ we buy or why. Not all of us have a tipi in the back yard.
The conversation took an interesting turn when another coworker, hearing the discussion, asked “Why does the tipi make them morons?”
I explained, “Because tipis are houses, if you have a house you don’t need a tipi, if you have a tipi you don’t need a house. It’s a portable tent designed for semi-nomadic tribes to be carried by dogs or on someone’s shoulders. If they just had a tent in their back yard at least they’d be admitting they just like camping. Tipis are awfully specific, and that level of disrespect requires a pretty high level of obliviousness and entitlement.”
The reply I received caught me off guard. “But how is that disrespectful? Like you said, it’s just a tent, are they only allowed to have tents in shapes you approve? Sounds to me you’re looking for something to get offended about. When I see a tipi I think it’s great.” And that, right there, that reversal, is something I don’t often encounter so directly. It’s usually much more subtle, and it is why it’s difficult to explain appropriation to most people. It says, ‘If a tent is a tent, then why is your definition of tent special? Do you own the concept of tent?’ And explaining how that’s a straw man is why I don’t do Yoga.
Several years ago I was discussing my, at the time, fairly intense work-out regimen with a friend and someone from school. I mentioned that I include yoga whenever I do weightlifting because I learned the hard way that it really reduced my post-exercise inflammation. The reply was mind-boggling, “I didn’t know you were Hindu.”
I’m not, and I said so. And they rightfully pointed out that Yoga is a religion, aerobic stretching is just calisthenics. If I’m doing calisthenics then I should say so, if I’m ‘orienting my body with the will of the divine’ that’s something else. And if I’m not ‘orienting my physical self to enhance the flow of that which is most powerful in the universe through my imperfect vessel’, but rather just using some random word from another culture because it sounds pretty, that’s appropriation. Hair styles are universal, Yoga is a very particular type of prayer.
I try to not be one cavalier with my words. Even moreso after that conversation. And so I now tried to make a similar point about a tipi. “Okay,” I said, “How would you feel if, rather than me saying ‘I can do your job better than you’, I instead put on a wig and your name tag and pretended I actually was you, doing a better job of being you than you? Wouldn’t you think I was kinda making fun of you?”
“I’d see that as you wanting to be me. How is that not a compliment?” She replied. Which is really the heart of the matter, of course to her it would be a compliment. Why wouldn’t I want to be like her? How could anyone want to be anything else if they had the choice?
I’ve found that people reveal their Privilege most obviously in this aspect of discussions relating to relative power. The easiest way to find ‘the cool kids’ in the high school cafeteria is whoever isn’t letting anybody else sit at their table, believes whatever table they sit at is ‘theirs’. Not surprisingly, the easiest way to find the privileged group in a room of adults follows roughly the same format, find the person or people who believe that it’s just adorable when other people act like them.
At the time I genuinely wasn’t sure if she was being argumentative, but I had no reason to believe she was. I don’t think she had considered for a moment that actual Privilege is about normalization to my expectation any behavior of an outside group that would keep them unique from myself. It removes another’s right to be distinct, and gives me the right to take from them whatever I want.
Importantly, the Penn and Teller fan made a similar point to my own: “I get where The Fool is going,” he said. “If I have a Laughing Buddha in my front room and I’m not a Buddhist, aren’t I basically telling people ‘Hey, I know this is your culture and all, but I just think it’s cute’.”
Which I would take a step further: If I have a Laughing Buddha in my livingroom and tell people, “Because it brings good luck”, the justifiable response is, “But you’re not Buddhist…?” And that’s appropriation. I have no stock in the image, I’m expecting that the meaning given to it by those who have made it mean anything is now mine to weld simply by association.
Now, that’s not to say that I exclude the very possibility of one imbuing one’s own meaning into something which specifically incorporates and gives deference to its original intention. If I have a Laughing Buddha in my front room and when asked reply, “Because I just like to remind myself that even an ascetic religion that preaches complete rejection of this reality still has an entire incarnation of their highest form dedicated to joy and laughter”, that’s something else. I am, at the very least, acknowledging that while its totality is not a part of who I am, what it actually represents to the people who value it also is valuable to me.
I was angry, at first, at the arrogance of the question she’d posed. Why should I have to justify that a fucking tipi is offensive? It’s taking one tiny part of a culture and mocking it by removing all the meaning but hoping your audience will give the meaning back. It’s playing to the ignorance of everyone around you by using an artifact from my group to enhance the reputation of yours.
And then I got called away, to explain the Scientific Method to a 10 year old. Seriously, he was going for a merit badge for Cub Scouts and he had to ask a real live scientist how we do what we do. So I left. And to a 10 year old I explained very simply that the scientific method is coming up with an idea and then testing it. And if the test is a failure, come up with a new idea that incorporates what you’ve learned.
That was a splash of cold water. What I didn’t realize in the heat of the moment was my coworker was asking from a purely aesthetic frame. It’s not a coworker toward whom I have any ill will, so I had to step away from the conversation. My first response was frustration.
I returned. “It’s appropriation because they didn’t call it a ‘tent’,” I said. “I know that seems petty. But if they’d said they have a ‘tent’ in their back yard and it happened to be a tipi at least they would be acknowledging the purpose of it. That they call it ‘tipi’ means they’ve conceded it’s something they think of as ‘Indian Stuff’. They’re not thinking of it functionally, they’re thinking of it as a cultural artifact. I had to work hard to earn what little respect I have in the Native community. That they think they can simply build a tent in their back yard and use the ‘real live Indian’ word for it, and that somehow imbues it with meaning. That’s insulting. My people are not a fetish, we’re real.”
The point of the Penn & Teller’s Bullshit episode was that people use the word “Organic” with no idea of what that word actually means. They treat it as currency, but the only way it can actually have currency is if the true weight of its implications is opaque to the point of unintelligible and eventually completely meaningless. It becomes a shell into which people pour their own interpretations which can, in some cases, be the precise opposite of the actual definition of the concept.
To illustrate how absurd it can get, though the show never points this out, no yellow banana can be truly non-genetically-modified “Organic”. All yellow bananas are the “Cavendish” breed of a single plant which is an infertile clone of the original. Yellow bananas, therefore, cannot be organic, they are incapable. “Banana” is, therefore, an antonym for the term “Non-GMO”. And yet, Dole Fruit Intl. has recently advertised an “Organic Banana Operation” at www.doleorganic.com. You heard it hear first folks, a GMO that’s so GMO it’s been a clone for over 200 years is, somehow organic. I wonder if they grow them in a tipi…
I don’t do Yoga, and I never really did, and I should have been more careful with my words.