I was watching South Park the other night on Hulu Plus and I caught the episode from October 17, 2012 “Going Native.” Then, just the other day, one of our friends mentioned how she was taking her granddaughter up to Seattle to catch the King Tut exhibit before it left town, and I found myself remembering an essay I had written in 2006, the last time the Tut exhibit was moving through the US.
I was taking a course at the University of Washington called “Global Imaginations” taught by Dr. Sam Parker, and he had assigned us to read a book called “Cannibal Culture” which is not about headhunters from New Guinea as you might think, but grave-robbers from Western cultures gleefully looting the dead in the name of Science.
Or, even worse the cultural appropriation wherein the originators of a given culture are treated as silly primitives whose ways are easily adopted and mastered by an outsider. This newcomer doesn’t need an entire lifetime to become fully immersed and accepted into a new society, they just a crisis they can resolve. Bonus points if said crisis is being caused by the same people the Outsider used to call friends and allies.
If you haven’t seen the South Park episode, you are really missing out. It is another classic episode, this time attempting to unravel the concept of what constitutes “nativity.” In this context they were looking at Hawaii and the white people who have taken Hawaii and remade it into their own little tropical paradise complete with their own “tribal history” and need to protect themselves from “invaders.” It was the sort of episode that not everyone seemed to understand, and that is really the crux of the problem, right there.
It is a common trope in white society to tell minorities unhappy with the status quo to “Go back where you came from!” based solely upon their ethnic heritage. So, for instance, a black man in 1960 Chicago protesting his lack of voting rights would be told “Go back to Africa if you hate America so much!”
This, of course, ignores two things:
1. The problem the black guy is unhappy with
2. You cannot go back to a place you have never been.
South Park, in my mind, did a great job with the second bit although not in the way they presented it. In the episode, they were referring to wealthy people who own timeshares, live in gated resort communities, and general view Hawaii as some sort of second home. The fact that they live on the islands now entitles them to call themselves “natives” even though they don’t actually maintain a full-time residency, or more importantly, were not born there.
When Hawaii was introduced into the Union it was the official end to the reign of the indigenous people. As of August 29, 1959 the people of Hawaii officially became Americans, and that meant that more and more white people would be moving to those islands, starting up their own businesses and families, and further entrenching themselves in the local environment.
So, the logical question becomes…are their children now native Hawaiians? Clearly they aren’t aboriginals and, strictly speaking, they aren’t indigenous either, but what other term should we use to apply them? After all, the US Constitution does have criteria about who can become President of the US. I am specifically referring to the provision about being “native-born” in the US in order to hold that office.
So,with racism and imperialism fresh in my mind, I decided to do a little reading on the subject of Cultural Appropriation to see how things have changed since 2006. In my search, I found a bunch of articles that sought to explain the phenomenon, and some did a really good job of it. However, I also found several “examples” of “racism” and “cultural appropriation” that were not only hard to justify as such, but, in my mind, actively worked to undermine the author’s cause.
I am referring, of course, to the movie “21” which was featured on Complex.com as part of a list of the 50 Most Racist Movies. Full disclosure, I have not seen this movie, nor do I have any real burning desire to. It caught my eye for being on the list, however, so I read the synopsis and it really made me laugh.
“A group of MIT students take Las Vegas for millions of dollars using their genius math skills—what an amazing concept for a smash hit movie adventure! Ooh, except for the fact that the real-life students who inspired the story were primarily Asian-American (including the story’s protagonist, Jeff Ma), which must have made studio executives at Columbia nervous. How can American audiences possibly watch a movie about a yellow man?”
Apparently whoever wrote this piece is not familiar with how angry Asian Americans get when they are stereotyped as being smart, and good at math. Christina H. over at Cracked.com mentioned in one of her articles how horrific this stereotype is for Asian Americans to labor under, and yet, here we have the (presumably well-intentioned) author of this Top 50 list cruelly ignoring their pain just so they can push their “White Movie Executives Are Insensitive Racists” stereotype.
An observation which, honestly, is not all that undeserved.