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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Kokopelli, Mohawks, Appropriation, and White Racism/Privilege

This is a sort of scattered post today.

I've been thinking about Kokopelli recently because of two events. The first event (though chronologically second) is that my partner and I visited the house of one of his good friends, who has a woven rug/runner thing tacked to the wall with like 20 Kokopellis woven along it basically in a conga line. The second event (chronologically first) is that a couple weeks ago, while over at my parents house, my sister mentioned that her friend had a tattoo (I believe, I can't think of the context, but I can't think of what else it would have been BUT a tattoo) of Kokopelli. Apparently I made a face, because my sister found it necessary to explain that Kokopelli is a "Native American god*" (again, I'm not certain that was exactly what she said, but I AM certain she didn't specify either: what tribes worship(ped) him or what his powers are believed to be). I stated that I knew exactly who Kokopelli is and that my face was for the fact that I think it's really screwed up for white people (her friend is a white person, just like my whole family) to appropriate meaningful symbols/gods from other cultures.

My sister countered that I didn't know how meaningful Kokopelli is to her friend. I don't care how meaningful Kokopelli is to white folks... pick a fertility god from a culture you have a background in... oh wait, what's that?, you didn't know that Kokopelli is a fertility god?, wow he must be SUPER meaningful to you I suppose! (Sorry, angry rant done). We dropped it soon after because regardless of whatever we'd say, it wouldn't change the fact that her friend had that tattoo** (they're permanent you know).

I thought back to that argument (which my partner was there for) when we entered his friend's house. I looked at the wall hanging, and was made intensely uncomfortable by it, but we were there to ask for a favor (or something), so I didn't say anything. Which makes me feel cruddy. I think the difference was that my sister brought it up in conversation the first time, whereas just seeing a wall-hanging isn't exactly an invitation to talk about it. But I still wish I'd said something (perhaps next time we're over I'll ask what her interest in fertility gods is?).

So obviously appropriation of Native cultures has been on my mind a lot recently.

Which brings me to Native Appropriations, and Adrienne's most recent post about white people wearing "Indian"/"Indian-style" headdresses. Now there are some things I don't love about her posts on the topic, well, really just one thing. It's that she calls them "Hipster Headdresses." Yes, most hipsters are white/come from upper-middle class backgrounds, but not all. Appropriation that those (privileged) individuals do they do as privileged white/rich people, not as "hipsters." Hipsters are not defacto privileged, there isn't "hipster privilege," so it seems stupid to say it's a "hipster" thing instead of (say) a "white thing" or a "rich thing." This is a common naming that happens in liberal/radical groups where I'll hear people talk about "hipster racism" as though it isn't the same damn racism that other white people do. It's white racism, and rich classism, it isn't special to hipsters, and they aren't a specially protected/privileged group (in my analogies on this subject I've pointed out that tea drinkers are probably predominantly white/privileged just like hipsters, but we don't call racism perpetrated by them "tea drinker racism"). Anyway.

One of the things that happened the other day while I was reading her post (wherein she describes having a clothing designer come to an old post to harrass her about being opposed to white people using headdresses as a cool new "accessory") was that I was struck with revulsion at the privileged asshole-ishness of E. Starbuck. Fuck that noise.

Which brings me to mohawks (the hairstyle, not the tribe).

I'm a white person, so I have white privilege. In high school I had dreads (not something I'm proud of these days, but at the time it didn't seem like a big deal). In college I had a mohawk. For a long time I've mourned that I "can't" have a mohawk anymore. For a while I felt I couldn't because I was out in the world where people would judge me negatively for having hair that didn't conform to "appropriate" standards (but I was going to find a job and then settle in and then shave it again). More recently (the past year and a bit) I've been feeling like I "can't" wear one because of the appropriation aspect of it. But I've been fighting that. I didn't feel like it was a choice I was making for myself, but one that was made for me, and it made me upset and sad (boo hoo, I know). I'd see a person (usually white, sometimes black) walking down the street with a mohawk and sigh longingly, and then Bluejay (my partner) had to remind me that it's appropriative and such. And I keep/kept saying "but hair! it's... anyone could think up shaving a stripe onto your head! plus! all the white hairstyles are boring" and then he'd (very smart, my partner is) point out that the reason that mohawks and dreads and such seem "cool" and "not boring" is because of uh, white privilege, appropriation, and racism. So then I spent weeks/months whining (not often) about how I guess I'd just have to come up with a "not boring" hairstyle that wasn't appropriative.

Bluejay pointed out to me that maybe I could use this as a learning experience to acknowledge how difficult it can be for other white folk to give up something that they think of as dear to their hearts (Kokopelli, sweat lodges, "moccasins," whatever) "just" because of white privilege. He pointed out that the things that I've "given up" because they were racist (not going to see Avatar, being opposed to conflict diamonds, etc.) are things that I either don't care about (like clothes/jewelry) or was anti-racist before I heard about them, and thus didn't find appealing (like Avatar), so it wasn't a very big sacrifice. I'm not sure Bluejay's idea worked in making me more sympathetic to people who cling to privilege, but it is helping me acknowledge that I am not Super Anti-Racist, but instead flawed (gasp! shock! horror!).

But hey! luckily for me (and my fragile white psyche), E. Starbuck has made it oh-so-easy for me to give up my fantasy for oppression-free mohawks. How? Because the second I read zir screed, I said to myself "oh fuck, I NEVER want to act like that privileged a wanker, that's probably what I sound like about mohawks." And I was (very close to) cured of my desire for one. I mean damn but that's a jerkish thing to do: seek out a Native person to harrass because they are opposed to you stealing their culture. Ugh.

So, I don't have a really good wrap up to this, other than I guess to acknowledge to myself and the world that I am not Super Anti-Racist, but with a little help from friends (and racist assholes) I can work to be less oppressive to others. Who knows, if I talk with Bluejay's friend about Kokopelli perhaps we can move together towards a less oppressive future.

*Using a non-capitalized "god" is not meant as a disrespect to Native cultures, but is instead due to my desire to not give a false reverence which I do not feel for any religions' god(dess)(es).

**For full disclosure I should mention that for 3 or so years in undergrad I seriously believed I'd get a full back tattoo of Quan Yin and Kali, two archetypes/goddesses/symbols that I really appreciated. At some point during that time I was talking with a Hindu friend of mine who apparently told me he thought it was fucked up that I was going to get a tattoo of a Hindu goddess even though I wasn't Hindu. I don't remember that conversation, but I do remember the one following it when he brought it up later as I mentioned some hugely disrespectful toilet paper with Hindu gods on it (I believe). He implied that what I was planning (still at the time interested in the tattoo) was only slightly less disrespectful than the toilet paper. I'm pretty sure I behaved in a privileged white way as a response (blabbing on about how she was meaningful to me, etc.). I don't know if I ever apologized to him for that (we no longer chat much). So, just to say that I'm not immune from having felt like appropriation is a-ok, but luckily I did take long enough figuring out who to design it and tattoo it and everything that I stopped wanting it.


  1. When I worked at a jewelry store, the Kokopelli items were ridiculously popular. Mostly, they were gifts from white, hetero, presumably wealthy parents to their white, presumably wealthy daughters.

    Which, knowing Kokopelli's fertility-god past, cracks me up. "Yes, our daughter is going to college and will be out from under the parental wings for the first time in her life. We thought a representation of a trickster fertility god would be JUST THE THING." /snark

    Especially when a simple Google search will turn all of this up. But then, hey, he's just a southwesterny sort of symbol, right? Everyone loves the Flute Player, right?

  2. Good to think about.

  3. I think you can refer to "hipster racism" when there is a particular aspect unique to hipster culture that is racist. For example, you could refer to "tea-drinker racism" if the tea industry was particularly racist in its practices, OR if you considered tea drinking to be an appropriation of some Southeast Asian cultures (which, actually, I think you could make a case for).

    However, I agree that labeling racism in that way is still problematic (even if it is accurate), because it implies that the person doing the labeling is racism-free (because they presumably don't belong to the group described), while we know that they probably are *not* (because it's nearly impossible to be *entirely* aware of one's own privilege).

  4. Just wanted to say that this post was the tipping point in switching from a mohawk to a non/less culturally appropriative hairstyle. I knew it was culurally appropriative and was uncomfortable with it, but got one anyway, and had nagging doubts about it for a while. This explained them pretty well

  5. It's definitely hard, 'cause mohawks look *cool* and aren't like all those other boring hairstyles. And then one remembers/has to remind zirself that the reason they "aren't boring" is because they're stolen from other cultures that white North Americans benefited from the almost complete destruction of.
    I really do suggest finding a blatantly racist person of your choice (it helps if they're being appropriative of Native cultures) and reading/listening to some of their blah blahing. It really helps put it in perspective: mohawk, or not like them? It's been almost a month since I wrote the post and I honestly have had no interest in getting the hairstyle since then (I think, at least I definitely don't feel at all conflicted right now).

  6. I don't think that having a mohawk or dreads is inappropriate. First off, many cultures, not just rasta blacks or Mohawk Native Americans, have had dreads and mohawks. To say that dreads are a hairstyle that belongs to/was created by black rastafarians in the early 20th century is inaccurate. Yes, the hairstyle is associated with many black liberation movements, but was also worn by Celts and Roman soldiers.
    Appropriating sacred objects or taking elements of certain styles to play around or mock the culture is wrong on many levels, but getting dreads or microbraids because your "white-person" hair is frizzy and you think those hairstyles would make it more manageable isn't something I see a problem with. Getting dreads because you're into the Industrial music subculture and wear them as part of that look isn't something I see as wrong either. Dreads themselves aren't sacred because they're part of many cultures. Wearing a fake cap with rasta colors and cotton dreads sewn onto it is wrong because it explicitly makes a joke of Rastafarian dreadlocks. A Native American headdress is sacred and should never be worn just to be "hip" or "fashionable", and never as just a costume. Mohawks are okay to wear because, again, they aren't belonging to one particular culture either, and to say that one culture owns a hairstyle when MANY cultures have worn it and claimed it seems a little ethnocentric to me. Some things that really do belong to one culture/religion are different (like the very specifically Native American headdress, rosaries, images of various deities), but a culturally ambiguous hairstyle worn in a non-mocking, non-costumey way is something I really don't see anything wrong with.

    1. But what about the fact that it belongs to another culture makes it ok to wear it as a style??? Shouldn't that give you more reason not to wear it being its meaningful to a multitude of races?

  7. Mohawks were worn by ancient Celts, I know.

  8. I am sick and tired of hearing all of this white privilege bull shit. My ancestors ( 5 times over great grand mother) was full cherokee and thats my papaws side. My mamaws side , her dad was 75 % so I don't even know how much that makes me. We can trace our ancestors , even have some cousins that still live on the reservation ( its a few hours away from the mountains that my family had lived in for years before we started spreading out across the country.) but yet because I don't look as dark skinned as my grandfather people always say im lying and im a privileged white person. Bull shit. White people were slaves too. And just because your ancestors are white doesn't mean you owned slaves or did shit to another culture. That in itself is racist. My grandfather tells me some of our traditions and things about our culture and encourages me to pass it on to my kids because of some bs that says oh even though you can trace back our ancestry to this tribe through all types of marriage certificates, death certificates and dna because you don't have a parent who lived here you can't joined and thus are not native american. Thats bull shit, thats racist especially if some of the " tribes members" look just as pale as me. So I don't care if they call me a liar I am am what I am. european,cherokee and blackfoot, suck it . Oh and my family never owned slaves ever we came here as dirt poor and from ireland, indentured servants hundreds of years ago. And 80% of the south did not own slaves and the union used slavery as an excuse they had even more slaves, and the south legally abolished it first after the emancipation proclimation.

  9. I apologize if my comment sounded racist but i am just getting tired of being called a liar when i say im Native America when we have dna proof. I guess what im sayin is if I wore anything native american or you saw a native american blanket ( something my mamaw learned to make from her native american relatives and my aunt on my papaws side learned from her mom) or even moccasins would you judge me based on my skin color and just assume im one of these " privileged whites

  10. Oh gosh, I know this is two years late but I myself was just researching whether or not mowhawks were racist and I found this post to really help clarify it for me http://trashydyke.tumblr.com/post/14779748198/i-read-that-mohawks-the-hairstyle-of-course-are

    tldr: (op is native american) mowhawk is a bastardised anglo word for the kanienkehaka people, 'mowhawks' didn't wear mowhawks, although they had a roach and a hairstyle that involved plucked sides and a ponytail and in general, the mowhawk hairstyle has nothing to do with the kanienkehaka people.

  11. The hairstyle of a mohawk isn't racist. Finding another name for it might be useful, but the hairstyle itself wasn't just used by Native Americans:

    "The hairstyle has been in existence in many parts of the world for millennia. For instance, the Clonycavan Man, a 2000-year-old male bog body discovered near Dublin in 2003, was found to be wearing a mohawk styled with plant oil and pine resin.[2] Artwork discovered at the Pazyryk burials dating back to 600 BCE depicts Scythian warriors sporting similar mohawks. The body of a warrior occupying one of the kurgans had been scalped earlier in life and wore a hair prosthesis in the form of a mohawk.[3] Herodotus claimed that the Macai, a northern Libyan tribe, "shave their hair so as to leave tufts, letting the middle of their hair grow long, but round this on all sides shaving it close to the skin."[4]"

    If you visit here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohawk_hairstyle#cite_note-3 and scroll all the way down, the references are located at the bottom where you can read articles about these discoveries.

    This post needs more references to back it up. Assume your reader doesn't know the significance of Kokopelli and show them a picture, a FORMAL and believable brief history with references just so your argument about somebody getting a tattoo of it becomes valid.

    The comment, "Yes, most hipsters are white/come from upper-middle class backgrounds, but not all." deserves a brief explanation as well. These 'hipster kids' are thrifting for CHEAP clothes and re-matching vintage/old wear and making it (however) 'modern.' I've never known an actual 'rich' hipster. A person who shops at American Apparel, Urban Outfitters or H&M for their clothing isn't a hipster. Just rich.

    If you include more backup information and references, you'll build a structured and convincing argument for your audience in these blog posts. Your writing comes off as an informal opinion, which is sad because I'm looking to understand appropriation and gain true clarity. I don't want to live insulting generations and entire cultures because of the capitalism of my country. Your writing isn't professional enough for me to digest such a sensitive argument.

  12. Enrolled tribal members don't need you to be sensitive for them. Knock it off.


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