On Appropriateness and Appropriation

My fellow white men,

Ferguson was insane.

Back then, I split my time between New York City and North Florida, so I was able to witness two very different communities responding. Predictably, the white, male, cisgendered group (of which many of us are part) in Florida substantively crushed the myth of post-racism in modern society. Posts on my various social feeds were troubling — I watched as an incredible volume of vitriol was directed at black humans in Ferguson, black humans in America, and black humans throughout history. But again, this is Florida. I was disappointed, but wholly unsurprised.

Back in New York I felt more comfortable. I saw and heard our community responding in what seemed a more appropriate manner — with sensitivity, with anger, with intelligence. I watched a community rise up in support of another’s struggle against a system built to oppress them.

So appropriate is a funny word to use.

I remember sitting on my couch watching the jaw-droppingly awful coverage provided by [insert any television news channel here] and talking to a friend in the D.C. area. She was enraged, and going out to join the marches on the mall. I was supportive, and only encouraged her to be careful. Feeling inspired by my conversation with her, I ventured out as well. I jumped on the train toward Downtown Brooklyn, thinking I might catch a group of protesters near the Brooklyn Bridge, but I misjudged and only saw mostly empty streets. Other than being a little too quiet, everything on Fulton seemed pretty normal.

My phone buzzed. It was a video from my friend in D.C. of a group of protesters chanting something and waving. I put my headphones in so I could hear better. In a regular cadence:

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

Initially I thought my friend was just sharing imagery with me to communicate solidarity or community, or just to emphasize the importance of the moment she was in. I experienced a great upwelling of emotion, sickened by the times I was living in but hopeful that this could be the tide that changed them. I also felt alone, and that I needed to find the protests in New York so that I could cast my lot with them. When her next text came through though, I was just confused.

“This is all fucked.”

So back to that word, appropriate. It is so different as a verb than as an adjective.

I rewatched the video, closer this time.

I saw a group of white people, marching down a street, shouting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” over and over again.

I can make no comment about what it is like to be black, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic in the United States. But I do know a little bit about what it is like to be white. And one thing I know is that when we put our hands up, they don’t shoot.

So back to that word, appropriate. It is so different as a verb than as an adjective.

I don’t default to a great degree of empathy. I’m not sure if that is a personality thing, or the result of my upbringing, or just a byproduct of the considerable privilege I was born into. Over the course of my adulthood, I have been very intentionally pushing myself to develop empathy and perspective, which is kind of a weird journey to be on. I make a lot of mistakes. I kind of cringe as I look back at some things I’ve said or done over the years, often well-intentioned, but you know what they say about intentions.

Well-intentioned appropriation of struggles and experiences that are not your own is destructive to the plight of those struggling. When we appropriate, be it by way of “hands up! don’t shoot” (don’t worry, you’re white, they won’t) or by waving our hands and asking for credibility or celebration of our “allyship,” we are harming the cause because we are centering ourselves, which is actually just another version of oppressing others.

My friend in D.C. sent a follow-up text: “It’s great to support and rally around a cause. It is destructive to appropriate.”

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with the editor of this fine publication about the word “ally.” He likes it. I’m uncomfortable with it. Not because of what it actually means: in that deployment, I think it is a powerful synthesis for the roles that privileged groups can play in supporting the empowerment of marginalized ones. What I’m uncomfortable with is the lazier deployment: the use of “ally” as a substitute for the journey, the conversation of empathy and support. When someone says, “check your privilege” and the counter-argument is “but I’m an ally!” (I have literally witnessed this). In this deployment, we put ourselves at the center by making the conversation about our status as allies when we should be getting out of the way. Because often, being an ally really means uprooting the vestiges of bullshit within ourselves, not appropriating the struggle of the communities we’re allied with to garner acclaim or status or pats-on-backs.

I’m still hopeful that this is in fact a tide that can bring meaningful change to the racial milieu in the United States. I want to play whatever role is required of me to support movement in the right direction. My hope swells when I fire up Facebook or Twitter and I see white dudes calling out other white dudes for fuckery and racism and sexism. When I hear better conversations happening. When I have clarity about how I can help. When I see the system beginning to crumble. But what we cannot do is make this about us. We need to be careful and sensitive and to learn when to shut our fucking mouths (hint: it’s a lot more often than we think). We need to never think that good intentions excuse acting wrong. We need to never confuse supporting those struggling with experiencing the struggle.

It is destructive to appropriate.

By Spencer Pitman

Spencer Pitman is sometimes a mountain athlete, sometimes a waterman, sometimes a strategist. Current projects: drones, organizational design, writing (@alcesbull on Medium). Shacks up in Park Slope and Riverside. "I quietly take to the ship."