Hella Microaggressions: Issa Rae, the Black Pocahontas, and the Intersectional Revolution

In this interview Valentino discusses microagressions and cultural appropriation through the framework of Pocahontas

I want to get real with my people, especially with the laundry swept under the rug. Not to be cliché because of my Morehouse affiliation, but I always take it to heart when hearing the quote by my late Morehouse Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King said, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.  We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Not to go on to too much of a tangent, but Issa Rae’s masterful and intricate art magnificently hit this concept with a subliminal uppercut in her series, “Insecure” in its second season. However, the intricacy of the message hit in such a “Woke-no-Jutsu” fashion that I feel it went over many individual’s heads or will otherwise have a whiplash effect on them later. If you recall in the show, Issa was having problems getting her nonprofit “We Got Y’all” into schools in the area. Issa hit a big break when a higher up administrator of the school she desired to get into gave her an avenue for success. He happened to be Black and was openly committed doing all he could to uplift those of the Black race. Despite his tremendous assistance to the cause of destitute Black children within the community, his tragic flaw was that he was prejudice and discriminatory towards Hispanic/Latinx persons with very cringe-worthy language. In an ironic turn of events in the episode this dilemma was introduced, Issa turned a blind eye to the bull while it was the White coworker that spoke up against the microaggressions that were pretty aggressive. It was not until later episodes when Issa addressed the issue, but the point was felt by a few. Thus, this conversation will focus on POC (people of color), solidarity and cultural appropriation vs. appreciation. Bear with your boy for a second and hear me out.

What prompted this conversation was a special day on Twitter near the end of Summer 2017. A conventionally beautiful young Black woman sported a Native American style dress with a caption describing her as the “Black Pocahontas”. She got a few “YASSSSSSS”-es and “I see you girl”-s but also something else. Those of direct Native American heritage who were also on Twitter erupted into a firestorm, shaming the young Black woman for the act. Their main point was that the Black woman was perpetuating cultural appropriation, no matter how innocently intended, as the real story of Pocahontas represented a dark history that was disrespected for fun by the young woman.  Black people rushed to defend their sister while some took a step back to realize that the young woman was indeed in some sort of wrong. The debate opened my eyes immediately to Dr. King’s words, Issa Rae’s picturing of the same message on her show, and what my own people experienced. I had the chance to interview one of the heads of Museache, a New Jersey/New York-based artist collective about these factors.

The woman, Rughda, was gracious enough for an interview with her busy schedule. Curating cultural events in the U.S as well as overseas in London, and culturally sensitive discussions on and off the timeline, Rughda offered great perspective on this issue. Rughda, who identifies as Sudanese American and African-America, speaking of the difference within the Diaspora in order to take pride in her origins and direct family lineage/connection to her home. My first question asked about her thoughts on cultural appropriation vs. appreciation. In our conversation, Rughda stated that there was a thin line between the two. She went on to state that it gets out of hand on the internet because of tone. To be more specific, Rughda defined appreciation as recognizing the meaning and showing respect and open acknowledgment for the practices and the culture. Appropriation is blind ignorance, not thinking past the surface level of what you’re thinking when you attempt to represent an integral part of another culture. Appropriation is disrespectful because of what the original culture piece or practice was supposed to represent. For an example, Rughda talked about the purpose of Hennas from where her origins are. Abroad where her family and history resides, hennas are used with wedding practices for the bride and even Rughda was not allowed to get one during one particular ceremony. However, in the United States, individuals get them for fun or pay to have them done, which is polarized from the private reservation of the hand design overseas.

The question arose in whether POC could appropriate other POC’s cultures as well. “ABSOLUTELY!” Rughda stated. Rughda began to speak of how Black people think they cannot appropriate or be racist to others even though in actuality we can be prejudice, ignorant and attach stereotypes to others. Contrary to popular belief, Black people (African-Americans) do indeed have a culture of our own. We see it exemplified on Black Twitter daily with commonly shared experiences, idioms, dances and more practices and customs amongst our people. However, as Rughda said, this does not mean that we are scot-free from exerting the worst traits of the oppressor ourselves. This is to not police Black people as the moral compass of all minorities to set model behavior, nor is this trying to make things an “Oppression Olympics” as Rughda coined, but for us to be cognizant of our actions and behaviors. Appropriation is not a one-way street, however, explained Rughda, with much Co-Appropriation between POC, such as with Asians and the Black community. You will have Wu-Tang Clan giving honor to the Asian community with their appreciation and honoring of martial arts practices and spiritual practices of the Asian community, but then you will have Black people in mainstream media talking about their “chinky eyes” (an Asian racial slur) and being Harajuku Barbies with little shout-outs to the origins and meanings of the original culture. We can also see Co-Appropriation in Asian culture such as the Asian artist named Rich Chigga (I don’t need to explain this one hopefully) and Hip Hop’s popularity and aesthetic in Korea without them giving much praise to the origins as they indulge in the culture. It doesn’t seem dangerous, Rughda said, until it becomes too big and out of control. It is all fun and games until a non-black POC is using the n-word colloquially or the timeline erupts in a frenzy of who is appropriating who. Having these conversations beforehand and peacefully checking one another (keeping ourselves accountable) can alleviate these arguments.

I asked Rughda, as a Black woman herself, what were her thoughts concerning the whole Black Pocahontas ordeal on the timeline that fateful day. She said it was honestly wild to see the amount of Black women who were defending the Black Pocahontas. “They didn’t even care.” She said. “How can we build a co-existing community if we don’t correct each other?” The young Black woman was not even sporting the correct tribal wear the Native Americans on the timeline were saying, completely disregarding the real story of Pocahontas. (https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/genealogy/true-story-pocahontas-historical-myths-versus-sad-reality/ ) Again, we are not comparing tragedies, but failure to express sympathy and lend a listening ear our fellow oppressed POC promotes the same erasure that we as the Black community hates when it happens to us. According to Rughda, we can’t get “Lost in the sauce.”

To finish my interview, I asked Rughda what we can do as Black people and individuals at large to be better and be more cognizant of other cultures and their struggles. Simply stated by Rugha, “Just listening better, understand where they’re coming from. Allowing those to speak, remembering your struggle. We don’t own no one nothing, but we shouldn’t let our anger misconstrue our message.”  Rughda even spoke of the violence (not in the physical sense) via online with the intentionally hurtful and mal-intended “shade”, trolling and meme -culture when genuine conversation is to be had. Even when educating others, we should express self-care in stepping back for the sanity of our own mental health. There are steps to reaching the world of our dreams as the human race, but it starts with the individual accountability of us all in this inescapable thread of destiny. Feel free to follow Rughda and her collective, Museache on Twitter at @museache and on their website at museache.com to curate your events, design entire stages, video work, and more actions magnificently for the culture.

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