Dodai Stewart at Jezebel has a great piece on cultural appropriation in pop culture. Stewarts arguments against cultural appropriation apply to aid and development critique. In the above titled piece, Stewart digs into Miley Cyrus’s latest music video and her uncharacteristic adoption of black urban culture. I couldn’t help but draw parallels in her arguments to the discourse on the topic in international development circles.
Note that she is wearing white, in the spotlight, the star of the video — and they are treated as props, a background for her to shine in front of. We’ve tackled the use of people of color in the background before; it’s a theme that persists, but remains wrong. In a white-centric world, putting white women quite literally in the center of the frame while women of color are off to the side is a powerful, disrespectful visual message, and it really must be said: Human beings are not accessories.
The last sentence pretty much sums up what’s wrong with development communications. The otherization of the destitute, the psychological neocolonialism, the institutionalization (née normalization) of whole sale agency theft. How many Facebook & Twitter photos and avatars have you come across where the well-meaning “Mother Theresa-type” is surrounded by curious brown faced kids with no names. That smile of secret self-sainthood and the effusive “this trip changed my life” bylines. And but for the growing chorus of the awakened – that palatably visible lack of equality that seems to bother no one.
For Miley, cultural appropriation is what you do when you are bored exploring your privilege. Cultural appropriation is the chameleonic tactic of self-reinvention. As Stewart points out, she’s not the first to use this tactic (nor will she be the last). A long line of pop culture icons have otherized many-a-culture for their commercial benefit.
Otherization in international development is the wholesale colonization of indigenous voice or agency. Bono has become a master of speaking and representing Africans. Nick Kristof is the poster child hero self-insertion. He went from writing about the issues to turning the camera on himself doing something about it. The international development field is littered with well-meaning self-appointed fixers of the developing world’s ills. From TOMS shoes to that guy who had an epiphany that his life’s calling was to collect used bras & send them to Africa(!!). The list is endless.
The appropriation of agency (the ability of one to act and speak in their own interest) is perhaps the most destructive and damaging acts of cultural appropriation. Physical cultural appropriation is just shallow and… physical. It’s the attempt to personalize the cultural identity of the other to justify your own. Phycological appropriation is the master stroke of control and it is deployed by nearly all of development’s practitioners. The fact that there are few agencies built to run themselves out of business in the industry is testament to that continued reinvention of self in order to stay relevant and needed.