Having a hard time understanding the meaning of appropriation? Take a look at Portland-based artist Roger Peet's handy "Whiteness Goggles" series.
In the images he created for the series, the history of violence and oppression endured by people of color quite literally becomes the backdrop for the quirky styles and awesome music of white people. Take for example his biting ode to Miley Cyrus. In the image above, she twerks before a crowd of armed policemen in Ferguson, Missouri. In another, Katy Perry poses in a geisha costume in front of an exploding atomic bomb.
"All of the people shown engaging in acts of cultural appropriation ... are what you would call white," Peet explained to The Huffington Post. "Behind them, in the red, is the rest of what whiteness means: the daily violence and brutality of a world system that is bent on turning everything -- every sacred grove, every deep note, every singular moment -- into an object of value for speculators."
However, if you're at all disturbed by the violence and suffering visualized in the background imagery, Peet provides a cheeky solution. Simply slip on a pair of his "Whiteness Goggles," the supplementary part of the project pictured below, and watch as all the nitty gritty backdrop details fade from view. What a cute kimono, Katy!
"Discussing [cultural appropriation] opens fault lines within groups of people," Peet said, describing the inspiration for his work, "and reveals some fundamental differences in the ways different people see the world as a result of their contexts of race, class, gender and power. Appropriation is something I think about a lot, because I think it's a singular way to understand some of the more insidious and destructive ways that capitalism works."
Specifically, Peet, who himself is white, is referencing what he claims is capitalism's ability to spin lives, stories, traditions, even suffering, into profitable goods. "Capitalism invented whiteness in order to create a class of people that could parasitize the rest of the world," he continued. "A people with no connection to history, divorced from place and context, engines of pure abstraction -- which is what Capitalism is all about; the conversion of the complex, beautiful world into quantifiable units that can be speculated upon."
Before embarking on this project, Peet hung 250 flyers around Portland, asking strangers to call a number and leave a voicemail discussing their thoughts on cultural appropriation. You can listen to said voicemails here.
Peet also incorporated the perspectives of what he dubbed a "critical advisory group of indigenous artists and artists of color," including artists Sara Siestreem, Sharita Towne and Gabe Flores, who "spent much time tirelessly shooting down concepts that didn't work, and patiently explaining why many of my ideas were deeply ignorant and ineffective."
Nearly every news cycle brings a handful of egregious instances of cultural appropriation. Last week we saw Kylie Jenner sporting cornrows and MFA Boston promoting "Kimono Wednesdays." For those unaware of the ignorant and hurtful ramifications of such choices, allow teenage actress Amandla Stenberg to humbly school you.
"Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves," she explained in a video released in April.
In Peet's words: "When you put on the 'Whiteness Goggles,' the colonial, military and police violence that underpins casual cultural consumption disappears. This is what life is like under whiteness, within the dominant category that capitalism has created. We white people can just unsee the violence that is done in our name. We don't have to look. When we put on the whiteness goggles, we become heroes, and all the while so many others look at us as butchers."
"IN // APPROPRIATE: An excavation of appropriation" is on view at Littman Gallery in Portland until July 29. The show is presented in association with artists Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos), Camas Logue (Klamath-Modoc), Sharita Towne and Gabe Flores, who are programming additional installations in the gallery.