If you are interested in culture and race then your ears perk up any time anyone says: “we were the only white people there!”
How these kinds of things sound to ANYONE who isn’t WHITE? It sort of embodies the kind of toxic insider racist/sexist/colonialist commentary of one insider to another. I imagine one rich white bank guy leaning over to another rich white banker at a swank lunch to mock people starving in Bangladesh.
But to assume that everyone on the other side of the camera . . .or that everyone listening sympathizes with your own privileged skin color is so toxic that it can only be understood through the sad awareness that much of mass mediated story-telling has been narrated through a particularly white and colonial lens.
It is honestly hard to notice colonialism from the location of the privileged. So I appreciate whenever an artist or politician, or a hip hop pioneer explains that they were the only white person at a key point in history.
Also an important clip because of the explicit conversation about jacking African music and perhaps the single greatest responses to the accusation of colonialism: “hey man, c’mon! I’m not doing that.”
When we amplify cultural appropriation with glossy mediated representations trimmed from context we often get something spectacular. Witness M.I.A.’s new video. Is it a sensationalist exploitation of vague Arab identity? Is it a mediocre song with a snazzy video? Is it an anthem for Arab women’s power and emancipation at a particular moment when Saudi Arabian women are fighting for the right to drive?
Saudi Arabia is the only country that bars women from driving. But the topic remains a highly emotional issue in the kingdom, where women are also not allowed to vote, or even work without their husbands’, or fathers’, permission. For religious puritans, the ban on women driving is a sign that the government remains steadfast in the face of a Western onslaught on Saudi traditions. A political cartoon here once depicted car keys attached to a hand grenade.
Maybe these sultry hooded women are representations of the terrifying hand grenade of women’s emancipation? M.I.A. is certainly in charge — note that she and the other women are suggested as the stunt drivers in her video. Not quite the dis-empowered sultry video vixen.
Let’s also note the Saudi stunt driving tradition which has provided some of the visual antecedents for M.I.A.’s video.
I think it is a smart way to make the argument. It’s a savvy juxtaposition — to connect the stunt driving (socially acceptable youth rebellion) with women driving (absolute moral panic). But the construction of the argument relies on some of the most blunt images of Arab and Muslim cultures.
Cultural appropriation has a couple of dimensions. One is the absorption of specific cultural traditions into a generic western culture (German sausages become hot dogs which then become America’s national food). A second dimension is the insistence that citizens hide their specific culture: language, food, sexuality in order to gain the benefits of citizenship.
In this case, I think the risk is the other-izing jump to rescue Arab women from their oppressive men. In the buildup to the US-Afghanistan war, the Taliban’s treatment of women was a central theme used to drum up support for military intervention. I think this is an insincere secondary objectification of women’s struggles, a hijack of liberation and autonomy. The American invasion of Afghanistan has not helped the women of Afghanistan and the emotional concern that made ‘Afghan women‘ a news cycle trope seems to have dissipated.
We tend to represent the Arab-other in murky abstractions of difference and this video is a slight variation of an Orientalist theme.
British national service and colonialism send a young man (the film’s creator and narrator McWilliams) to Kenya where he photographs the people and the scenery of the land. It isn’t simple. He doesn’t simply travel back to get that souvenir connection at the end of his days, instead he layers his own admittedly faulty memory with the films and images of Kenya under colonial rule. A Mau Mau forest fighter is given healthy space to describe the politics of the time from the militant perspective, and a colonial governor gets screen time. Both contribute to the sense of deepening — counter forgetting, marking in space and time.
This film helps to get at the process of forgetting/obscuring. I also points at the potential for uncovering and exposing those pieces missing.
Honestly, I can’t recommend this film enough. It is up on the National Film Board website in full for a few more days.
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