What’s the line between appropriation and self-alienation, a consumption of another so as to inflate oneself and a throwing of oneself to others so as to get rid of what you are? This question, I think, haunts the short long arc of Katy Perry’s career, and it’s one that anyone interested in anti-racist action needs to linger with. Because Perry offers us, in however mutilated and compromised a form, a master class on the (im)possibility of the self-abolition of whiteness.
Perry appropriates, and does so through the invocation of terribly racist signifiers—there’s no doubt about that. Derrick Clifton has offered an overview of Perry’s career in racial drag, and the globality of her racial reach is truly amazing. Black, Native American, Japanese, Egyptian… Wherever whiteness isn’t, Perry will be, transforming alterity into a costume to be donned as she likes.
So, an appropriator. To be sure. But I’ve never been very comfortable with the critical heft that the term appropriation provides, participating as it does in a paradigm of culture that treats the latter as a kind of property—which is to say, participating as it does in a paradigm of culture structured by white-supremacist capitalism. Critiques of appropriation rely upon—and performatively produce—an understanding of a racialized cultural field as a regime of property, one populated by self-proper collectivities and regulated by modes of navigation and behavior deemed appropriate. Within this imaginary underwritten by the concept of property, raced forms of identification and belonging are construed as formally equivalent to all others. Norms derive from this conceptualization: as in all property regimes, one must recognize and respect, not transgress upon or steal, the racial properties of others—history, culture, language, a style or a feeling. But we know that that’s not what the world is, that substantive inequality is the norm, that dispossession by whiteness is the rule for darker folk, that dispossession is what racialization is. So, the conditions of formal equality necessary for a rule against appropriation to be in force (or enforceable at all) are substantively undercut by the superordinate rule of white supremacy. The efficacy of the imperative “Don’t appropriate” relies upon a becoming-sovereign of raced subjects, but the very enunciation of the imperative indicates the endurance of racial non-sovereignty.
There’s also the problem, evident in the Miley Cyrus debacle, that critiques of appropriation of black cultural property tend to valorize certain forms of blackness as proper. How many people, for instance, raised eyebrows at Cyrus’ aspirational attachment to crunk and Southern hip hop? Lots, and with the implicit claim that she should have chosen a more worthy objects to emulate, appropriate, and pervert. The anti-racism (when it is anti-racism) of Cyrus’ liberal critics is laudable, but their liberalism isn’t, and the multiculti politics of recognition that charged their critiques quickly became a racial policing operation—not simply of interracial interaction, but of blackness itself, which it defines and delimits and helps turn into a stable, proper object. If Miley Cyrus’ desired object—something, recall, that “feels black”—was less crunk and twerk and more Miles Davis, especially the Kind of Blue Miles recognizable to anyone who has passed through a Starbucks ever, it’s doubtful the outcry over appropriation would be as robust as it is. It’s possible that people would not even recognize it as appropriation. So, in effect, the demand that the white-supremacist culture industry recognize and respect black cultural property becomes functional for the disciplining and production of forms of blackness that are recognizable as respectable—a kind of value-adding operation that in the long run facilitates more appropriation.
My final problem with the term in relation to Perry is that charges of appropriation tend to reconstitute the appropriator into a stable subject who could have appropriated or not appropriated—and should not have done so. But, as Perry herself puts it, she doesn’t really have a choice. For a white person to be a person, to feel like a person, she has to be in proximity to blackness. Whiteness is thrown away, albeit temporarily, in an act of self-abolition that is necessarily an act of appropriation, because the void nullity that is and was whiteness requires filling. Miley “want[ed] something that feels black” because being white doesn’t feel like much; Perry turns to racial drag because the alternative is “just stick[ing] to baseball and hot dogs, and that's it”—that is, sticking to nothing. We can, and should, pay critical attention to the ways in which whiteness affectively recharges itself through fantasies of animated racial others. But, in offering these critiques, we also shouldn’t foreclose the possibility that these white desires for the racial other—to be the racial other—mark an attunement to a tonality and affectivity that resonate as the inappropriable source of even the most appropriated stars of proper black American culture. I’m talking, of course, about the refusal to be appropriated, to become property, about the willed and unwilled function of being property’s persistent problem, about the radical origins of black culture, about the quotidian sounding and resounding of the black radical tradition. I’m talking, then, about the perpetual parabasis of whiteness, the force that interrupts it, that calls it out from itself, and calls it to be(come) other.
I mean, really, looking at her career, is it much of a stretch to suggest that Katy Perry can’t stand whiteness? That her career is simply an attempt to get away from it, even if (or especially if) her attempts ultimately “fuck [her] in the ass,” as she put it, because she’s also, clearly, a racist? She’d rather be some kind of alien than an ordinary white lady—a transspecies maneuver that itself necessitates mobilizing drum and bass, dubstep, and Kanye. It’s in “E.T.” that Perry literalizes her program of appropriation as one of self-alienation.
But my point here isn’t to exculpate. It’s rather to think through the imbrication of appropriation and self-alienation, of the co-presence of taking and giving away in the field of whiteness. Whiteness has a peculiar ontological status: it is the only thing that can give itself away without giving anything at all because it is in fact nothing. (Compare this to the work of people like Fred Moten and Nahum Chandler, for whom the originary dispossession that is blackness converts into an originary generosity, a fecundity, a giving-without-taking, an intimation of a post-property undercommons.) If whiteness gives nothing when it gives itself away, this giving-away always is a taking.
As with Perry, so with anti-racist politics. All of this stuff on Perry might be a long way of trying to figure out how I find myself typing on a blog initially about CLR James, how I’ve come to write through the black radical tradition, how I have come to take part in anti-racist work at all. The intensity of the structural collapse of white appropriation and self-alienation reaches a fever pitch in the figure of the radical anti-racist white, the figure for whom the abolition of whiteness is simultaneously an abolition of self. For, quite simply, the force that incites the radical white to undo his whiteness, to give it away, to get rid of whiteness as such—this force is never immanent to whiteness but is always taken from its outside. A list of names and movements could follow here, all traces of some force I’ve appropriated, incorporated into myself as my self’s undoing. To learn to desire the undoing of whiteness is already to be taking a lesson from the black radical tradition. Whiteness takes even when it wants to give itself away, to get rid of itself, to get lost.
I’ve taken this lesson from Du Bois. In one magical sentence in his biography of John Brown, he writes, “Of all inspiration which America owes Africa, however, the greatest by far is the score of heroic men whom the sorrows of dark children have called to unselfish devotion and heroic self-realization…above all, John Brown.” An “inspiration,” a “call[ing]” to “unselfish” acts, to acts that will ultimately result in the undoing of his self, John Brown’s life, a life dedicated to the death of whiteness, is structured by an impossible debt to Africa. To be inspired to the abolition of whiteness entails assuming a debt to blackness that can never be cancelled or repaid. In this sense, we might read Du Bois’ willingness to memorialize Brown’s life not as a yet another hagiography but as a kind of debt forgiveness, an act of impossible generosity that, again, can never be paid back. And Du Bois doesn’t demand repayment. Just more John Browns—which is to say, more inspiration from, and more impossible debt to, what he names “Africa.”
Again, my point isn’t exculpation. Far from it. It’s rather to suggest that Perry’s trajectory lays bare a structuring feature of white anti-racist politics in our white-supremacist world, a feature whose import vastly exceeds the representational problematics of cultural politics. Operating in a zone of indistinction—where appropriation and self-alienation, giving-away and taking-again, collapse into one another—white self-abolition names an impossible politics that remains, nonetheless, the only possible politics for white folk. A pessimistic politics that only persists through the generosity of those from whom whiteness only ever takes.