Bryan: Let me start here—I woke up Saturday morning and read a shit-ton of pieces about Amherst Uprising that had popped up on the internet overnight. Most of them were really critical, and the grounds of criticism in all of them was the list of demands that had emerged Thursday night. In most of these articles, out demands became the Reasons Why We Were Angry, the grounds for our Uprising rather than an extension of everything we had heard and felt in Frost. This article was the one that made me feel sickest: http://www.redstate.com/2015/11/13/amherst-college-amherst-uprising-protests/
“I will now attempt to teach the students there proper English. Well… not all Amherst students. Just the ones who looked at this little screed and said, ‘Why, this is very educated and erudite prose!’”
What bothered me here was that in Moe Lane’s hands, our sit-in was transformed from something hot and alive into something pretentious, “educated,” “erudite,” and dead. I want to argue briefly here that this is the way cultural appropriation always functions. To do this I want to use a Facebook conversation I had with my friend E— later that day (I’ve been showing this message chain whenever I want to verbalize how being in Frost this weekend made me feel):
E—: Would someone who’s involved with Amherst Uprising mind explaining how the list of demands came about? I’m tempted to write something about the list but I don’t want to misunderstand where it came from. I’ll clarify: how did you decide upon those specific demands? Did you consider what sort of strategy you wanted to implement when you chose these demands? Why not go further? How did you decide to focus on Biddy or the head of the Board of Trustees? Why apologies, which seemed to be a common theme in many of the demands? Were apologies what you all felt was necessary at the moment? Was it symbolic or reparative? Was there much deliberation when choosing these? Was there a vote? Was there assent? You kept some parts ambiguous (like what to do in the case of noncompliance); did you already decide at that point what your graduated responses would be, or were you going to decide when the time came?
Bryan: Hey E—, my name is Bryan Doniger, and though I can’t speak for Amherst Uprising (that movement has three designated speakers), I was at the sit-in from 1:00 pm Thursday until 1:00 am today. Again, I’m only speaking for myself, but I want to caution you against writing about the movement on the basis of those written demands. They are really easy and convenient to latch onto as grounds for criticism, but what’s going on in Frost extends before and beyond that document in a way that I can’t quite explain. Something totally magical and beyond words happened Thursday afternoon during the first few hours of the sit-in, and it’s important to understand that the energy in Frost right now comes from that moment.
E—: i don’t think people are reading my request the same way i intended >.>
i was able to infer that the requests followed the event in Frost; i was curious as to why those specific demands were chosen versus other demands
maybe this wasn’t discussed at Frost, but if that’s so, then that was what i was curious about. how did you come to choose these demands? what was the process like?
on a side note, like wow, people are really expecting that i’m gonna come down hard on the movement in an unfair way you guys must be getting all kinds of shit to feel the need to be defensive
and towards me in particular, who was super radical leftist while i was at Amherst XD
granted, you probably don’t know me, and that’s fair, but huh i’m getting some vibes of insecurity
Bryan: Haha I think a lot of us are insecure to be honest. I’m really insecure, in the sense that sitting in the library on Thursday, I felt like I was in a dream world for hours and hours, and now every time I try to write about that dream world I feel like I’m getting it totally wrong. What makes me insecure, I think, is that I woke up this morning, and I read a shit ton of Op-eds about what we’re doing, and it didn’t feel like any of the writers had been here. It was the same way I felt when friends on Thursday arrived late in the day and immediately asked me to explain what was going on; I kept wanting to tell them to just sit and listen for a while, which is obviously not a really satisfying answer to their question. It’s like the demands, if you were here, were the most obvious and intuitive thing in the whole world, but the second you try to explain why they were what they were, you feel totally lost and alone. None of this makes much sense to me or to anyone, and I think that’s why we’re insecure.
maybe we’re insecure because in Frost right now it’s totally ok to be insecure, but outside Frost being insecure makes you a crazy person.
Like I was talking with my friend Katherine about how we’re both kind of addicted to the way it feels to just be here right now.
Now here’s D.W. Winnicott on cultural experience:
“The place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object). The same can be said of playing. Cultural experience begins with creative living first manifested in play.”—from Playing and Reality
What I love about D.W. Winnicott’s definition of cultural experience is that there is a place for insecurity in it. Play actually depends on insecurity—it is only fun when the rules aren’t compulsory (or ‘secure’) but can instead be mutated and changed. If we think about Lane’s piece as a form of cultural appropriation, in which a ‘cultural experience’ is flattened and deadened, then we can think of cultural appropriation as a process that takes the insecurity that is always part of new, strange life and preys on it.
When looking at both cultural appropriation and Amherst Uprising, I can’t help but think about how the movement began as focused on black issues and then expanded to being focused on all people’s issues. The movement, which began as an act to show solidarity with black college students at educational institutions, was eventually adopted by all students from all backgrounds. To be clear, I don’t think that this expansion is bad. I do wonder though whether this expansion can be seen as other identity groups appropriating the initially black movement’s forum.
I think that the expansion of Amherst Uprising can potentially be seen as a form of cultural appropriation because other identity groups began to use the format and forum that black students created and then filled that forum with their own individual issues. They attempted to make it their own, in a way. From my understanding, cultural appropriation is the act of adopting another’s culture and then adding a sort of twist to make it one’s own. If we take the Amherst Uprising movement to be a specific to the black community cultural movement, by tracing it’s form to civil rights era forms, then we can argue that other groups appropriated the Amherst Uprising movement. I am not sure this is argument is thinly supported though.
To be as clear as possible, I would like to also state that I do not believe that all cultural appropriation is bad. As mentioned in Bryan and my’s first curated post, I think that cultural appropriation is bad only when what is being appropriated is not being respected in its new representation. If we do take the expansion of Amherst Uprising to be a form of cultural appropriation, I would not think that this type of cultural appropriation is bad. This is mainly because other identity groups remained respectful of the fact that the movement was started by black students to address specifically black and brown issues.