In my town, the town with “no war” written on the sidewalk, the town with the school that Harper still attends, the railway bisects the main street. It cuts right through the hill that separates the town into two bits. The road climbs, is briefly a bridge, and then descends back into shops and day-trippers and toddlers in prams.
But there is a street that doubles back on the hill, sliding around from where the road just levels out to reach the football field and the railway station. On one side it has a barren building that used to have trees, but doesn’t anymore, and the Catholic primary school. On the other side, there is a great wall that is the distance from where the road slopes down to the level ground.
When I was a kid there was graffiti, and I never did learn whether it was a designated area for graffiti or not, but it always felt organic. Not revolutionary, or political or even comprehensible, but it still felt like it was an individual doing it. That it was a human communicating to me through this wall. I loved it. I thought it was great. That our little coastal town was doing this thing, this thing that I had always interpreted as revolutionary.
And then they painted over it.It’s worse than what you think. It would have been better if they had just painted it some beige color. But they didn’t. They painted it with commissioned graffiti artists. Made this huge, intertwining design that had been designed in committee I suppose.
And I hated it.
Because this wasn’t revolutionary, this was compliancy in masquerade. This was everything I now loathe, trying to act like it was a rebellious force.
I argued against cultural appropriation for a long time before I understood what it was, and why it hurt people. I asked my sister about it at one point, because she is political, and she has curly hair and darker skin and she knows what’s what. So I asked her. And she probably gave a good explanation, but I didn’t understand it. She showed me that video of that girl from the hunger games, and she probably gave a better explanation still. But all I could latch onto was that I was being restricted, that there were things that people didn’t want me to do. And all I understood was that bit, because that was the bit of the explanation that had me in it.
Everything else, the conservation of culture, the protectiveness over something nearly stolen, I couldn’t understand what that was about. The sun blinks at me, and I burn. My hair is straight. Never in the whole of history have people who have looked like me been culturally oppressed; not once. I will never fully comprehend what it is to be stripped of a culture; I will never understand what it is to have my whole race tyrannized. I will never know what it is to not be allowed to speak my native language because I was born speaking a borrowed one.
So I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t understand why people could be offended by a fad among young, white people. I just didn’t get why it was so bad that a white girl was going to get braids in her hair. All I could understand was that I wasn’t allowed to do some things because they were not mine to do.
And I hated that, but I had to respect it.
We’re walking down the street, chatting, its been a good day, we’re heading home. I’m taking the train; she’s getting picked up. Somehow the conversation comes up, I don’t remember how it was introduced, whether it was by her or me, but the picture of the white girl with braids in her hair in the window of a shop inspired it. I try to explain it to her; she doesn’t think it’s a thing.
But Dora explained this to me, people I trust have faith in it, people I trust know this is a thing.
But I flounder. Because I’m not sure. I’m sure that it’s a thing, I’m sure that it harms people, but I’m not sure why. I didn’t understand the explanation that Dora gave me, and I didn’t pay enough attention to the video she showed me. But I know that it harms people, so I have to fight for it. I have to explain it. I think that it’s my job.
Because the people I trust took the time to try and explain it to me. But I think that they knew what they were talking about. And I don’t. And she can see that, and she takes my lack of comprehension as an assertion of her point. She asserts dominance over my struggle to explain it.
I wish I was able to go back to that moment, I wish that I could go back and tell her that it wasn’t my job to explain it to her, and it wasn’t her job to understand. I wish that I were able to tell her that it’s not my job to pick apart this complex, delicate, political and personal issue on her behalf. I wish in that moment that I was able to swallow my pride and tell her that I didn’t know enough or comprehend it the way I ought to have done to explain it to her, and she should look it up.
Because maybe then, she might have left the conversation with a little more curiosity.