Foto: Daniel Michael Shaw

The thing about cultural appropriation, #1 – 2021

Why does a stupid saying hurt us, even though it’s just words? Why do best friends call each other “bitch” without offending each other? Because it is an unintentional or intentional indication that we belong to a group. Insults and vulgarities, as strange as they sound, help us identify with others and at the same time set ourselves apart. Entire societies and cultures are also structured through various forms of disparagement. Research on invective is dedicated to the different phenomena of public disparagement and slighting, e.g. in art and theater, in the legal system, on the internet or in TV shows. At TU Dresden, the Collaborative Research Center “Invectivity” addresses the topic of disparagement in social, political and cultural contexts in the digital age. The final conference after four years of research will take place at HELLERAU in combination with a performative artistic program. HELLERAU invites thematically appropriate artistic performances and installations by Joana Tischkau, Paul Plamper and Monster Truck. 

For the HELLERAU magazine Joana Tischkau, choreographer of “Playblack”, talks to the “singing cultural anthropologist” Julian Warner, about whom Der Spiegel wrote that his music could be the sound of decolonization. Together they play a quartet online that Joana developed especially for the Mini Playblack Show as part of her research and sent to Julian in the mail.

Joana Tischkau (JT): I’ve already shuffled my cards. We’re splitting the cards now. So in our game there are less categories than in a normal quartet. We could think about something else, for example there is the category Race1, but we didn’t arrange them in a hierarchical way. There is no value system.

Julian Warner (JW): Let’s go through some examples. Why does Mariah Carey have “Um” as a race?

JT: We have a scene in the play about that. Mariah’s mother was white Irish and her father was black African American. She was often asked “What are you?” at the beginning of her career. And she always had to explain her story. People in the U.S. naturally wanted to categorize her – musically and ethnically. She was considered racially ambiguous and was often asked: Is she black2 or white3? Similarly with Rachel Dolezal4, who also has a card in the quartet. On “The Real,” she was asked, “Why do you want to be Black?” And she replies, “Well, I think that sometimes how you feel is more powerful than how you’re born.”

JW: That’s the pop cultural promise, after all, that I don’t have to die or be seen as the person I came into the world as. I understand why in the U.S. you can’t just go and say “I can change my race like I can change my gender,” but basically I would want her to. Or do you think that’s naive?

JT: No, I totally empathize with her narrative, for example, that she is also a mother and sister of Black children herself and had to take responsibility for them and position herself as a mother to the racism that existed in the country. Nevertheless, one can ask, why do you still have to put this performance on top of it and also put on the costume? Or rather, just put on the costume, but don’t claim to be black!

JW: But what is the threat? Is it a threat that she says there is no such thing as being black?

JT: Yes, of course. The slight for Black people is that all of these things that Rachel lists in her book as legitimizing what makes her a Black person are fiction or semi-fiction, a caricature of Blackness. Iat’s about hair. It’s about a certain kind of history of suffering. For example, she equates her story of suffering, of being raised by very Christian, strict parents, with Black people suffering through racism. Of course, her character makes it clear that Blackness doesn’t exist, but these “accessories” and the performance she uses are a reality for Black people who have a very emotional relationship to these things. That’s why there’s the debate about cultural appropriation.

JW: So you’re saying appropriation is not the problem – go for it because it’s culture! But their claiming to have a Black identity is the dangerous thing, because it robs other people who are actually Black, or who can’t choose what they are, of resources.

JT: Right, but how do you deal with the reality of people who can’t just break free of that, like she can? To date, it’s always been assumed that being black socially is not a bonus, not a cultural capital. Rachel Dolezal has shown that being black now has positive connotations that have to be acknowledged as a reality.

JW: I would say that being black has probably always been associated with positive things. The history of ethnology, for example, is also the history of a philia for the foreign.

JT: I want to come back to the bridging, to this gesture of empathy or universal humanity in some examples. This also relates to the debate about George Floyd. White Germany suddenly manages to bridge the gap after George Floyd was killed and this video was seen.

JW: But how is the bridge being built? Black to black and white to white. Like racism is always just anti-black racism.

JT: On the one hand, yes, you would say, thank you for finally waking up. And on the other hand, you’re depressed and shocked that it took that. And there you are again with the question, which images manage to create this kind of empathy and bridge-building and this kind of solidarity? Why didn’t all the arson attacks on refugee shelters in the 1990s or the anti-Semitic attacks manage to trigger such a wave of indignation, solidarity and empathy as George Floyd has managed to do now?

JW: It seems like only the vulnerable Black body is able to accomplish this empathy and this invocation of universal humanity. Why don’t racist murders in shisha bars accomplish that? On the other hand, when I look at the Black Lives Matter protests, I think I’ve probably never seen so many politicized Black people in this country.

JT: It’s almost a Black Awakening. Whereas I’m also afraid of this effect of hyper-identification with Blackness, that here identity politics is not really taken seriously by a lot of Black people and simplistically said: No, you are only allowed to talk about your pain, your experience, your discrimination and nothing else. This expectation that you also have to perform your identity – that’s also the criticism that was brought to me, with the question: Why do you do this? with the question: Why don’t you make art about your experience as a black woman in Germany? Germany? And in no way am I allowed to abstract that experience and say, ok, I’m doing this too, among many other things.

JW: We run the risk of confusing the means and the ends of anti-racist reform. Saying we demand the right to represent ourselves creates voice in the discourse. But this essentialism is a strategy. I think art educator Nora Sternfeld is right when she says movements are always strong when they imagine a goal for all. Navigating this irresolvable tension between the particular and the universal is the task of our time5. 


  1. Race refers to a social construct for the purpose of talking about the suffering and consequences of racism.
  2. Blackness/Blackness is a self-designation and is capitalized to indicate that it is a constructed pattern of attribution and not a “real characteristic” based on the color of one’s skin. Blackness describes a social position affected by racism.
  3. whiteness/whiteness Analogously, the political and social construction whiteness/whiteness describes the dominant and privileged position within the power relation of racism, which otherwise often remains unspoken and unnamed.
  4. Rachel Dolezal is a U.S. cultural scholar and civil rights activist who self-identified as African American, contrary to her actual heritage.
  5. Julian Warner (ed.) After Europe. Contributions to decolonial criticism. Verbrecher Verlag (Apr. 21, 2021).

06.– 08.05.2021 
Shoot or think. Theatrical Invectives in the Arts and Media 
Performances, workshops and lectures in cooperation with the Collaborative Research Center “Invective. Constellations and Dynamics of Disparagement” at the TU Dresden. Final conference of subproject K “Theater of Discrimination”.
Funded within the framework of the Alliance of International Production Houses by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.