The Appropriator

The Appropriator

The private investigator placed his report before The Council of Ten.

Councilperson #1 asked if he would summarize.

The private investigator stated that the subject’s name used to be Charles. He said it was now Phyllis.

He said, as Charles, the subject had participated in Taco Tuesdays at his job.

The Council of Ten collectively gasped. #2 flushed. #8 had to loosen his collar and fan himself.

The private investigator continued, stating that, as Charles, the subject had once grown his hair out and braded it.

The Council of Ten collectively shuttered. #7 began to gag.

Councilperson #9 asked, “Was it an ethnic style of braiding?”

Before the investigator could reply, councilperson #10 said, “Please tell us he wasn’t white.”

The private investigator answered, “I suppose that depends on whether race and ethnicity are social constructs or not. And what we are even talking about. Race? Or Ethnicity? And what’s the distinction?”

The council put their heads together. There was a collective murmur. The murmur turned to nods of agreement. They all sat back and looked toward the investigator again.

“Well, is it socially constructed or not?” the investigtor asked.

Councilperson #3 replied, “It’s problematic. These are profound philosophical and sociological issues. But they’re not the subject of your investigation. So please, proceed about the subject.”

“But you asked if Charles was white at the time of his hair braiding. It seems a crucial point. Charles currently identifies as a woman. He claims to be gender fluid. Yet, I am afraid to suggest, in the name of consistency, it might be appropriate for him to be racially or ethnically fluid as well, in keeping with the acceptance – the celebration, in fact – of his gender fluidity.”

Councilperson #1 clarified, “Gender fluidity is acceptable. Ethnic and cultural fluidity are not. That’s gross appropriation and exploitation. It’s been firmly decided.”

The investigator opened the manila folder. He presented a photo of Charles in high school, dressed as a woman for Halloween. In the photo Charles was wearing a garish wig and had exaggeratedly large breasts. He was laughing.

The investigator explained the circumstance of the photo to the council.

They let out a collective groan.

“How dare he?” #2 shouted. “Making a farce of the womanhood he’s now embraced. If he expects any more privileges from us, it won’t come without a severe penance.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” #5 defended.

“Wait,” #4 said. “We don’t know if this was a serious exploration of identity or if he was treating womanhood as a joke. We don’t know if this was a legitimate exploration of identity or an overt act of mockery. We don’t know if this was for laughs or if it was a serious roleplay.”

“A serious exploration of identity? What about a serious exploration of his being?” #5 asked. “Have we settled on the difference between identity and being yet?”

Before any person could answer, #4 asked. “And roleplay? How can we assume it was a role? How can we assume it was a role and not already an expression of the true him?”

“Or her,” #1 clarified.

“Yes,” #4 corrected. “Perhaps a hackneyed and juvenile expression of the true him or her. Not just someone playing a role. And, no matter the crassness of the expression, his or her courage in presenting the true self is most admirable and courageous.”

“Most admirable,” #10 agreed.

They all turned to the investigator again, looking to him to affirm an assessment.

“I only present the evidence,” the investigator said. “I cannot say if Charles was sincere or mocking.”

“Problematic,” #1 declared.

The rest agreed the photo was problematic.

Then the private investigator detailed how Charles had become Phyllis last year. As Phyllis, Charles had taken to wearing makeup and dresses and traditional women’s shoes. He’d begun using the women’s toilet in public.

The investigator could see the look of pleasure on all the council’s faces.

“But it’s not clear to me if he’s appropriating,” the investigator said.

“What do you think?” Councilperson #3 asked.

It seemed to the investigator that if Charles had lived through infancy, adolescence and most of his adulthood as a male, then much of his formative experiences were male. To claim himself as female without all the formative experiences of a female didn’t seem female, in much the same way dreadlocks and saggy pants certainly doesn’t make a white person suddenly black. It was difficult to understand how accessories, whether saggy pants, hairstyles or genitals, were and at the same time weren’t acceptable expressions of identity. For Charles, as Phyllis, to claim being female now struck the investigator as appropriative and an opportunistic use of the female experience. But the investigator kept his opinion hushed since he was, by no means, any kind of expert like the rest of the council.

“I only present the facts and evidence,” the investigator said. “I thought all of you were the experts at interpreting motives and experiences. I thought you were the judges and juries of such matters.”

“We are,” #3 said. “We are the judges and juries of human emotion and motivations. We are experts in the most complex realms of the psyche.”

The rest enthusiastically agreed.

The private investigator continued.

“It is not – perhaps it cannot be – clear to me if Phyllis is being sincere. She sometimes drinks hard liquor. She favors the same candy bars and chips and ice cream as when she was Charles, so it could all be an act. I’ve even caught her pissing standing up. Though, in her defense, mostly when squatting was most inconvenient. It’s not clear if she’s sincere or doing this for attention or acceptance in a social sphere that favors her particular temperament. It’s not clear if she’s suffering an emotional or existential crisis. It’s not clear if she’s looking for salvation for having been a thoughtless taco and cornrow appropriator before. It’s not clear if she’s acting out an identity crisis or has a mental illness. Few things beyond the rudimentary facts seem very clear in this case.”

“You are confused?” #6 asked.

“Yes,” the investigator said. “For example, certain accessories are deemed unacceptable, exploitative and appropriative. Things like clothes and hairstyles, The exception seems to be genitals and the accessories of genderhood. I suppose genitals are a severe commitment. But what if I identity as another ethnicity? And why can’t I? By what act might I commit to an Asian identity so that I might be accepted? And isn’t the rejection of my Asian identity an act of cruelty if that’s how identity? It that’s what I feel I am down to my core? By what act could I commit for my Asian identity enough be taken seriously, so that my commitments are not mistaken as acts of insensitive and trivial appropriations? Why trivialize my Asian identity by suggesting any expression of it is a trivial appropriation?”

When the investigator finished, #7 was quick to point out, “Genital are not accessories. To understand them as accessories delegitimizes the struggles of those of who’ve physically transitioned.”

“But genitals don’t define gender either? Isn’t that correct?” the investigator asked. “So how can genitals be so arbitrary yet profound and crucial to an identity at the same time? Are they a critical and crucial element for identity or not?”

“They are and they aren’t,” #3 said.

“Then who decides?” the investigator asked.

“It’s left up to the individual to decided if their genitals are arbitrary or not,” she replied.

“But sometimes you decided too. Both generally and specifically , which is exactly why I was hired.”

The council put their heads together again. After deliberating, they asked the investigator for the second time what he thought about the subject.

He replied, “I believe I know what she is. I also believe it doesn’t matter, so I’d just as soon keep it to myself. I value my job and reputation in this business, so I stick with presenting the bare facts and evidence.”

“You can be frank with us,” #1 said. “Nothing you say will leave this room.”

They huddled again. The rest of the council agreed.

The investigator said, “I don’t believe you know what you believe. I believe whatever evidence I present needs to work within your system of values that isn’t even cogent to you. I believe your system of values is full of hypocrisies and contradictions and holes that you plug with whatever is most convenient at the moment. I believe you are trying to serve numerous masters whose aims are too often at odds. You don’t know what you believe, so how can any of the facts make sense? And I believe all this nonsense is driving you collectively mad.”

“Sir,” Councilperson #4 objected. “Perhaps we weren’t clear enough. We are asking about your analysis of the subject, not us.”

“But don’t you see?” the investigator said. “Any analysis of her – how you choose to accept or interpret her – is more an analysis of you than the subject.”

“You’re saying we’re full of shit? You’re saying our cause is shit?” #2 bluntly asked.

“Yes,” the investigator said. “Your cause is as much refuse as anybody else’s, regardless of how righteous your intentions are. And, of course, there is some nourishment to be gained from the rotten scraps in refuse, but very little.”

#2 jumped to her feet, pounded the desk and barked, “Our cause is noble and virtuous. So it cannot be waste.”

“Yes,” the investigator said. “I agree your cause is noble in principle. And, just like most others, it’s a cause that’s also a lot of nonsense in practice. True, your cause has the sheen of nobility and virtue to it, not unlike a spray of cologne on a standing pile of shit.”

“If our cause is not about nobility and justice, then what is it about?” #8 queried.

“I should think protection,” the investigator said. “Sanctuary and protection for this council in an otherwise hostile environment.”

“Protection? Protection from what?” #2 asked.

“Councils similar to yours who believe their causes are as just and noble and virtuous as yours.”

“But are they? Could anything be more just and virtuous than us and our cause?” one of them asked.

“It’s hard to tell,” the investigator said. “The stench of most noble causes is pretty much the same.”

The council grumbled, then huddled. They broke for #6 proclaim, “Let us get back to the most important topic – Phyllis- who seems to be the forgotten subject in your investigation. Is she one of us or not? Is she friend or foe? That is what and all we need to know.”

“Yes. I understand,” the investigator said. “But it’s not an answer I will provide.”

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