I know, I know…you’ve been reading and hearing a lot about cultural appropriation and “the year of the booty” (or cornrows, or twerking, or baby hairs or whatever things the white fashion and entertainment worlds have taken from black culture and called their own) lately. I also know you’re just about over it because honestly, I am too. I’ve had people (mostly white) ask me what I think about this or that example of appropriation in the media and I never really have a clear answer because I admittedly refrain from being the stereotype of the “angry black woman” but I do think this topic is important and I do have an opinion so here is my think piece on what I’m personally calling the “why is it racist?” conversation.
First, l am saying this from the start because everyone needs to hear it: You see color. When people say things like “oh, I don’t see color I only see people” they are lying. Flat out, point blank, LYING. You see racial and ethnic differences in people from the first millisecond you lay eyes on them. You think about features and skin tone and the cultural meaning of fashion trends popular to one racial group or another. You hear the intricacies of regional and sub-regional vernacular. You muse or puzzle over slang terms and phrases. You notice differences and I do too. It’s important because recognizing differences allows us to make a choice. We can either welcome, accept and celebrate those differences or fear and distance ourselves from them. But then there’s a third choice, isn’t there? The choice to take these differences, make them our own and continue on without acknowledging the culture that bred and cultivated them. This is what we call cultural appropriation and it’s intrinsically racist and offensive.
…but seriously || via BuzzFeed
Allow me to properly define cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions. Susan Scafidi, an author and Fordham University law professor loosely defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
And how do we visualize cultural appropriation in our society? We see it at music festivals where white women wear Indian forehead bindis and Native American headdresses as part of their festival fashion. We see it at award shows when white pop stars use black women as props in order to portray a certain edginess or “grit” in their performance. We see it every damn time a white person says “I’m not racist, I have black friends” or “I’ve been the victim of reverse racism” (whatever that is). For the record, the Islamic Research Foundation says that “wearing the traditional bindi still represents and preserves the symbolic significance that is integrated into Indian mythology”. In addition, various Native tribes have widely discussed the fact that the war bonnet is a sacred spiritual adornment and a mark of highest respect because it cannot be worn without the consent of tribal leaders. So yeah, not for fashion or entertainment purposes. That is cultural appropriation and those are just a few reasons why it is racist.
When Taylor Swift’s video for her latest song ‘Shake It Off’ premiered, Earl Sweatshirt, a member of rap collective Odd Future called it “inherently offensive and ultimately harmful” due to the imagery involving Swift crawling around under a line of women shaking their asses in a gesticulation commonly referred to as “twerking” (you know what it is, don’t make me insert a .gif) which has long been a part of black Caribbean dance culture. As a parent, a woman, and a person of color, I also found the video offensive. Sweatshirt (real name Thebe Neruda Kgositsile) went on to explain his thoughts on the video in a series of tweets that read: “perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture. For instance, those of you who are afraid of black people but love that in 2014 it’s ok for you to be trill or twerk or say nigga”. Another Odd Future member, A-Trak (real name Alain Macklovitch) also tweeted about the video: “You know what this Taylor Swift video is missing? Some nice graffiti by Bieber. Let’s be urban, everyone! Yay, cupcakes.” Obviously the gentlemen were displeased by the clear display of appropriation that a number of Caucasian pop stars have been accused of recently. Other “offenders” include Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry.
I guess we’re supposed to just take that and “shake it off”…?
So why is this behavior considered appropriation and not simply cultural exchange? The answer to that is more complex than I am about to make it but simply stated: if you haven’t explored the culture that you are mimicking then you are offensively mocking said culture. Once you have explored and gained an appreciation for the intricacies and history of what you are attempting to re-create it may then be considered cultural exchange. It comes down to respect and understanding. If you are not Native American yet you’re still rocking that war bonnet from some tribe or another (because surely you didn’t research that kind of thing before you put it on) you have failed at the exchange part of cultural exchange. You did not learn about that bonnet, its history and its appropriate usage thereby giving it your interest and attention. You took the symbol of a sacred culture and turned it into a prop. You made the choice to disregard the deeper meaning of this beautiful piece of someone’s heritage and use it as a hashtag for your Instagram feed. #racist. #lame.
I won’t claim to be an authority on racism or cultural appropriation. I won’t try to tell you that I have not held certain biases and stereotypes and that I am perfectly unbiased all the time. That would be a lie. There are times when my own friends and family have disappointed me with their comments on race and cultural stereotypes. There have been times when I have disappointed myself by having a rude, biased idea or generalization about someone. I am not perfect and neither are any of the other race and culture commentators discussing these issues in the media. I just want to discuss my ideas and opinions with the hopes that someone will look at their own ideas and behaviors and try to improve themselves based on what we commentators collectively have to say. It’s okay to have these discussion. Sometimes the pressure to be constantly politically correct stifles the flow of ideas and dialogue about race and in turn we are all worse off. So let’s talk about it. What do you think about the recent instances of cultural appropriation in pop culture? Are you sick of the constant discussion of modern racism in America? Why?
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