Healthy cultural exchange is possible and an admirable goal, but that shouldn’t be confused with white cultural hegemony, exploitation, and erasure.
(The following will touch more on the context and power dynamics behind cultural appropriation and less on how to rightfully culturally appreciate, though the key to either conversation is “Listen to what communities of color tell you is appreciation/appropriation and esteem their experiences and knowledge as correct without needing to immediately police it.”)
From #OscarsSoWhite, the recent lamentable whitewashed covers of tracks like Rihanna’s “Work” and Beyonce’s “Formation”, the ever-constant habit of white people to co-opt AAVE (while yet maligning and looking down on it) to the stealing and appropriation of Black hair no matter how many times that conversation has already been had, the conversation of cultural appropriation is yet again at the forefront of our pop culture consciousness, as it more often than not is.
The same back and forth about appropriation vs appreciation are being had. Some battles will be won and gaps of understanding will be bridged, but more and more the question of whether these are just smaller, even pettier fights in the name of identity politics and pop culture feminism with no real institutional or cultural resolution or net gain will be raised. To be sure, on paper, the fact that another rich 18 year old white kid put her hair in cornrows seems pretty low on the list of priorities, especially when compared to the other greater, deadlier issues that the Black community has to contend with daily. When I see another crunchy white person with dreadlocks, I do admit tend to try to avoid them and the headache of a conversation altogether because often times, it isn’t worth it. However, it is yet my belief that these issues are not removed from one another and that the one, cultural appropriation, is symptomatic of a larger issue that causes the other: The fact that the strange White fascination with Black bodies we see with the Kylie Jenners and Miley Cyruses of the world doesn’t extend to us when we’re lying lifeless in the streets or languishing in impoverished neighborhoods. The idea that Black people are non-human things from which you can cherry-pick what it is that is seen as cool, convenient and appealing, discarding the rest without being made to understand us for our complicated, autonomous, and often demanding and implicating whole, is in the fabric of Western culture. It is that indoctrinated white paternalism and exploitation without the messiness of the burdens of being Black behind cultural appropriation that is of note, but yet gets overlooked when discussing what the harm is in these shows of Black objectification.
The society that causes feminists to decry the way that women’s bodies are made public property through slut-shaming, rape culture, and the policing of people’s reproductive rights has its genesis in the policing and exploitation of Black and Brown bodies. We can be used like Pokemon, where you can use us to fight or argue people of color, or decried as Welfare Queens, super-predators, overly-sensitive Social Justice Warriors or paranoid, cop-hating radicals with chips on our shoulders. We’re seen as social problems, or a means to an end (especially to presidential hopefuls), as barriers or hindrances or cool props for a music video. We’re understood and consumed only as political tokens.
That’s because in this farce of a post-racial world, though we do, for the most part, understand that chattel slavery, labor exploitation, and land-stealing, among other sins for white power and profit, were not good things, we’re still indoctrinated in that mentality of People of Color as Things To Use. We, specifically Black folks, are still sized up and understood only for our salvageable parts. Though some vestiges of white capitalist mining of Black and Brown countries and bodies have gone in disuse (or merely transformed into things like mass incarceration, Wars for democracy, reservations, and other current manifestations of white supremacy) Black and brown bodies still are expected to be available for white people to consume and to use at their discretion with little word or say from us otherwise. We’re the ones, after all, who yet create what they need to profit from, though today that looks like the language they will use, have the hair they want, the lips and bodies they aspire to, even as they often hate us for these traits on our own bodies.
So, these various and seemingly disparate moments of Black exploitation have larger roots and repercussions that exist within a context of labor exploitation historically.
It’s such that even if we argued that somehow, cultural exchange happens beyond a context of violence, discrimination, policing, colonialism and robbery, it isn’t happening equitably: You don’t see as many people of color having the same access to the platforms, mediums, realms, spaces, and institutions that these white people who want to use our bodies do. You don’t see us getting respected for having the traits white people envy. We don’t get just representation in any positive realm in this country, and rather see ourselves over-represented in things like police shootings and in the prison population.
The claim then, that cultural exchange, not appropriation and exploitation, is occurring rings hollow when communities of color don’t get a say in what parts of our bodies, cultures, and experiences are shared and consumed, don’t receive compensation or credit when our bodies are nonconsensually warped and exploited and consumed, and do not get to consume or experience white positions of power and culture equitably in exchange. It becomes clear that they only want bits and parts of us but not to allow us position, credence, honor and respect as humans in return.
White people, either not understanding or merely dismissing these larger contexts, take issue with the conversation of cultural appropriation and reduce it to merely “being banned” and gate-kept from certain practices, words and languages, hair styles, cultures, etc, by people of color. They claim that we are now the ones who, in a post-racial, post-white supremacist world, are in positions of power and authority and instead of merely defending ourselves from exploitation, are policing what it is that free whites can do.
In this logic there’s a very simple misunderstand of what race theory and criticism is. A critique detailing the context and results of toxic and white supremacist behavior is not an authoritative decree or a legislative mandate that institutionally bans white people from engaging in said toxic, white supremacist behavior. They are very well free to do whatever it is they want. But in turn, others are free to speak out in opposition to it, even if that makes white people feel bad. This opposition, however, is not a law. As I write this, I am not an enforcer, whether literally or culturally, as we still exist in a context of white supremacy. I can still be dismissed with the powerful stereotype of the outspoken angry paranoid self-victimizing Black women. This is merely written with the desire of illuminating what context white people do whatever it is they want, as it is my belief that nothing we do is removed from said context, and I’ll remind them. Historically, white people have always been free to do whatever it is they want, which is why they feel so personally affronted when they’re even so much as questioned or criticized for how they freely behave because, quite unlike communities of color, they’ve never been questioned, let alone policed, in that freedom.
So when they level these hollow cries of reverse-oppression against people of color, they do so to communities who were actually quite literally banned from certain spaces and institutions, practices, words and languages, hair styles, and cultures, whether it be from participating in white people’s or their own.
There’s a history of white people forcing Black people to style their hair a certain way so as to separate themselves from white society. There’s a history of Black people being banned from being formally educated so as to keep them ignorant and within white control. Much like redlining and ghettos for Black people and reservations for Indigenous communities, there’s a history of Chinese people being forced to live in certain parts of the cities they inhabited. There was a time when every single white person WAS an enforcer and an authority and was kept to do so by law (Fugitive Slave Act). And these things didn’t all happen hundreds of thousands of years ago. It happened in the last 150–50 years.
So now, when whole cultures that have sprung from this oppression are being taken from marginalized communities of color for the benefit of those that exploited them in the first place for use in the spaces marginalized communities yet don’t have access to, the hypocrisy is too much to bear silently. Are white people completely unaware at how ironic it is that they’re complaining to the people that they’ve discriminated against institutionally about faux-discrimination, or are they mad that they’re finally getting a teeny, tiny taste of what our communities have experienced for centuries and, in the tired practice of exaggerating affronts to white egos, claim it is the SAME EXACT THING?
And for those white people who argue “Well, I had nothing to do with this history!”, well, neither did we. But we’re still experiencing the backlash from these context, from the mocking of Rihanna’s patois in “Work” (Though Justin Beiber’s appropriative dancehall-lite “Sorry” didn’t elicit a peep) and the many reactions against Beyonce’s “Formation”, most famously by the police, Black people do not experience the luxury of “Having Nothing To Do With” histories of white supremacy like how white people so desperately demand to.
The conversation of cultural appropriation is one of finally making white people understand the reality of how much power they have to put on and do whatever it is they want and still perceived as powerful, intelligent, and complex and kept safe in the face of how little Black people and other communities of color can do and expect the same.