7 Essential Things To Know About Cultural Appropriation

Over the weekend, “Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg blasted Kylie Jenner for appropriating Black culture with little to no regard for the struggles of the Black people who created it, after Jenner posted a picture on Instagram of herself wearing cornrows with the comment: “I woke up like diss.” Stenberg responded with this tweet, invoking the #WhiteGirlsDoItBetter hashtag:

No one has ever successfully contradicted the legitimacy of the claim that white folks appropriate Black culture. Forbes proclaimed that hip-hop was being “run by a white, blond Australian rapper named Iggy Azalea.” The eye color of R&B/soul music suddenly became blue back in 2013 when Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” became a huge summer hit single and Justin Timberlake snagged a position as the top album of the year with The 20/20 Experience. Everyone remembers the Macklemore/Kendrick Lamar debacle at the Grammys Awards, after the “Thrift Shop” rapper won Best Rap Album of the year. And, of course, we cannot forget that Miley Cyrus has somehow became the inventor of twerking after her VMA performance made it palpable for the White gaze (bringing back memories of Elvis Presley making gyrating more socially acceptable). Cornrows made a recent high fashion appearance as a “new style” and Bantu knots were renamed “mini-buns.” There are endless examples of white people appropriating Black culture.

The point of contention and discussion, however, is precisely how and why that is a problem. Is culture not universal? Does everyone not have the right to participate and enjoy it? This brief list will attempt to answer some of those questions with the hope of furthering this necessary, but difficult conversation, about cultural appropriation.

1. “What is appropriation and why do white people tend to be the perpetrators of it?”

I think Wikipedia sums it up nicely:

“Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture. Appropriation may eventually lead to the appropriating group being seen as the new face of said cultural practices. As oppressed peoples’ cultures are mimicked by the dominant culture, observers may begin to falsely associate certain cultural practices with the mimicker, and not with the people who originated them. This is often seen in the use by cultural outsiders of a minority, oppressed culture’s symbols or other cultural elements, such as music, dance, spiritual ceremonies, modes of dress, speech and social behavior, among other cultural expressions.”

Of course, White culture is the dominant culture which gives it the power to “mimick” and appropriate other cultures.

2. “Why should we care about the origins of culture? We are all human beings, right?” It does not make sense to me that so many are unaware of the fact that the majority of musical instruments originated in Africa. From the banjo and the drum, to the harp and the piano, most modern instruments are adaptations of those found in the earliest human civilizations, which are African. Most adults are unaware of these basic facts, which represents an ignorance that is not necessarily willful, but enabled by a White society that tries to diminish African contributions to modern society. After all, why do we know Benjamin Franklin or Henry Ford’s name if inventors need not be credited for their inventions?

3. “There is no such a thing as ‘Black music.'” Despite the fact that Black people never self-imposed racial classifications or distinctions when creating music, White society most certainly did. Just about every style of music ever created or innovated by African-Americans in the United States of America was deemed “barbaric,” “uncivilized,” “offensive” and categorized as “Black” by the white music industry and mainstream media. This “Black” demarcation created racial lines of segregation that disallowed Black artists access to the mainstream music industry. In this way, the racial distinctions and classifications in music are a byproduct of and function similar to the racial social systems created and imposed by Whites to maintain social hierarchy/white supremacy. Even though white people do not like the fact that these racial classifications exist, it is indeed white people who invented and enforced them.

4. “But non-whites speak English, use the internet, wear trousers and participate in white culture and no one complains about that.” There is a vast difference between assimilation and appropriation. In the case of assimilation, a person has no option whether or not they want to participate in the dominant culture, because not participating means you will be rejected by society. For example, immigrants with accents or people from other cultures who wear headscarfs or traditional clothing that are not Western would find it very difficult to be accepted by a White dominant culture that will not only mock or make fun of them, but even blatantly discriminate against them. It was only recently that a Muslim woman won a suit against Abercrombie & Fitch after they denied her a job because she showed up to the interview wearing a headscarf.

Appropriation, on the other hand, is defined in the first point and is obviously quite different.

5. “Black people sing country music and opera music, which are White styles, but no one accuses them of appropriation.” There is also a vast difference between participation and appropriation. No one thinks of opera or country music as Black art forms, despite Black participation in them. That is representative of participation, not appropriation. In fact, it is impossible for anyone but White people to appropriate culture in America, because White culture is dominant (see point #1).

6. “Talking about appropriation is why racism is still around.” Well, no. If there were no racism, there would be no appropriation. Normalizing a dominant group’s culture (White culture) and forcing participation into that culture (assimilation) in order to be a part of the greater society marginalizes other cultures to the degree that they become practically invisible. That is what allows the space for the dominant group to lay claim to a subculture. In other words, if other cultures were not marginalized, no one would ever believe Miley Cyrus invented twerking (like many White folks do) because they would be familiar with the culture in the first place, not only after it is popularized by a White person.

7. Well, I guess appropriation is real, but what’s the problem with it? An example of why this is problematic: White people make more money from Black music than Black musicians do. With the entire world’s music in the hands of a few White men — the Chairman and CEOs of Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Universal (the three companies that essentially create, own and distribute all music) — it should come as no surprise that gains and profits made by Black music styles mostly benefit white people. Still, the fact is that Justin Timberlake earned $31,463,297.03 with his 2013 album, roughly $10 million more than Beyonce. The Beatles and Elvis Presley not only out-earned every other rock group (heck, The Beatles remain the best-selling music artists in the United States), but reached critical acclaim to a point which overshadows the originators of the musical style. Please take a moment to Google the origins of rock music, if you remain unfamiliar with its Black history.

And as Amandala Stenberg pointed out, many whites use Black culture but ignore Black issues. While whites monetize and become popular by using Black culture, Black people remain an oppressed minority, murdered by law enforcement, incarcerated and left with very little protection from racism and white supremacy.