So what is appropriation? To understand this concept, one needs to consider a few things, namely the history of colonization, power, privilege and context. A cultural group swoops in and takes a cultural aspect from a disenfranchised group and claims ownership over it. The cultural aspect is often taken out of context and becomes a further sign of the remnants of colonization and a refusal to respect and acknowledge the validity of cultures different from one’s own.
So what is the difference, you might ask, between a hipster wanting Native American “tribal” patterns all over their pants and a person of color wearing a business suit? Or speaking English? Can there be ‘reverse appropriation’? No. Appropriation is about power and privilege. A person of color is forced to wear a business suit because Western societal values dictate that an individual is not appropriate for work/success without it. People of color are required to conform in this way in order to be hopefully deemed appropriate for work (I could throw in a discussion of natural hair and whether or not it is appropriate for “professional” settings, but that’s a discussion for another time). As for English, it is not one of the ‘dominant’ languages in the world because it is, in some way, a more superior language. Or because it is more beautiful or its use is somehow an inherent sign of intelligence. It is used because of colonization. Because people were killed and cultures were decimated. And these English-speaking colonizers decided to force their language upon them. White/Western culture is seen as the standard. In essence, people of color are required to look as assimilated into White/Western culture as much as humanly possible in order to be seen as appropriate, intelligent, etc. This is not a sharing of culture. This is forced assimilation. On the other hand, the hipster with the Native American “tribal” print pants is seizing a part of another culture that they have no understanding of just because they think it looks cool. This cultural aspect is being taken out of its proper context and morphed into a plaything, an accessory to White America’s desires. Not to mention, Native American artists are not even making money off of this. In most, if not all cases, the designs are literally stolen and put in stores like Urban Outfitters without so much as a thank you card.
Now, so what does this have to do with music? Well, American music is a great place to look for cultural appropriation. Since the days of Elvis and probably before that, mainstream (read: White) artists and record companies have mined black culture. Whether we’re talking about style, actual songs or dances, black culture has provided a very fruitful ground for white artists to come in, take what they want, make money and move on. Black artists are not credited, compensated or respected in the often repeated process of this cultural theft. Black culture becomes something “edgy” to be used when you want to take your music to the next level (See Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus). When white people appropriate black culture for music in particular, they are allowed to put on what they think are trappings of the culture for short periods of time. They can do things (like twerking) without anyone really thinking any less of them because everyone knows it is a phase. It is not seen as who the person IS, the way it would be if a black person did it. If a black woman tried to make a career from twerking, she would be slut-shamed, her intelligence would be questioned and no one would take her seriously. It is from a place of privilege that an individual can temporarily put on the things that hold a black person back just to look edgy before moving on to the next venture. Black people cannot move on. In the eyes of mainstream America, every black man is a dangerous thug and every black woman is a hypersexualized twerker. Who we really are as individuals is never taken into account. Not only that, but through appropriation, the history and original ownership of music, for example, is called into question. Mainstream society actually starts to believe its lie that it has created something. White artists are seen as the innovators or the ones who made something popular/important even if it has been practiced and/or celebrated in its original context for years. People of color are then regulated to the sidelines as they watch aspects of their culture warped, manipulated, disrespected, owned and then thrown away when the new cool thing comes around. Their culture and they themselves are seen as disposable.
I could go on for much longer about the many aspects of white cultural appropriation of black culture in particular and the recent examples of Miley, Macklemore and Robin Thicke, but other people have done this beautifully before me so I will use this space to cast more light on them:
Free feel to tweet @SexMiseducation on Twitter or shoot me an email at SexMiseducation@gmail.com regarding your thoughts on appropriation (of any kind) and/or any suggestions for future blog posts.