Jesse Williams’ BET awards speech stirred up discussions about race relations in America. One of the more interesting conversations that I came across was the one that ensued on the talk show The View.
Sonny Hostin, an ABC News legal correspondent and analyst, who co-hosts on the show gave her feelings about Williams’ speech and how she found it moving and inspiring. She went on to speak about how what struck her the most in Williams’ speech was the references to cultural appropriation. Hostin used Justin Timberlake’s tweets and the responses to his tweets as an example of how – although moved and intending to be supportive – sometimes White people who want to align themselves with the struggle can “miss the point.” Paula Faris and Sara Haines, as White women, gave their insight about the murky waters of alliance and how they often feel that the conversation is tainted because White people are attacked when they make gestures of solidarity.
So let’s first define cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the adopting or borrowing of the elements of a minority culture by the dominant culture. Cultural appropriation by its definition and the fact that it involves cultural groups of polarized social standing always includes the demeaning of the minority culture because the dominant culture rarely understands and respects the relevance and history behind the elements that they are borrowing. In the discussion on The View, Whoopi Goldberg makes the statement that all cultures appropriate from one another and uses for an example the popularity of weave in Black women’s hair styling, which often mirrors that of white women. Hostin rebuttals that it is not possible for a minority culture to appropriate from the dominant culture. SHe states that Black women’s affinity for straight hair would more likely be linked to the fact that White women as part of the dominant culture have been used to set the “standard” for beauty to which American women, Black women included, have been conditioned to desire.
Hostin has it right. I enjoy hearing Goldberg’s opinions because she is an intelligent woman with strong opinions but I have often noticed that her opinions lean towards this we are all the same mentality that neglects the uniqueness of each culture. So I can see where Goldberg is coming from in her perspective; however, I just wholeheartedly disagree with it. Cultural appropriation is not just about adopting or borrowing from another culture. It’s about the social disparity as well. The fact that the minority culture’s adoption of elements of the dominant culture do not change the national discourse or perception. When a minority group adopts the the elements of the dominant culture it is a form of self defense; it is a way to assimilate into the dominant culture in an effort to lessen the harshness of the treatment suffered from the dominant culture.
However, when the dominant culture adopts or borrows from the minority culture something that was once ignored, shunned or discouraged suddenly becomes acceptable and trendy. This leaves the minority culture violated in that they had to accept, defend and courageously embody their culture despite public opinion only to have it become desirable when the dominant culture found use for it. THAT is the core of cultural appropriation. There is a huge misunderstanding about cultural appropriation – even for Black people – that boils down to the fact that we allow terms to be used so loosely that they loose their ability to take shape in the conversation.
The issue is that – just as Williams so eloquently stated – whiteness in its design is parasitic. It is designed to exploit weakness in favor its survival and supremacy. Its only function is to maintain its social standing. And it does so through the appropriation and/or demonization of those cultures that it deems inferior.
While this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us burying Black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, Black gold.
– Jesse Williams
The other problem is “Black gold” as calls it or the perverting of Blackness as a commodity. Because whiteness as a result of its assertion of supremacy creates an other of non-white races it makes them an object that can be owned possessed or controlled.
Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.
– Jesse Williams
Cultural appropriation is a nuanced animal that has to be discussed in the details, intentions and connotations within it. It is one of the subjects within the larger discussion about race in America that has not been thoroughly defined, addressed or understood. To that end, I am glad to see it become a part of the conversation because many people have often felt that we had dealt with race in America and because the conversations had become cyclical and redundant, people began to lose interest. With the loss of interest came the loss of relevance. The fact that this far in the game and this deep in the struggle we are still uncovering topics and issues that provoke new thought and discussion shows how deep our issues with race and racism are. It also let’s us know that we have come a mighty long way but we still got miles to go before we can rest.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man