5 things white people need to learn about cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation is not okay. In fact, it comes with strains of prejudice and, within a larger system of colonial whiteness, racism. That’s a message Katy Perry refuses to understand, with the artist doubling down on her bigoted behavior in the new video for “This Is How We Do.”
If you’re Katy Perry, for example, you believe it’s A-OK to don corn rows and gel down your baby hair, put on some long fingernails and so-called sassy mannerisms with a “blaccent” and slang to portray how you believe certain black women behave and speak. But when you do it, as a white artist, you perpetuate a long legacy of white cultural theft—in addition to bypassing all the racist and misogynist insults those black women must contend with on a daily basis. That includes being called “ghetto” by white (and other) people, typecast as a welfare queen or otherwise told that your natural hairstyles and expressions are inferior and unwelcome. These are symptomatic of slavery and segregation in America and, yes, this really still happens every day. And it’s cultural appropriation.
As writer Tamara Winfrey Harris expertly notes over at Racialicious, it’s the oppression that causes the intense offense that many people—mainly white people—seek to explain away rather than critically question.
A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme–powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African, and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.
And what makes cultural appropriation all the more infuriating for people of color rests on the fact that other people—white or not—can take off their costume and return to everyday life without the discrimination or stigma commonly associated with those cultural expressions. Just because you may find any elements of another culture or subculture to be awe-inspiring, or even have an odd fetish or fascination with it, using those expressions dispensibly is an insult that comes with a long history and trend of racial and ethnic discrimination and prejudice. It’s insulting to say the least.
This stuff dates back to Elvis being referred to as “The King” of rock n’ roll when he borrowed or stole heavily from black artists, Madonna with “Vogue” and a variety of other instances, and too many other white artists to name in America.
Don’t be basic like Katy Perry, though, who thinks she’s appreciating cultures when she routinely appropriates them, even after being called out by people of color. Here’s how people can avoid a similar, sad state of being:
1) Cite your cross-cultural influences publicly and often.
There is a fine line between appropriating a culture and appreciating a culture. And, more often than not, we see artists appreciating other cultures and paying homage to the originators, rather than outright stealing the expressions without giving any credit or acknowledging the history behind them. For example, with some blends of soul, R&B and pop music, Adele, Sam Smith, Christina Aguilera and many other white and non-black singers publicly acknowledge how they admire historically black genres and artists, and draw from that inspiration to mold their own creative contributions.
That’s what appreciation looks like. But if Sam Smith went around ripping off an artist like Frank Ocean, you best believe many black folks in and out of the music business would have a thing or two to say about it—just as they did with Robin Thicke’s alleged theft of a Marvin Gaye classic in “Blurred Lines.”
2) Don’t wear very culturally-specific clothing if you don’t understand the significance.
This is why Native American headdresses, and even the Orientalism that comes with donning saris, henna tattoos, and other Indian ornations, rub many people in both communities the wrong way. With the headdresses, many of those cultural staples represent things, people or moments that are held sacred in spirituality, leadership, or other facets of everyday life that have a long history—especially as it pertains to white, Western colonization and genocide of the peoples for economic exploitation and domination.
3) Speak or sing in your own normal voice, not what you think is another culture’s accent.
Iggy Azalea’s natural speaking voice, for example, is the rural Australian accent with which she was raised speaking. However, when she steps out of an interview and into a studio (or a stage, for that matter), her voice transforms from the Mullumbimby, Australia tonality to a grungy, Southern female “blaccent” when she’s rapping. While she personally shares her admiration for legendary rap artists such as Tupac, even citing him as the reason why she felt so inspired to enter the industry in the first place, the “blaccent” and Iggy’s claim that Miley stoke twerking from her (and not from black cultures)—along with the industry chatter that she allegedly doesn’t write the rhymes she spits—is a strike against her authenticity and tips her over the line from appreciation into appropriation.
4) Stereotypes aren’t your toys. Don’t play around with them.
This was on full display in the Katy Perry video with how she used the “blaccent,” corn rows, and sassy, affected mannerisms in order to display how she thinks a black woman “do” on a daily basis or even how she parties. Also in the video, Perry reclines on a beach chair while wearing a single, long, black, and braided ponytail while chucking up long-nailed deuces and eating a big slice of watermelon—a fruit long associated with racist stereotypes of African-Americans eating it with fried chicken, even if the fruit detail is essentially false.
She even played on the Japanese geisha tropes during her performance of “Unconditionally” at the American Music Awards last fall, with her shuffling around on stage donning yellowface and constant bowing demonstrating a cultural ignorance and confusion about how geishas actually operate.
5) An authentic cultural exchange should feel free and affirming, rather than plagiarizing or thieving.
Let’s be real. Most of us wish we could stop having conversations about racism and how it operates in American society, opting instead to just comingle, integrate and figure out how we can work through all the messiness together to create some lasting equity—which will take much more than people not stealing other cultures’ expressions without being aware of the history and consequences. A real cultural exchange isn’t only about mannerisms, vocal dynamics, costumes, religious traditions, musical stylings or other items. That exchange also functions as an ongoing conversation to truly understand the social and political dynamics of a community, to truly understand the everyday burdens and prejudice that often fostered the very costumes or sayings that mainstream (and white) culture have taken for granted.
Don’t just borrow or pay homage. Do yourself the favor of learning more. Go to a library, take a class or even read on the Internet about the histories of a particular culture and what their people struggled through while creating these items you’ve become so fascinated with. And take it even one step further: Get politically active and operate in solidarity with said peoples. That is, if you actually give a damn.
Derrick Clifton is a New York-based journalist, speaker and commentator covering the intersections of identity, culture and politics. He’s the author of the forthcoming book HEART WERK, a collection of coming-of-age essays about navigating life and love within multiple marginalized race, sexual and gender identities. Follow him on Twitter, on Facebook, or visit derrickclifton.com for more information on his work.
Photo via Katy Perry/VIMEO