By Dariel Chaidez In American culture, race has always been a highly-charged issue, though one might say we are becoming more open about intercultural dialogue. One of the growing points of discussion has been the rise of cultural appropriation. In simple terms, cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of aspects of one culture by members of another culture for their own gain without understanding or respect. This differs from cultural appreciation, which involves taking time to learn, understand, and interact with a culture. Specifically within the black community, appropriation has been an ongoing problem for decades. Along with the many injustices inflicted on the black community in American history, many believe that cultural appropriation is a new facet of racism.
In pop culture, the effects of appropriation are most evident in music and fashion. For instance, white artists such as Eminem, Iggy Azalea and Macklemore have received backlash because they make rap music, which is traditionally considered black. The controversy surrounding these artists stems from the fact that they are not acting within their own cultural norms, and instead appropriating an aspect of a community to which they don't belong. Interestingly, though he's received much criticism, Macklemore recently released a song titled “White Privilege II." The song covers many issues facing Americans today in terms of racial issues, specifically the notion of white privilege that is becoming a more prevalent concept. He begins by asking himself if it acceptable for him to make black music saying, “Is it my place to give my two cents?” He ends with the haunting phrase, “We take all we want from black culture, but will we be there for black lives?” From the most publicized musicians to the everyday, the appropriation of black culture has its stamp on how America looks.
In the fashion world, styles of dress and appearance considered to be black have been borrowed by other cultures for much time. An example would be the styles attributed to the genre of what was considered black music and hip-hop style such as baggy clothing, team jerseys, etc. This era also produced the terms “wigger” and “wangster,” derogatory words used to describe a white person who emulated African-American style. More recently, the appropriation of black hairstyles have entered into the discourse. In this instance, people not of African-American heritage have embraced traditional black hairstyles such as the afro and dreadlocks, making this trend more controversial in regards to people's intentions.
The dialogue of cultural appropriation is tricky and riddled with grey areas. When viewing the subject, there is no clearly defined line as to what is right and what is wrong. Regarding opinion, the majority of the topic is subjective but there are some precise rules and morals that can be applied. Many people hold that cultural appropriation is a tool used to keep one group socially, economically, and artistically oppressed. Within the black community, appropriation can cast a negative shadow on how blacks are viewed in America. By using parts of their culture, many believe that this is making them more of a novelty than a people. Reverend Velda Love, faculty fellow of NPU, states: “It [appropriation] continues stereotypes if what is taken, borrowed, or used from Black culture is portrayed negatively. The whole culture is not seen as historically contributing to every aspect of America.”
The effect is not only social, but economic as well; other groups profit from the innovations of the black community by appropriation. Rev. Love states that appropriation “robs us [the black community] of benefiting economically from what is created and produced from the genius of African-American people.” She goes on to speak of some of the other effects had on the community: “It has affected us emotionally by taking what we create as valuable and profitable for one group, while oftentimes criticizing us for exhibiting our expressions of style, dress, and music in public spaces. Psychologically by ignoring what we produce as scholarship, ideas, or innovations as not important until it’s profitable or appropriated by others. This kind of appropriation has been happening for centuries, and it’s hurtful.”
A way we can work against the effects of cultural appropriation is by telling the black story. When it is not told from a place of true knowledge and authority, it can be misconstrued which is why Love says that “we [the black community] need the opportunity to tell our own stories, research our own history, and make sure our narratives tell the good and bad. Others can tell our story, but consult us, talk with us, and learn from us in order to avoid a continuation of negative aspersions on an entire culture of people.”
A highly-debated issue within the scope of appropriation is where to draw the line between embracing a culture and mocking it. Appropriation is never okay when a group is being mocked and belittled. An example of this type of appropriation would be the black-face trend in the 20th and 21st centuries. Many believe that any type of appropriation is mocking and belittling, even if unintentional. Using music as an example, many people believe that artists appropriating black culture don’t have the right to speak on topics regarding the black community because they haven’t lived the life of a black person, and therefore cannot fully understand the issues faced by the community on a daily basis.
Others hold that embracement of culture is acceptable, as long as it is done in a respectful and genuine fashion, and comes from a place of knowledge and compassion. Some argue that cultural appropriation itself is more of a learning experience than a negative byproduct of racism. The sentiment that appropriation is an appreciation of culture, and that the people who appropriate it are attempting to celebrate other cultures casts a positive look on the tension surrounding appropriation.
Whether or not there is a clear line to what is acceptable and what isn’t, it is important to note the growing awareness of cultural appropriation and its impact on our everyday lives. We live in an increasingly diverse society, and it is imperative to consider the empathy we must have for other cultures. Though we can never fully experience what it is like to be a part of a culture other than our own, we can try to understand by taking a few steps in the right direction.
Here at North Park, there are a myriad cultural events available to students. These events are specifically designed to encourage healthy discussion in a safe environment. When asked about how we as diverse community can have discussions about delicate topics such as race relations, Rev. Love replied, “by listening, not making assumptions about other cultures, not being afraid of cultural expression, and by asking questions.” This piece of advice from Rev. Love is what will set us in the right direction towards a community of knowledge, understanding and eventually peace.