When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation, We Should Be Talking About Power

When the powerful appropriate from the oppressed, inequality is exacerbated.

Lauren Michele Jackson October 9, 2019

Clockwise from left: Miley Cyrus performs on her 2014 Bangerz Tour with a “bobblehead” of writing partner Big Sean; rapper Eminem holds his 2000 Video Music Award for video of the year; anti-hip-hop rapper Macklemore performs at the 2013 Sasquatch festival.

The word appro­pri­a­tion” gets a bad rap. Cen­turies old, it denotes an act of trans­port — some item or motif or a bit of prop­er­ty chang­ing hands. An artist might appro­pri­ate an ancient sym­bol in a paint­ing or a gov­ern­ment might appro­pri­ate monies through tax­es to fund pub­lic edu­ca­tion. Tak­ing only the root of the word, the mean­ing seems clear. To make some­thing appro­pri­ate for anoth­er con­text. In some cir­cles, the word is still used this way. But col­lo­qui­al­ly? Not so much.

White people are not penalized for flaunting black culture—they are rewarded for doing so, financially, artistically, socially and intellectually.

The debate over cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion rages on. It was not too many years ago that for­mer Dis­ney star Miley Cyrus, suit­ed in uni­corn paja­mas, rat­tled her waist in an online video that went viral, prompt­ing Amer­i­ca to find lan­guage and mean­ing for what exact­ly was hap­pen­ing, the lan­guage with which to encounter this white girl who so loved black dance.

I recall a sim­i­lar anx­i­ety ema­nat­ing from the pop music takeover of Eminem. At the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), the rap­per, sport­ing close-cut bleached-blond hair, entered the the­ater in a white wifebeat­er” (offen­sive, if not inac­cu­rate) and loose gray sweat­pants, trailed by dozens of white close-cut bleached-blond looka­likes. At the time, Eminem appeared to be the por­tent of hip-hop’s future — artists, crit­ics and oth­er pro­tec­tors of the genre wor­ried about the next com­ing of Elvis, wor­ried that Eminem might cat­alyze a trans­for­ma­tion of rap sim­i­lar to what long ago hap­pened to rock n’ roll, and to jazz before that. They weren’t so wrong. Thir­teen years lat­er, the VMA for Best Hip-Hop Video was award­ed to a white anti-hip-hop rap duo from Seat­tle named Mack­le­more and Ryan Lewis. Those same 2013 VMAs invit­ed Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus to jerk and jive to the riff of a song that would lat­er incur pay­ment of court-ordered roy­al­ties to Mar­vin Gaye’s estate for bor­row­ing with­out permission.

From Hal­loween cos­tumes to Cin­co de Mayo par­ties to the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins to dec­o­ra­tive bindis and oth­er music fes­ti­val fash­ion, an avowed­ly more con­scious gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple is tasked with tak­ing seri­ous­ly all kinds of cul­tur­al mas­quer­ade. Yet the more pop­u­lar — and accusato­ry — the word appro­pri­a­tion” has become, the few­er peo­ple seem will­ing to under­stand the mean­ing behind it. Where it briefly seemed obvi­ous that dress­ing up as a per­son of anoth­er race to the point of stereo­type is not okay, as I write this, the coun­try is in the midst of for­giv­ing and active­ly for­get­ting the sur­faced pho­to­graph of a state gov­er­nor cos­tumed in either black­face or Klan robes. (The gov­er­nor refus­es to dis­close which par­ty­go­er in the pho­to he is.) After years of being chas­tised for wear­ing som­breros and Native-like head­dress­es, white peo­ple feel indig­nant. They are para­noid that peo­ple of col­or see appro­pri­a­tion in everything.

Appro­pri­a­tion is every­where, and is also inevitable. So long as peo­ples inter­act with oth­er peo­ples, by choice or by force, cul­tures will inter­sect and min­gle and graft onto each oth­er. We call hip-hop a black thing and it is, indeed, a black thing, that also emerged in neigh­bor­hoods where black and brown peo­ple home­grown and from the South, from the islands, meld­ed togeth­er to pro­duce the music of their expe­ri­ences in shared pover­ty and com­mu­ni­ty. Ear­ly rap was itself an appro­pri­a­tion of anoth­er generation’s sound— funk, soul, dis­co — repur­posed for some­thing dif­fer­ent and new. The idea that any artis­tic or cul­tur­al prac­tice is closed off to out­siders at any point in time is ridicu­lous, espe­cial­ly in the age of the internet.

Most every­day acts of appro­pri­a­tion, done uncon­scious­ly, escape our notice: the word that works itself into your speech because your best friend sprin­kles every oth­er phrase with it and where they got it from they don’t even know; the yoga pose you sink into after a work­out; the way you shim­my when your favorite song comes on. Said the emi­nent cul­tur­al the­o­rist Homi K. Bhab­ha, We can nev­er quite con­trol these acts and their sig­ni­fi­ca­tion. They exceed intention.”

So, if appro­pri­a­tion is every­where and every­one appro­pri­ates all the time, why does any of this matter?

The answer, in a word: power.

Lead­ing dis­cus­sions about appro­pri­a­tion have been lim­it­ed to debates about free­dom and choice, when every­one should be talk­ing about pow­er. The act of cul­tur­al trans­port is not in itself an eth­i­cal dilem­ma. Appro­pri­a­tion can often be a means of social and polit­i­cal repair. Exam­ples include cake­walk­ing on the old plan­ta­tion, poet­ic verse mas­tered and improved upon by the descen­dants of those beat­en or worse for the crime of lit­er­a­cy. Ask any book of poems by Paul Lau­rence Dun­bar or Gwen­dolyn Brooks or Ter­rance Hayes how insur­gent­ly won­der­ful lit­er­a­ture can be when black poets exper­i­ment with the forms at their dis­pos­al, even the ones that come from Europe. When the oppressed appro­pri­ate from the pow­er­ful, it can be very spe­cial indeed.

And yet.

When the pow­er­ful appro­pri­ate from the oppressed, society’s imbal­ances are exac­er­bat­ed and inequal­i­ties pro­longed. In Amer­i­ca, white peo­ple hoard pow­er like Hun­gry Hun­gry Hip­pos. In the his­to­ry of prob­lem­at­ic appro­pri­a­tion in Amer­i­ca, we could start with the land and crops com­man­deered from Native peo­ples along with the mass expro­pri­a­tion of the labor of the enslaved. The tra­di­tion lives on. The things black peo­ple make with their hands and minds, for pay and for the hell of it, are exploit­ed by com­pa­nies and indi­vid­u­als who offer next to noth­ing in return. White peo­ple are not penal­ized for flaunt­ing black cul­ture — they are reward­ed for doing so, finan­cial­ly, artis­ti­cal­ly, social­ly and intel­lec­tu­al­ly. For a white per­son, see­ing, cit­ing and com­pen­sat­ing black peo­ple, how­ev­er, has no such reward.

Take, for exam­ple, the 2014 Whit­ney Bien­ni­al. Since 1932, the exalt­ed Whit­ney Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art in Man­hat­tan has host­ed exhi­bi­tions boast­ing whom it con­sid­ers the most cut­ting-edge artists on offer. The Bien­ni­al is a short­cut to the heart of the art world and there­fore to the art world’s race prob­lem. In 2014, the muse­um promised a show that would sug­gest the pro­found­ly diverse and hybrid cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty of Amer­i­ca today.” What its cura­tors, Stu­art Com­er, Antho­ny Elms, and Michelle Grab­n­er— all white — failed to men­tion was the scarci­ty of artists of col­or with work on display.

The exhi­bi­tion includ­ed paint­ings by a so-called Donelle Wool­ford. Donelle Wool­ford is not the name of an artist, nor even of a real per­son, but the com­ic avatar of artist Joe Scan­lan. Scan­lan, a pro­fes­sor of visu­al arts at Prince­ton, is a white man. Donelle Wool­ford is a black woman — sort of. She is a deceit. Her black wom­an­hood relies on how much cre­dence one lends to a name that denotes a con­cept. Her name was appro­pri­at­ed,” in his own words, from a pro­fes­sion­al foot­ball play­er I admired” (a for­mer Chica­go Bears cor­ner­back, Don­nelle — two n’s — Woolford).

Includ­ed this way, Donelle was one of nine black artists out of 103 artists in total, or 11% of the black artists cho­sen for the Bien­ni­al. Joe was the very first artist I asked to vis­it when I start­ed on my stu­dio-vis­it process for the W.B.,” Grab­n­er told Observ­er in advance of the show. I invit­ed both Joe and Donelle. Joe turned my invi­ta­tion down, but Donelle agreed to participate.”

Out of all the iden­ti­ties in the world, Scan­lan chose a black woman, a per­son who, if real, would be as dis­count­ed by the world as he him­self is over­val­ued. Head and shoul­ders above artists who hap­pen to be black women, who strug­gle for a frac­tion of recog­ni­tion from sen­tinels of the art world who look like him, Scan­lan crouched down and plucked from them what he sees as their only worth­while fea­ture. Not their his­to­ry, not their cul­ture, not their com­mu­ni­ty. Scan­lan played iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics and won.

The dis­par­i­ty in pow­er between white and black in Amer­i­ca is severe. Accord­ing to a 2018 report by the Samuel DuBois Cook Cen­ter on Social Equi­ty at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty, A white house­hold liv­ing near the pover­ty line typ­i­cal­ly has about $18,000 in wealth, while black house­holds in sim­i­lar eco­nom­ic straits typ­i­cal­ly have a medi­an wealth near zero. This means that many black fam­i­lies have a neg­a­tive net worth” (empha­sis in orig­i­nal). Con­trary to myths that say if only black folks did right—saved mon­ey, went to col­lege, got mar­ried, start­ed a busi­ness — noth­ing is as pre­dic­tive of suc­cess in Amer­i­ca as being born white. In fact, as the report con­cludes, There are no actions that black Amer­i­cans can take uni­lat­er­al­ly that will have much of an effect on reduc­ing the racial wealth gap.”

The enor­mi­ty of this wealth gap is exac­er­bat­ed by the gap between who is allowed to thrive off intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty and who is pre­vent­ed from doing so by this nation’s hys­ter­i­cal, dri­ving com­pul­sion to own and reg­u­late all things black. When it’s time to pay the piper, how­ev­er — that is, give cred­it where it’s due — some­how the acco­lades land in the lap of some­body white, or at least some­one who is not black. The con­tra­dic­tion is what’s meant by the adage made famous by Paul Mooney: Every­body wan­na be a nig­ga, but don’t nobody wan­na be a nig­ga,” an ambiva­lent turn of phrase. Every­body wants the insur­gence of black­ness with the wealth of white­ness. Every­body wants to be cool with­out fear­ing for their lives. They want black­ness only as a sug­ges­tion, want to remain non­black, keep cen­turies of sub­jec­tion and vio­lence at bay. When cul­ture is embraced and its peo­ple dis­card­ed, it’s too easy to trick the coun­try into believ­ing some­body white start­ed it all.

To those who been knew, may you rev­el in the won­der of what peo­ple like us have made out of this dull, dull world.


White Negroes: When Corn­rows Were in Vogue… And Oth­er Thoughts on Cul­tur­al Appro­pri­a­tion by Lau­ren Michele Jack­son (Bea­con Press, 2019). Reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Bea­con Press.

Lau­ren Michele Jack­son teach­es in the depart­ments of Eng­lish and African Amer­i­can stud­ies at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of the forth­com­ing book White Negroes: When Corn­rows Were in Vogue … and Oth­er Thoughts on Cul­tur­al Appropriation.
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