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For people who’ve grown up in the past half-century, it’s a familiar scene — you’re at a party, or standing in a school hallway or in a crowd at work, when you overhear something like this:
“My brotha, that song was dope! That’s that shit I’m talkin’ about, man.”
Of course, this sentence is uttered by a white guy, who follows up by reaching out for some vaguely elaborate handshake. The black friend he’s addressing, however, is not reaching back, and looks up confused and offended. The proverbial needle rips on the record. Bystanders grow silent.
“What are you talking about, man?”
It’s an awkward situation many of us have witnessed — and some have endured — but is the white friend wrong? You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t used any manner of originally black slang, especially in an American society that, between blues, jazz, rock-and-roll, funk, R&B, hip-hop culture, sports and soul food, can barely separate itself from black culture; it would seem harsh to say the white friend is committing a deeply offensive act. Most likely, he simply wants to act in ways his idols or heroes might.
But what happens when a white person claims to actually be black? That’s the scenario we faced back in June when Rachel Dolezal, a self-identified black woman and the then-President of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash., was revealed to be the daughter of white parents who claimed that Dolezal had lied about her race. Storms of criticism quickly ensued in both the news media and on social media as to whether Dolezal had committed a serious racial offense, or if she was justified in identifying as black. Issues of cultural appropriation seemed to pop up all summer, from Kylie Jenner’s cosmetic decisions to Nicki Minaj’s semi-feud with Taylor Swift over biased MTV VMA nominations, but the question is: where is the line? When does acting in black culture become offensively appropriating black culture?
The case of Dolezal: When race is a choice
For Rachel Dolezal, it was a long journey to arrive at this scandal. She grew up looking like the girl on the left in this photoset, and began to develop into the girl on the right sometime after attending Howard, a historically black university. She had always had an affinity for black culture, and people at Howard initially thought she was a black student upon application, according to her brother. Around 2007, she began trying to appear black after her family adopted four black children, according to her mother.
By 2011, she had altered her hair (and perhaps tanned) enough to where she could actually identify as black and be seen as black. She rose to the top of the NAACP in Spokane, where she maintained a good record of advocacy for racial causes.
Where is Dolezal’s offense?
According to the stories, it was always clear that Dolezal had an affection — a strong identification, even — with black culture, and she spent much of her life teaching on the subject and fighting for equality. In many ways, it might appear that Dolezal was experiencing what it meant to be black — perhaps, even, that she had “earned her stripes.”
The issue with what Dolezal did, however, doesn’t lie in the positive things she did concerning “being black” — it lies in what she didn’t experience. The problem we open the door to when we say, “Hey, if you act and look the part, anyone can be black!” is that easy code-switchers can get off scot-free, but people who can’t pass between looking white and looking black get no such benefit.
The offense comes in that Dolezal experienced many positive aspects of living a “black” life: attending Howard, serving with the NAACP while being perceived as “ingroup,” exuding a persona she (perhaps legitimately) identifies with. But growing up white, she never had to face the systematic racism that comes complimentary with being black. And despite the anthropological truth that race has no real biological basis, it still has a very real societal weight — the powers that be still see us in terms of racial groups, and Dolezal tried to change hers. But that’s a choice that most can’t make.
When it’s less overblown: Jenner’s appropriation of features
Not too long after Dolezal, the media caught on to a less egregious issue, but one perhaps more pervasive: the co-opting of traditionally black “looks.” Celebrity Kylie Jenner came under fire for lip enhancements and a cornrowed hairstyle when black Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg called her out for appropriating black features without using her fame to speak on racial issues. You don’t need a specific link to remember Miley Cyrus’ rise to twerking fame (but you can have one anyway) after the 2013 VMAs — which brings to light a similar issue of capitalizing on black styles without being involved in black culture in any meaningful way.
But don’t trends cross cultural lines all the time?
Sure, cultures have been crossing since cultures became a thing — you’d be hard-pressed to find a country or a people who haven’t borrowed art, food, music or even words from other places. The main gripe when it comes to black-white relations in America, though, is black people in general have been devalued, while their culture, and even their features, have been co-opted by general white society.
Think Elvis. Think The Beach Boys. Think Vanilla Ice. Rock-and-roll, hip-hop, jazz and even larger asses all eventually became part of mainstream (read: white-dominated) culture in America after being structures of black culture (and, well, anatomy). Any slim, blonde ’80s model would cough at the idea that Kim Kardashian’s curves and Kylie Jenner’s braids would be hailed as iconic, but here we are.
And black people, still, often get denied the attention or credit deserved for who they are and what they’ve produced. The latest example only seems trivial: Nicki Minaj’s bite-back at Miley Cyrus after Cyrus dismissed Minaj’s complaints of bias in the VMA nominations.
Minaj had complained that her video for song “Anaconda” was snubbed for video of the year due to preferences for slim bodies (and although critics note Beyonce was nominated, Minaj’s song, video, persona and body type are considerably less in-line with mainstream white culture than those of Beyonce; Minaj’s video is also twice as popular on YouTube). And while a VMA debate is usually no place for social justice discussions, Minaj’s point holds true: when a white Cyrus twerks, it’s suddenly a new fad for the world, despite that it’s been a thing since at least 1993. When Elvis does rock-and-roll, suddenly it’s an acceptable craze even when the term “race music” was still a thing.
Which brings us to what may be the most important point.
When Eminem rose to hip-hop fame, he was largely given a pass on “stealing” black culture because, well, he was from the culture — he grew up in one of the blackest cities in America listening to Tupac. The media had already acknowledged that hip-hop was a huge craze, so little outrage was necessary.
The case with black and African-influenced artists such as Vampire Weekend, The White Stripes and Macklemore is a bit different — none saw the kinds of controversy that a Miley Cyrus faces today, and it’s in part due to the artists either innovating on their influences or paying enough homage to quiet discontent. But the main difference is that the media never took these artists and said, “Look! Look at this new trend worthy of our attention,” the way they have in recent cultural appropriation issues.
When American society reaches a day when the media, and dominant societal structures in general, can respect black people and their culture enough to quiet accusations of appropriation rather than borrowing — when black artists and creators get the credit they deserve — we won’t see such persistent debates when cultures cross. But for that to happen, the media will have to pause before lauding white uses of black culture as new crazes — and that’s something that only discussion can bring us closer to.
Contact Copy Editor Ellis Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at ArnoldEllis_.