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Black History Month: The Problem With Appropriation

8 Feb

Too much is made of race in this country, and too often ethnicity is the issue that defines and separates the people of this nation. The United States is the victim of a vicious, self-inflicted cycle of civil unrest caused by racial prejudices that inevitably lead into a collective dismissal of its exploitative and oppressive past. Everyone gets upset when racial issues arise, but no one works to correct the problem. And when the next public injustice surfaces, the cycle repeats itself.

Racism is alive in this country, however Americans are too preoccupied with perceived racial slights to address the real social issues that affect minorities. A self-serving egotism divides the public consciousness. And, when people can not see past their own points of contention, they do not listen to the views of others. In reaction to controversial current events, minorities frequently overreact by putting racial pretexts on situations caused by social or economical issues, and then the majority collectively ignores or devalues the opinions of the minorities. Black and Latino people, the most oppressed minorities in the United States, assume each disagreement is yet another slight that has been marginalized by the oppressive majority (White people in America) and rally blindly behind those social causes while White Americans, who represent the majority, presume that each offense is deserved because of some stereotypical behavior enacted by the minority. The majority population assumes that its minorities are overreacting to trivial issues and dismisses those occurrences which further infuriates the oppressed. In essence, Black people blame White people for the injustices in this country, and White people convince themselves that the injustices do not exist. And because of this phenomena, minorities cry racism to label events that are difficult to explain and endure. Unfortunately, every time racism is falsely projected onto a situation it separates the community further because both parties hide behind their faulty, hollow belief systems. These belief systems propagate division through many different platforms, but especially through language. Ignorant people use expletives to relay their pain. Educated people rationalize their pain and label it. The assembly of contrived terms like “cultural appropriation” to define oppression, and the intellectualizing and internalizing of every perceived racial injustice creates dissension between different races and cultures. However, the subject of appropriation is an issue where race is inherently part of the discussion, and regardless of how pretentious the term may be, the effects are damaging to minorities, specifically to Black culture. Though appropriation seems like the type of behavior that has no detrimental effect on people, it is the embodiment of the new subversive racism that permeates society today.

Oxford Dictionary defines appropriation as “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.” But, in the context of culture and race relations, civil rights activists have operationally defined the term appropriation to mean the adopting of cultural styles and behaviors by a person or group without facing any of the daily discrimination of that culture. Generally, the majority imitates a style or behavior that represents a specific minority pushing that mode of expression into popular culture and thereby making the style common instead of unique to its originators.

cultural appropriation - native american

Style defines culture, culture defines people, and the loss of culture degrades the community. The United States was founded on the basic tenets of diversity that its constituents personify and the melding of different ethnic groups, religions, ideologies, and cultures under the umbrella of one nation. Immigrants migrate to this country to escape the oppression of their native land and maintain their sense of diversity (and thus, their identity) while adapting to changes in how they identify themselves as citizens. This nation of immigrants was built on the principles of defection, colonization, and resettlement. And, the American dream includes a fight for freedom from oppression and an acclimation into a country where individualism and diversity is celebrated.

However, the American dream looks different for Black people. Black Americans did not come to this country to escape communism or socialism through immigration, and Black culture is not openly celebrated here. Black people were brought to this country by their oppressors and stripped of their native customs and culture. They were given new names, a new language, a new religion, and therefore a new identity. Black people were forced to assimilate to the belief systems of their captors and were tortured and killed for a myriad of reasons. They were considered to be property, three-fifths of a person, chattel for use as seen fit by their owners. And, when slaves were freed from captivity, they had to forge a new identity for themselves. Black Americans fought the human beings who literally owned them to individuate into American society. That is why Black culture and Black History should be revered in the United States. Black people are an integral part of American history, but not typical Americans, and their story is an unique intimation of American enterprise. Slavery defined Black people in this country, and freed men had to reinvent themselves to become equals as Americans. These people were not Africans. All their customs and their way of living was left behind. And, this is one of the major problems with appropriation. Appropriation diminishes the struggle that people endured to find an identity separate from their oppressors. But, the minimization of the history of Black Americans is not the largest problem with cultural appropriation. The most difficult task in broaching the subject of appropriation is dealing with the public disdain that most Americans have with Black people.

The sad irony of the appropriation of Black culture is that the same characteristics of ethnic beauty, Black culture, and Black music that are deemed unpleasing and/or disregarded with actual Black people are celebrated once White people have those characteristics or perform those acts. The same full lips and large butts that are often derided on Black women are glorified when Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez have them. In 2012, Americans spent 5 billion dollars on indoor tanning salons, and that number regularly fluctuates between 3-5 billion. Millions of people regularly use bronzers and UV light to darken their skin tone, but several studies consistently rate Black people the least attractive of the races. American music was shaped by Black people, however Black musicians rarely reach the levels of fame that their White counterparts ascend to in the same genres of music. Rock-n-roll was formed by Black Blues musicians in the rural South during the early fifties, however it is not thought of as Black music. It has become popular American music and Black artists scarcely ever break through on the Billboard charts. Elvis Presley, a rock icon, admittedly mimicked the sound of Black singers in the South. His songs were written by Black songwriters like Otis Blackwell and Chuck Berry, and many of his dance moves were taken directly from Berry.

chuck berry - elvis presley

“The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”

Elvis Presley

Yet, he is the King, and guys like the aforementioned Crudup spent most of his life bootlegging and as an agricultural laborer. Jazz music originated from the Black neighborhoods of New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and hit its peak with big band/swing composers like Cab Calloway and innovative artists like Miles Davis in the 1970s. However, it took Kenny G, a considerably less talented White artist to bring the music into popular culture. He has over 75 million records sold worldwide. Miles Davis, the standard by which all jazz musicians are measured, has under 20 million record sold. Justin Timberlake brought sexy back with a R&B album, but artists like Keke Wyatt who are incomparable vocally can not hit the mainstream success in what is considered a Black genre of music. And, rap/hip-hop has been taken over by admittedly gifted White artists like Eminem and Macklemore that outsell equally or more talented artists like Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, or Nas.

cultural appropriation

This represents the largest problem with appropriation. The natural talent and the defining characteristics of the victimized culture are diminished and sometimes forgotten altogether while the culture becomes mischaracterized and often displaced. Black culture is one of the only cultures that is publicly attached to its negative cross-sections. When people think of Grecian culture, they think of the rich mythology, the historical ruins, and the great philosophers. German culture cultivates thoughts of stellar engineering, and Asian culture embodies technological advancement and superiority in mathematics. Italian culture educes connections to the cuisine and the classic artistry in painting, building, and sculpting. However, when people contemplate the relevance of Black culture, they think about poverty and criminality rather than the people being the innovators and architects of American culture. When people are not celebrated for their accomplishments, only their failures are left to observe.

Appropriating culture strips down groups of people into pieces of themselves. There is nothing wrong with appreciating a specific culture for its unique style and tenue. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong participating in cultural traditions when invited to do so. Nevertheless, claiming that tradition while extirpating the source of the practice and ignoring the historical relevance of the act is disheartening, reckless, and oppressive.

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