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Cultural Appropriation: Black on Black Crimes

August 13, 2006

The African American “dread” is one obvious example of cultural diffusion. The most famous “dread” Bob Marley has become a symbol of rebellion and political, spiritual empowerment, as well as an icon of Afrocentrism. As a result, so has reggae music and Rastafarianism. Locs became symbols of those ideas, and many African Americans who wore them have been subject to the “blackness” test in the past (is that hair for show or for rebellion?). Now that locs have become a favored hairstyle among crunk rappers and Floridian football players, the original (religious) significance of the hairstyle has been diluted. That sounds like the definition of cultural appropriation.

What’s that? It’s just borrowing when black people do it? Because the racism/discrimination power dynamic isn’t in place? So, that means African Americans (especially MCs and pro football players, even college football players) are not in a superior position vis a vis economic and political power to the Rastas? Or does the argument go that when the “race” is the same, the cultural power status dynamic is irrelevant?

This is where I think the cultural appropriation accusations start to fly off the rails. It appears as if that the “cultural” part is less important than the implied racial component. Yes, I have plenty in common in the main with a Trenchtown rasta. However, do I have more in common with a Rastafarian than I do with a white American rap fan? Perhaps.

A reader Brigette brings up an interesting dilemma, how does cultural appropriation apply to the relationship between Appalachians and mainstream Country music culture in Nashville? Clearly, Nashville has over the years made a caricature of people from the region, and those “Hee Haw” actors and singers have made a mint from that “Lil’ Abner” vision of the South without paying the region back for helping them to make all that paper. All the components of our working definition of cultural appropriation are present, except, most would argue the racial component (one can make the argument that not all Appalachians are white, and of course they aren’t, however one can also argue that POC are left out of most mainstream representations of Appalachia, save John Sayles’ brilliant film Matewan). Is it white folks taking from white folks, so what? Or, an empowered culture taking from a disenfranchised one, thus exploiting that culture?

Well, if a white guy can’t wear dreads, or at least must take the Nazarite Vow to do so legitimately, then neither can I, if we are to all accept the working definition of cultural appropriation. Now, if we want to turn that into racial appropriation . . . but then we’d all be in trouble.

So the racial essentialists have another question to answer; should all Asian Americans get pissed about the “anime boom?” Hmmm.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. bridgett permalink
    August 14, 2006 8:22 pm

    Yes, appropriation is theft without props. Is this racial? Yes, as and when racial difference is a signifier of social power. Is this class? Yes, because economic inequalities are expressed, and boundaries policed, through culture. Is it gender? Yes. All these simultaneously, with the root of the problem social power and its unequal distribution/expression.

    Theory whack, whau!

  2. August 31, 2006 7:46 pm

    I think this is an interesting direction to go, and the point about Appalachia brings in a lot of what I was trying to explain in my own post on the subject: I draw a line–a sometimes blurry one, I’ll grant–between what I might call “acculturation” and what I might call “cultural appropriation,” a distinction I’m not sure you’ve been as keen on. Maybe I’m different from some of the discourse you’ve brought up here, but I don’t see a problem with acculturation–that is, sharing of memes between cultures and people. I think it’s pretty vital for human survival, really, and even if it weren’t we couldn’t stop it if we tried. Acculturation is. It’s where I come from, and where most of the cultures we’re getting irritable about mashing together come from, originally, too.
    What gets my hackles up is a specific subset of acculturation, one I’m calling cultural appropriation, which I might define, in soberer moments, as a kind of acculturation whereby a privileged culture exploits memes from a disenfranchised culture for its own benefit, without respect, reciprocation, or consent, or even, in particular cases, a kind of uneven acculturation whereby a privileged culture commodifies a disenfranchised culture’s memes without their consultation and to its own profit.
    I hope that makes sense. I’m trying to draw a line here between responsible acculturation and irresponsible acculturation, between sharing and mugging. I think this distinction’s been missed by a lot of people in the debate, especially since a lot of folks on the anti-appropriation side get so frustrated that they lash out in ways where folks who just don’t understand where they’re coming from get offended and don’t want to understand.

  3. September 12, 2006 2:26 pm

    Sorry it’s taken me time to respond.

    Your definition is pretty loaded, since it uses words like exploit, and demands “respect.” It’s pretty hard for us, if we place POC in the position of the disenfranchised, to define how one is being “respectful” of whatever the meme is. How does one show the proper respect when acting as the hip hop fan? The non-Black rap artist? How is the anime fan, already paying out their butt for all the DVDs and nihongo lessons, the exploiter and not the exploited?

    I think this is something people are going to have to learn to live with. When you have culture memes that can be marketed/sold, you’re going to have to be ready for people from the “outside” to like, absorb, copy, even market those memes themselves. That’s the difficulty of hip hop culture, which is defined for the most part by a marketable item, something that was not intended to be a cultural meme, rap music.

    I think the people who generally don’t give a topic like cultural appropriation a lot of thought have it right. Rather than setting up a priori boundaries, like arguing you must have the X mindset before you are allowed to play along, they sort out the pretenders after the fact. The kind of “sharing” as you put it is too beneficial to cultural understanding to be diluted by putting up arbitrary boundaries.

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