Appreciation vs. Appropriation

I’ve long been a fan of Everyday Feminism but today I read an article which I think might just be my favourite so far. It helps to clarify the oft-hazy line between the appreciation and appropriation of black culture.

I am writing this from the viewpoint of a white person and, as such, as someone who has the privileges and opportunities that come with that.

Johnson is absolutely right in this article – white supremacy IS a dominating force in society and black lives are frequently treated as if they don’t matter. As white people within a world that favours white people, we often unconsciously propagate racial inequality through our values and behaviours. I know I’m not innocent of it, as much as I wish I was.

Take, for example, a mistake I made recently. For context, I consider myself a liberal. I try to educate myself about various kinds of inequality so I can be a proponent of equality. I make a conscious effort not to behave in a way that could be harmful to minority groups or that might offend individuals that are part of such groups. But when I started my current job back in June, there was a group of eight of us having training. We were all women, very open and jokey with each other. One of these people was a woman of colour – I shall call her J. She had the most beautiful braided hair.  I guess I got a little over-excited in our training group one day and I picked up one of her braids, touched it and commented “ooh so pretty!” I guess my subconscious intention was to communicate to her that I appreciated her hair. Immediately I asked myself why I had done that and thought of all the ways it was kind of rude and inappropriate, but carried on as normal and tried to forget about it. She didn’t seem phased by it anyway.

A few days later our training group went out for drinks after work. Somehow the conversation got on to J’s hair and, out of curiosity and because I’m trying to learn what is and is not acceptable in terms of cultural appropriation, I asked J if she finds it frustrating when white girls wear typically ‘black’ hair styles. She said yes, and she followed with “and I’m going to be honest, it also made me REALLY angry when you touched my hair the other day. You could AT LEAST have asked first. Just don’t touch my hair, man.” I felt absolutely ridiculous. I knew what I had done was not okay – I knew it was “otherizing” behaviour, and I was treating her as if she was an object and not a person. I was so angry at myself. I made some stupid defensive comment like “sorry, I guess I’m just a really tactile person and don’t know how to keep my hands to myself” and left it at that, but I knew that didn’t really cut it as an apology. I brought it up again later on when we were alone and said, “I’m sorry for… unlawfully touching your hair” as though that was any better. It wasn’t. Because I felt awkward I said it in a jokey way, which is even worse. Although I didn’t mean to, it was like I was mocking her for feeling annoyed about it. She said was okay, it’s just that it’s a thing she doesn’t like and she finds it disrespectful. I completely get why she felt that way, and I really don’t understand why I had a moment of impulsiveness where I felt the need to touch it. It was really not cool. In terms of being supportive and respectful to others, I think the first step is acknowledging our mistakes in terms of unconscious otherizing or racism and thinking more carefully before you do or say something that might offend someone, make them feel ‘less than’ or make them feel objectified.

As a woman, I certainly spend a lot of my time feeling objectified and angry about the way women are treated in society. So imagine being a black woman and how much worse it is in terms of privilege (or the lack thereof). In terms of intersectional hierarchy, women of colour are right at the bottom.

I really want to be more aware of the kinds of things I’m saying and how they might contribute to a larger narrative of black (or other minority) inferiority. Because little things do add up to bigger things. It is not acceptable to appropriate. I know that for years I’ve occasionally used AAVE in a joking way, and I’ll frequently drop the word “yo” in sentences to be… ironic, I guess. It doesn’t make me ironic, it makes me a dick. It is really not okay to take the cultural heritage of someone else, especially individuals within a marginalised social group, and exploit bits of their culture which you find amusing or “different” or convenient to make a point. I would never use the ‘N’ word, because I find it horrifically disrespectful and appreciate the gravity and implications of such a word. So what makes it okay for me to use other elements of black culture in my daily life? What makes it acceptable for me to touch a woman of colour’s hair as if she’s an object, or use AAVE as and when it suits me to make a joke? Nothing makes it okay. We must continue to ask ourselves ‘why’ when we do things and if we get called out on it, to learn something from it. Why was it not okay for me to do that? What should I do differently next time?

I guess where it becomes difficult to tell the difference between appreciation and appropriation is with things like black music. Is what Eminem does okay? If black music/ hip hop developed as a means of expressing oneself and resisting poverty/ oppression, surely his background fits and makes it acceptable given that he grew up in the same circumstances as many impoverished people of colour? OR… is it problematic because he still has the benefit of white privilege due to his skin colour? If he has a passion for hip hop and rap, is it okay to make a career out of it when it initially developed in black culture as a means of maintaining identity and surviving social marginalisation? I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions. It’s not for me to really decide. But it is important to consider historical and current context and the impact these things may have on people of colour and the dominant social codes at work in the western world. Hopefully that can inform and educate us and cause us to ask the fundamental question ‘why’ more often.

I wish it wasn’t the case that racism is so embedded in mainstream culture that we have to think consciously about what we say and do to avoid offending people of colour and minority groups.  I wish racist values were not so inherent and entangled in our lives. But unfortunately that’s the way it is. And for as long as that is the case I want to try harder to appreciate and not appropriate because BLACK LIVES MATTER and we’re all equal. I can’t take back mistakes I’ve made in terms of cultural appropriation, but I hope I can learn from them and make more respectful choices in the future. We all need to step up on this issue and be the change we want to see in the world and maybe, just maybe, we can make these kinds of attitudes the exception and not the rule.