Far more often that not, when it comes to conversations about cultural appropriation, white people are the last ones who should have their hands up to speak.
In an essay for The Washington Post entitled, “To the new culture cops, everything is appropriation,” journalist Cathy Young writes about increasing media criticism of cultural appropriation as if everyone else is being hypersensitive. Young notes, “At one time, such critiques were leveled against truly offensive art—work that trafficked in demeaning caricatures, such as blackface, 19th-century minstrel shows or ethnological expositions, which literally put indigenous people on display, often in cages.”
The problem is that this argument sounds far too much like a complaint about criticizing racism. Like racism, people seem to think appropriation only exists in its ugliest form (i.e. using a slur). However, cultural appropriation, like racism, is varied and nuanced. If Young could manage to step outside of her seeming bubble and engage actual minorities in conversation, someone might’ve explained this to her.
Young’s essential gripe is that such critiques have become common “no matter how thoughtfully or positively” they're delivered. She claims, "A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.”
In theory, there is some truth to this; accusations of cultural appropriation are being mounted now more than ever. Over at The Grio, Demertia Irwin wrote a piece entitled “No: African-Americans ‘culturally appropriating’ African aesthetics isn’t a thing,” refuting one writer’s misguided claims that black Americans are just as bad as white people for jumping on the “Black is cool” trend, when it comes to wearing traditional African garb.
What's more, Young is wrong to assert that everyone’s simply overreacting. She doesn’t seem to understand why people take offense to Katy Perry and Iggy Azalea, even when the latter has been outright disrespectful when deflecting charges of cultural appropriation. Young writes, "When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding."
Azalea is not trying to understand a different culture through her faux accent; she is performing black culture and capitalizing on an experience that isn't her own. When critics asked the rapper why a white girl from Australia is using a southern black woman’s accent, Azalea displayed ignorance about the implications of her behavior.
“If you’re mad about it and you’re a [black] person, then start a rap career and give it a go, too. I’m not taking anyone’s spot, so make yourself a mixtape. Or maybe if you’re [black], start singing like a country singer and be a white person. I don’t know. Why is it such a big deal? This is the entertainment industry. It’s not politics. You should be more concerned about the message, not the voices saying it.”
Young asserts, “America is the ultimate blended culture. So don’t let anyone tell you that there is art, literature or clothing that does not belong to you because of your racial, ethnic or religious identity. In other words: Appropriate away.”
America may indeed be a blended culture, but it is also a place, as Ebony editor-in-chief Kierna Mayo recently pointed out, that loves black culture more than it does black people. Mayo writes, “What I have learned is, if you ask black people how they feel about America’s obsession with black culture but all too common rejection of black people, you just may tumble down a rabbit hole of no return.”
For this reason, it's frustrating to see a white woman dictate that it’s perfectly fine to rip off other cultures; even worse, she did so with hubris. There is a debate to be had about what is cultural appropriation and what is merely appreciation, but be sure not to follow Young's line of reasoning. You can't encourage appropriation without expecting criticism in return.
This post originally appeared on NTRSCTN.com