Appropriation and Shame

Much has been made of actor Jesse Williams’ wonderful speech at last week’s BET Awards, with the activist using the platform to call out racism, police brutality, and oppression. Please check it out:

The biggest flashpoint was the much-deserved criticism of cultural appropriation, which hit a nerve across the board — from people of color cheering the vocalization of their societal pet peeve, to Justin Timberlake personifying cultural appropriation and white privilege in a span of tweets, to FOX-News-rejected-anonymous-blonde Tomi Lahren using every trick in the racist white book to lambaste Williams. The negative reaction to Williams’ words only support the notion that he spoke the truth, which you can read here:

“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment, like oil, black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”

This spoke to me, like many, for a number of reasons. Cultural appropriation is a worldwide phenomenon, a tale as old as the time when England was the foreigner oppressing other nations. In America, this practice, this mosquito-sucking withdrawal of culture from the veins of its oppressed minority, is seen as an unspoken Manifest Destiny, particularly by whites.

In a society where it is expected that black entertainment — often grouped as “urban” — will be sold as a template of black culture to the stakeholders that only want the product and not the sweat, as a substitute for a deep dive into the experiences, feelings, and responsibility for the works they consume, the lack of knowledge and want to connect with their brethren is nasty. In a world where the black experience is packaged to those that want the juice but not the pulp, where black people are repeatedly told and aggressively reminded how little they matter, this sugar water is a flavorless reminder of the buyer’s intentions.

But Williams’ words affected me more than how cultural appropriation is displayed on a macro level. On a personal tip, I’ve seen how people view me through my entertainment choices, as well as my manner of speech and dress. While out to the laundromat in my largely Asian neighborhood, I saw three Asian teens on the other side of the street. As we passed, I noticed that the trio, wearing hoodies and jeans that marked them as Pharrell Williams disciples, eyed me — in my non-child dadwear of a gray sweatshirt, dark jeans, and running shoes — suspiciously, as if I wasn’t normal. Given that we were separated by a few dozen feet and a two-way road, I was no threat, but the combination of BLACK MAN! and NON-STEREOTYPICAL DRESS! was apparently enough to gawk like I was a walking car crash.

My offensive couture.

Growing up in suburban Chicago, I was always made aware of my oddball tastes. The first question always asked of me in grade school when talking pop culture was the type of music that I liked — with the default choice being rap. I played the placator, recommending whatever was popular on MTV, to avoid standing out. But when I came out as a rock fan, I bore a barrage of confused looks and mystified answers as to my nonstandard preference of listening pleasure.

Although blacks created rock ‘n’ roll, the inability to comprehend this may as well as been stated “WHY NEGRO LIKE OUR MUSIC?” While this mindset is slowly, SLOWLY,  receding (alt-rock band TV on the Radio made it possible for idiots to see 21st-century black men playing rock), the inverse is never questioned: It is a given that every other race likes black music and culture — to the point that the majority of sales in both realms are generated by white consumers.

Hell, the only negative aimed at whites that love black culture is the horrific word “wigger,” which is a white person acting black. Let’s unpack THAT for a minute. For a time in the ’90s and aughts, you could get away with calling someone a portmanteau of “white” and “nigger” because they didn’t stay in their lane of whiteness. It was deemed “eh, okay” to use the majority of the word “nigger” to shame a white person for outwardly displaying some perceived notion of blackness. While white folks trip over themselves to not use “the n-word” for fear of being seen as racist, they had no qualms chastising one of their own that looked like the same people they feared . They had no problem using most of that dreaded word in the face of seeing their likeness take on some of those stereotypical traits. And then there’s the generally accepted (in this case) belief that it was okay to link blacks to “igger” for the greater good of getting their white brother to straighten up and fly white.

So when Williams used the opportunity of his Humanitarian Award to take much of America to task for its unjustly sharecropping of black culture, I was happy. As he said, and I hope is taken to heart by at least a few people:

“The thing is, though, just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

I am a real person. Black people are real. Treat us like the humans we are, and think about the stuff you’re stealing. Honor the contributions, the lives, the feelings, and the acts that we infuse into the world every day — not just with money, but with understanding, acceptance, and help. Turning a blind eye, inciting divided rhetoric, and acting defensive only perpetuates this cycle of negativity and ignorance. Stop stealing your hate from previous generations of bigots, and maybe, just maybe, we can stop the wholesale pillaging of an oppressed culture for your own good.

Thank you, Jesse.



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