2020 has truly been the perfect storm for social upheaval. Beginning with threats of world war and a global pandemic that has left millions out of work, followed by the widespread footage of yet another horrific incident of police brutality, this year has forced many Americans to unwaveringly stand by their beliefs on a vast number of issues. From public health to racial injustice, there has been no shortage of people willing to speak their minds concerning these high profile matters, and tensions have risen exponentially. People on all sides seem to have realized that the United States has finally reached a tipping point.
“In a lot of ways, what has happened over the last several weeks is challenges and structural problems here in the United States have been thrown into high relief.… They’re the result of a long history of slavery and Jim Crow and redlining and institutionalized racism,” former President Barack Obama said in a town hall, “In some ways, as tragic as these past few weeks have been…they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlying trends.”
His response to the tragic death of George Floyd, as well as the disparate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority communities, helped to calm some members of a restless public. A public that, unfortunately, continues to grapple with the consequences of this nation’s history of racial inequality.
For me, the former President’s words raised several questions, chief among them being: how is it that thousands of people are only just awakening to the realities of Black life in America? In a nation where Black celebrities, influencers, and politicians, like President Obama himself, are some of the most prominent voices in our society, this is especially thought-provoking.
A subject this multi-faceted and enduring cannot be boiled down to a single response without what feels like an egregious oversimplification of the issues at the center of the national conversation.
That being said, this question does of course lend itself to a discussion of that all-pervasive topic—cultural appropriation. In its broadest sense, cultural appropriation, or cultural misappropriation as it is sometimes called, is the process of a person from one culture borrowing the trends, styles, icons, or other facets of another culture. This is not to say that all cultures should remain exclusive, never allowing outsiders to partake and enjoy the unique aspects of a certain group of people. However, appreciation of other cultures quickly becomes appropriation when one adopts these new trends without understanding the history of the group that created them. For decades now, corporations, celebrities, and the general public have dangerously skirted, and oftentimes crossed, the line between appreciation and appropriation.
The danger of appropriation is that it is the act of an oppressor. Dominant groups can borrow what they like and discard or vilify what they don’t. This leads not only to individuals borrowing ideas without giving due credit, thus reinforcing a power imbalance, but it also creates harmful stereotypes that can cling to communities for decades and even centuries.
The commercial success of Black culture, especially in recent decades, is simply undeniable. Celebrities like Beyonce, Oprah, Lebron James, Jay-Z, and countless others have achieved levels of stardom few others can match. Also undeniable is how non-Black Americans, both famous and otherwise, have appropriated and enjoyed the culture for their gain, whether it be for social media engagement or simply to turn a profit.
Take, for instance, internet celebrity and burgeoning rapper Danielle Bregoli. The teen artist, who goes by the stage name Bhad Bhabie, earned a name for herself as the “cash me outside” girl after a now-infamous appearance on Dr. Phil. Even in the first days of her social media stardom, Bregoli found herself under fire for her speech patterns and mannerisms, and many people called her out for “acting Black”. She responded in an interview with FADER, stating “you cannot act a color.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with Bregoli’s statement. It is true that no one way of speaking or conducting yourself is exclusive to any skin tone, and that people should be categorized in this manner. The problem many people have with Bregoli is the fact that her mannerisms draw from a bogus Black stereotype, and while she has been able to profit off of this racial marginalization, it continues to hold back Black people in professional and social environments.
In recent months, Bregoli has also been accused of Blackfishing. This play on the word catfishing describes when individuals use some means, typically camera filters, makeup, or hairstyles, to appear more Black. Bregoli received these comments after pictures and videos were posted of her to social media with box braids and a suspiciously darker skin tone. She even earned herself a new moniker—Black Bhabie.
Danielle Bregoli is not the only person whose actions are questionable at best—the Kardashians and Ariana Grande are a few others that come to mind. When these non-Black individuals can reap the benefits of adopting certain aspects of Black culture, while Black people still suffer for not conforming to Western ideals, the double standards in this country are made uncomfortably clear. Non-Black people looking to experience Black culture can do so without the day-to-day struggles that, for Black men and women, cannot simply be washed away with a Neutrogena makeup wipe. Struggles that, unfortunately, are as old and enduring as America itself.
In 1786, the Tignon Law was enacted by New Orleans Governor Don Estevan Miro. This discriminatory legislation forced women of color to wear headscarves or handkerchiefs to indicate their belonging to the slave class, whether they were enslaved or not, and to prevent “excessive attention to dress”. The Tignon Law was overturned in 1803, but the spirit of these discriminatory actions remain. Workplace discrimination, for example, has been illegal in the United States since 1964, but this did not stop Ron Law and other Black employees finding eight nooses in their place of work at the Austal USA shipyard this past June.
Hair discrimination is yet another form of workplace harassment that has persisted despite the laws intended to curtail it. Black hairstyles are steeped in tradition, the products of rich history and deep cultural appreciation. Traditional African styles, like Bantu knots and box braids, can indicate anything from marital status to wealth, while the Afro, made popular in the 60s, became a symbol of resistance against white supremacy and racial inequality in America. Wearing these hairstyles can often be a source of great pride for Black people.
And yet, according to the CROWN Coalition, a group created to guarantee protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles, Black women are not only 1.5x more likely to be dismissed from work due to their hair, but 80 percent also feel that they must change their hair from its natural state to fit in in professional environments.
Danielle Bregoli has been able to profit off of the use of Black hairstyles, whilst Black people are continuously put down for embracing their cultural identity. She, and many others just like her, have taken advantage of the fact that they can position themselves near Blackness for profit without ever having to live through or understand the struggle that being Black in America presents.
At the opposite end of this issue are the black celebrities, like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, who have spoken publicly about these issues for years. Rap is now the most popular genre of music, surpassing Rock in 2017. Its popularity continues to grow, especially amongst young white audiences, who idolize artists like Gambino and Lamar.
This only makes recent public reactions even more puzzling. Lamar and Gambino have not been quiet about racial inequality, police brutality, and American society as a whole, and each has put out hit songs detailing the realities of Black life in America. Gambino’s “This Is America” debuted at #1 on the Billbord Hot 100 and trended for weeks on social media, while Lamar’s “Alright”, widely considered to be an anthem and a message of hope for the Black community, reached #24. It is undeniable that their message was received, but it seems less likely that all who heard also understood.
Geraldo Rivera, a regular guest on FOX News, best exemplifies this phenomenon. He described “Alright”, and the hip-hop genre as having “done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.” Rivera’s words are indicative of the larger, instinctual reaction to minimize the struggles that Black people continue to face. This understatement of the Black plight is precisely why people are shocked to see horrific videos like the murders of both George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
Black culture has undoubtedly found its place in American society, as have numerous Black celebrities, and it can be easy to see this as an ultimate triumph over racism and inequality—especially when we look to our favorite stars like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Lebron James for wise words during this time. It is difficult for many people to reconcile that in a country where these Black people have been able to achieve commercial success, oppression and prejudice still loom overhead. But in using celebrities, both Black and non-Black, as the standard for which you judge America’s progress in regards to its treatment of its Black citizens, you disregard the plight of the average individual. The men and women who, like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and any of the countless other Black people in this country who have been a victim of our inability to confront this issue head-on, do not have the money or stardom to defend themselves. In allowing yourself to celebrate individuals that have stolen from Black culture, or in downplaying the truth of the Black experience, you become a part of the problem.
The desire to experience Black culture or celebrate the people who have helped move society further is understandable, as the prominence of these ideas and individuals has garnered the collective interest of millions of people. However, to do so without learning and acknowledging the painful history that forged the Black identity in America, without attempting to grasp the realities of the Black experience, and certainly without understanding the significance of your words and actions, is unacceptable.