For centuries, America’s story has been one of immigration. At the heart of our power struggles and victories has been an ongoing attempt to unite under that red, white and blue banner without losing the individuality of our origins. Unity in difference is the American dream. But tied to that dream is the reality of cultural exchange. Ideally, this coexistence blossoms into a newer, richer culture. But in practice, difference and power create a status quo, making for a much more complicated and turbulent reality. In this context, it is not surprising that America is no stranger to cultural appropriation. Trends seek out difference, but in an effort to gain momentum, often discard the history responsible for it. But what we gain in simplicity, we lose in the rich cultural context that made our country so unique in the first place.
In a recent video entitled “Don’t Cash Crop on my Cornrows,” Amandla Stenberg (Rue from “The Hunger Games”) relit the fire under discussions around cultural appropriation in mainstream entertainment. Focusing specifically on the integration and dilution of black culture in the Hollywood spotlight, Stenberg brings into focus an important contradiction. America is rich with the cultural differences of its origins — a gold mine for people looking for the new “old” habit to bring into the spotlight. But trends require simplicity — a snapshot the public can hashtag, share and mass produce. The history and struggle these trends were born from are often lost in translation. Culture and context are so intertwined that spreading culture without explanation can only build barriers between the groups we’re trying to unify. What is left of those cultural tokens when their context is stripped away?
Many people would argue that in a country as culturally diverse as America, cultural appropriation is inevitable, even necessary, and that angered responses are often misguided. In an article entitled, “You Can’t Steal a Culture,” John McWhorter argues that the outrage over cultural appropriation originated in financial injustices. In his article, he references Elvis Presley, who is often accused of having stolen his unique singing and dancing style from black performers who never gained recognition. McWhorter concedes that “Presley and artists like him were reaping financial rewards that the originators of their music never saw.” But he claims that recently, cultural appropriation allegations have “morphed into a parody;” people are no longer fighting over tangible losses, but rather a sense that they are being dismissed. He argues that within the cultural melting pot (or mosaic or salad bowl) that America has always been, cultural appropriation can’t be avoided, and is even a necessary part of moving forward culturally as a nation. In other words, cultural appropriation equals progress.
It is difficult to make an argument against cultural mingling or even appropriation itself. After all, the benefit of diversity is learning from others’ experiences and cultures to better understand their perspectives. Where cultural appropriation is the result of this cultural evolution, it doesn’t seem problematic. But critically, the issue here isn’t the borrowing of cultures. It’s the fact that difference is being dug up and hollowed out for the sole purpose of making a profit, with little regard for the communities whose struggle produced them, or their history. Stenberg explains that “appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes of where it originated, but is deemed ‘high fashion,’ ‘cool’ or ‘funny’ when the privileged take it for themselves.” In other words, when power is imbalanced, cultures are no longer mingling; they’re being redefined externally by louder voices.
Rap artist Iggy Azalea is a prime example. A white, Australian female recording artist and model, Iggy has made a career of imitation. After years of cultivating an on-stage and on-track sound, Iggy has mastered the art of mimicking the genuine sonic register of a real down-home Atlanta girl. In an article entitled “The Cultural Crimes of Iggy Azalea,” Amy Zimmerman writes, “Iggy’s alleged crime is twofold: she gets to profit off her white appeal while simultaneously selling a black sound.” She goes on to say that “Iggy is effectively ‘passing.’ She is using this technique, which generations of African-Americans have used for survival, for fame and profit. Iggy Azalea doesn’t wear blackface, but that doesn’t mean her drag performance doesn’t share some essential genetic code with the old-school American minstrel show.” Like so many other instances of cultural appropriation, Iggy’s performances may be compelling, but they harvest an art form born from self-expression in struggle, and strip it of its substance, diluting the genre for the people who created it.
The domino effect is simple: Appropriation creates stereotypes, and stereotypes narrow the bandwidth for productive intercultural dialogue. Then, even in spheres where productive cross-cultural conversations could happen, many people come in with preconceptions that have very little basis in historical fact. We enter discussions with preconceived notions of what it means to belong to a particular group based on stereotypes perpetuated by entertainment. By decontextualizing these cultural tokens, we shift the context of the conversation to an uphill battle against stereotypes to validate the history from which they sprung. Caricaturing cultures so they are more easily digested in public consumption isn’t progress. It’s counterproductive.
In an ideal world, the celebrities that picked out cultures like outfits to wear for a day would also take time to speak out against the present issues being faced by those groups, or at least to understand the cultures they’re adopting. But in the meantime, a critical awareness of the narrow lens through which we’re seeing other cultures can be just as effective. If we truly want to appreciate the cultural treasure trove America has to offer, we have to take time to understand the context that produced them. Imitation may be the best form of flattery. But if you have no idea what you’re imitating, the other side may remain equally ignorant of your good intentions.
Contact Anja Young at ayoung3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.