A recent video has gone viral that depicts a young white man with dreaded hair being confronted by woman of color for appropriating black culture. During the interaction, the young man, dressed in baggy patchwork pants commonly adorned by hippies, asserts that the accuser has no right to question his appearance before shutting down the conversation and storming away. Frustrated, the young woman grabbed this individual in effort to explain her position; however, the gentleman refused.
In response to the video, the Internet erupted with mixed reactions. Several commentators derided the woman’s cultural appropriation argument as both irrational and racially divisive. This position claims interracial relations are fortified through cultural exchanges that facilitate commonality, respect, understanding, and harmony. Efforts to discourage such intergroup co-mingling are thought to perpetuate racial differences and isolation.
This position is problematic for numerous reasons. First, the claim ignores uneven power dynamics that define U.S. race relations. White people possess disproportionate ability to appropriate ethnic minority symbols without considering the historical meanings attached to these signs. Too often, whites steal and reconstitute the meaning of these images, thereby denying subordinate groups agency over their own representations. In the aforementioned incident, the gentleman adopted a self-presentation related to the jam band scene that reproduces a racialized image that stereotypes blackness according to drug abuse while largely ignoring the religious origins of this hairstyle.
Second, white people do not have deal with the consequences of reproducing stereotypes through their appropriation of nonwhite culture. Perpetuating stereotypes through racialized performances fortifies both prejudiced beliefs and discriminatory behavior. The appropriation of dreadlock hairstyle by white, substance abusing hippies reaffirms existing stereotypes/prejudices that relate black culture to debauchery and social disorganization. White appropriators are able to distance themselves from these stereotypes by changing their self-presentation and, consequently, realigning themselves with white, middle class values. In contrast, black people are unable to escape the homogenization and marginalization that appropriators perpetuate.
Third, white people should be accountable for their representations of racial minority culture. Mentioned above, appropriators can easily, whether consciously or unconsciously, perpetuate racial stereotypes that negatively harm minority group members. Consequently, any white persons adopting elements of nonwhite culture should be prepared to listen to minority group members critiquing their self-presentation. Moreover, they should be willing to explain their position and adapt their representations to address concerns raised during the conversation. In the current example, the young gentleman rejected the young black woman’s right to interrogate this self-presentation. Utilizing a liberal discourse to justify his “freedom to choose” whatever hairstyle he desired, the young man avoided personal responsibility while marginalizing this woman by refusing her the right to comment on his cultural practices that directly affect her life.
Finally, honoring a racial minority group through cultural appropriation does absolutely nothing to ameliorate existing structural inequalities that foster widely dissimilar life trajectories between races. Proffering respect can mean different things to different people, but racial minorities should definitely be given opportunities to define the meaning of deference during interracial interactions. That said, white people would do more to respect minority groups by contributing to racial justice organizations contesting the New Jim Crow rather than adopting convenient fashion trends that permit avoidance of personal sacrifices to improve the lives of black people.
In sum, the appropriation of nonwhite culture by white Americans occurs within a context of institutional racism that imposes consequences on minority group members. White people should be conscious of what symbols they adopt from out-group members and the consequences associated with representing these images in ways that potentially augment racial oppression. To that end, we need to be willing to listen and adapt to minority contestations of our actions. Although we may not perceive anything wrong with our self-presentation, remember that our location within the racial order generates experiences that powerfully blind us to other perspectives. Consequently, we must provide space where those voices can be heard and responded to appropriately. Otherwise, we are reproducing interpersonal racism rather than respecting the groups we seek to imitate.