How Not to Appropriate: A Guide for White People | Sojourners

How Not to Appropriate: A Guide for White People

This piece is for anyone who desires to engage in the work of dismantling the toxicity of the patriarchal/supremacist institutions and structures that are the foundation of the United States of America. I mean to make this collection of words and thoughts a place for listening, inclusion, sharing, and love. I will share thoughts belonging to a cis-gendered, heterosexual, Jesus-loving, black American woman: myself. I make no claims that these words and thoughts will be representative of all cis-het black women or black people as a whole. They will not. I will try very hard not to speak for other groups of people who have a lived experience that is different from my own. When I reference another group’s lived experience, I will try my hardest to hold it carefully and lovingly, acknowledging that I am a visitor within that space.  

The first documented ships carrying human cargo traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to North America in the early 1600s. And over the course of roughly the next 400 years, black people would witness the erasure of their lineage: names, identities, cultures, and humanity. Their bodies would be the property of mostly white men and women who possessed a bill of sale. These bodies would be subjected to back-breaking labor, beatings, lynching, rape, and other atrocities.

In August 2015, Newsweek reported Professor Thomas Craemer’s findings that slave labor earned Americans an estimated $5 to $14 trillion dollars — none of which was ever paid to slaves or their descendants.  

Several hundred years prior to this, colonizers went about obtaining — stealing, through brutal force and murder — the land that would become the United States of America. Native Americans were never paid for the land that was taken from their people through massacre.

I imagine that it is not difficult to become one of the richest countries in the world when you build it for free.

And this began a pattern of taking through force — with no regard to original ownership, lineage, identity, culture, history, or humanity.

The best definition of cultural appropriation that I have heard comes from a video made in 2015 by the wildly talented Amandla Stenberg, entitled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows:” 

Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high-fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves …

As Halloween nears, I experience a mixture of emotions: Nostalgia and happiness from the memories of dressing up as a Coca-Cola delivery person with my friend Kelsey in the sixth grade, drinking at least half of the sodas before the end of the night. We rode bikes and listened to the Smashing Pumpkins' “Tonight, Tonight” on her portable stereo.

On the other side of that nostalgia is sadness, embarrassment, and anger recalling my freshman year in the dorms at UC Santa Barbara, when I was asked by a neighbor if she could borrow my "ghetto" shoes to attend a "ghetto-themed party" in Isla Vista. She deemed the shoes — white Air Force Ones — "ghetto" because they belonged to me, a black person. They were, and are, seen as a representation of hip-hop and rap culture. Black culture. My culture.

I told her no. And because 18-year-old Courtney did not yet know the beauty of restraint nor the gift of taking three deep breaths and walking away, I cussed her six ways from Sunday. And I was not right for doing that. I did not have the tools to do more. Years later, grace has taught me that she and I were both doing the best that we knew how to do at that point in time.

Her idea was that because she was white, and possessed many qualities that are seen as beautiful within the confines of American beauty politics and Eurocentric ideals of beauty, she could put on clothes that were deemed as “ghetto” / less-than / lower class when I wore them — and they would be seen as cute / cutting edge / cool when she did the same.

In light of these things, here are five ways to be mindful and avoid black cultural appropriation.  

1. Let’s start with this — if you are not a person who ethnically identifies as black (truly black — please miss me entirely with any Rachel Dolezal references), you cannot use the N-word. Not in a song. Not ever. I am not going to apologize for this. I am not going to engage in conversations about “rights” as it relates to freedom of speech. You do not have the right to comment on how this word is used by black people within the black community. This word has been bought and paid for through the millions of bodies/lives. I fully recognize that entitlement doesn’t ever want to be told what it can and cannot hold. But entitlement has blood on its hands that it has not yet truly begun to atone for, so I want to say this (and please hear me): This word does not belong to you.

2. Please do not ever refer to anything as “ghetto.” That is not an appropriate or sensitive descriptor of a person or a place. Please spend some time with the lineage of this worddating back to the name of a Jewish quarter in European cities in the early 1500s when there were housing ordinances in place that restricted and segregated Jewish people based on bigoted, hateful views held about them. De jure segregation is the basis for much of America's housing structure, which placed entire groups of minority communities into sub-standard living conditions. Inequity has kept many of them there, generation after generation. “Ghetto” is not a theme for a party. 

3. Not everything is for you. The construct of whiteness supports the idea that “freedom” means having access to everything. This is false. Some things are and should be set apart, sacred. Not everything needs to be a Halloween costume: Please never paint your face brown or black. Please never dress up as a Native American person unless you are a Native American person. Additionally, if you are not brown, maybe don’t go as Frida Kahlo this Halloween — just a thought. And please avoid wearing afro or dreadlock wigs.

Black hair has been the point of much attention, controversy, discrimination, admiration, and envy. Black people choose hairstyles for the purposes of protection, functionality, expression, and style. When a white person has dreadlocks, think about whether that holds the same cultural significance or functional necessity. (Answer: It does not.) Think about whether or not that honors black culture, or likely contributes to harmful cultural misappropriation. Defenses down, please. Truly think about it.

4. Be sensitive. If someone tells you that something is offensive, try not to search for ways (or lines from the Constitution) to prove to them why their feelings are wrong. Please see them as your neighbor. Take them at their word. Keep in mind that this country was built up with the intention that black people would never be free — they would always be property. Please imagine that these intentions, this lineage, and this history all play a huge part in our present day realities.

5. Listen. Lead with empathy, always. Be mindful of when appropriation becomes misappropriation and exploitation. You are human, lovely, and amazing. You did not create these constructs and systems. But you might likely be in a position to affect positive change through awareness, greater understanding, and meaningful action. I pray you choose to do so, knowing that I thank you in advance.

Black people created black culture to retain some semblance of a true, authentic identity for themselves. This has become a deeply meaningful, way-less-than-perfect-but-it’s-ours, beautifully magical identity. Very often it plays out on the world’s stage through music, movies, art, sports, academia ... there is very little in the United States that hasn’t been influenced by black culture in some way. But black people’s existence here is both a crime and a miracle as it relates to descendants of black American slaves. It was never a choice.

When we hold things that belong to — and were created by and for — a group of people with an ethnicity, religion, spirituality, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or lived experience outside of our own, we must hold these things very carefully and lovingly, acknowledging that we are visitors within that space.

Being a visitor is not only a great honor. It comes with a great responsibility.

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