Miley Cyrus. Danielle Bregoli. Kim Kardashian. What do these celebrities have in common? They have all been known to use black culture to benefit themselves.
What is this phenomenon called? Cultural appropriation. According to social commentator Emma Bracy, “Appropriation, the kind that's constantly decried, occurs when an actor from or representing a historically dominant or oppressive culture takes a cultural product...from a historically marginalized culture, and...benefits while the latter does not...The benefit doesn't always have to be exceptional. It's not always gonna look like piles of cash. It can be as simple as a compliment, which seems petty and mundane, but actually feeds into a system of eventual erasure.”
True to this definition, white media figures will often use other cultures in ways that perpetuate negative stereotypes.
In 2013, Miley Cyrus released hit album Bangerz. In the music video for the song “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus shows off grillz, twerks and grabs the behinds of black women twerking in the background. That video garnered 771,448,537 views on Youtube and the Bangerz tour earned over $62 million. In 2016, news outlets everywhere reported that Kim Kardashian had created a new hairstyle called “boxer braids,” instantly causing the hairstyle to become a trend. In 2017, 14-year-old Danielle Bregoli appeared on Dr. Phil for her fights with her mom and theft. During her appearance, Danielle uttered the now famous phrase “Cash me ousside, how bout dah,” which utilizes ebonics, a way of speaking associated with African-Americans. Bregoli now earns thousands from endorsements and is predicted to gross a million dollars by the end of the year. Danielle and Kim took credit for pre-existing concepts in black culture, and Miley’s wild child image caused people to overlook the elements she took from black culture.
On the contrary, black people are often ridiculed when they indulge in their culture. Twerking has existed for years, yet until white artists did it, it was called “ghetto.” Cornrows, the correct name for “boxer braids,” are one of the hairstyles that black women use to manage and protect their hair. These hairstyles are “cute” when worn by celebrities such as the Kardashians, yet black women often face discrimination when they wear the hairstyle. For example, according to Teen Vogue, bi-racial Zara employee Cree Ballah was told to “fix” her hair when she came to work with box braids because her hair was not the clean professional look Zara wanted.
When Danielle used ebonics in the phrase “Cash me ousside,” she was seen as entertaining. In real life, African-Americans often face prejudice for speaking that way. These blatant double standards makes me ask: Why can white figures profit off of the use of cultural appropriation so frequently?
To gain a better understanding, I spoke with social commentator Emma Bracy and Bamsfest founder Catherine Morris, who both have some expertise on the matter. Both professionals had the same answer: white privilege. “Consider all outlets of information and propaganda in the United States--they are owned, controlled and distributed by old white men who have the power, influence and desire to assert themselves as being the premiere example of a race of people,” Morris said. “They control the messaging...in a way that burns itself into our memories, creating a false belief that their social normal is standard.”
Culture appropriation differs from cultural appreciation, which is when people take time to learn about and understand another culture. A good example of cultural appreciation is Angelina Jolie’s visit to Pakistan. During Jolie's visit, she wore a hijab to show respect to the local culture.
The difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation is not always obvious. In unsure situations, it might be best to follow this advice from Eleni Kinney, a 10th grade student from Noble and Greenough. “Think about whether something does or does not poke fun or disrespect a group,” she advises.“Educate yourself; know why or why not certain things may be appropriation. Be sensitive and be respectful.”