“…can’t you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don’t know.”
These are the words of Katy Perry during her July 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, speaking on the uproar of negative comments she received due to her controversial video ‘This is How We Do’. The content of this video does not come as much of a surprise, as it’s become increasingly popular for Perry, as well as other pop stars, to appropriate cultures for the sake of money and entertainment. In the video, Perry has several outfit changes and in each scene, she is flanked by two dancers as they drive around, sing karaoke and get their nails done all on a brightly colored set full of animation and dancing food. But the issue comes in the second half where Katy, wearing cornrows, gelled down baby hair and a grill answers a Skype call from her friend ‘Jessica Thot’, all while employing facial expressions and mannerisms that are most commonly associated with Black women. Her infatuation with Black culture has trickled over into her art in a way that is not welcomed, and while she clearly did not mean any harm, her actions (especially since this is not the first time she has appropriated a culture, for example her 2013 AMA performance where she dressed as a geisha) come off incredibly offensive and disrespectful to those in the Black community.
Appreciating a culture is one thing, but taking the bits and pieces of it that you enjoy or that you feel will make a profit is something else entirely and can be seen as an implicit form of racism. Cultural appropriation is when someone takes aspects of a culture that they are not a part of and wears it as their own, generally without understanding the historical and societal reasons for it existing.
Whenever cultural appropriation is brought up, many peoples’ response to it is that those who are bringing it up are being too sensitive, that we need to loosen up, and they remind us that America is a “melting pot”, which in their mind means that America is a place where cultures can be passed around like in a game of Hot Potato. It’s said in order to suggest that we should all just love each other and be nice to each other and that everyone should get to wear, say, and do whatever they want. This is why the term “melting pot” is an excuse to rid people of color of our cultural differences. It’s absolutely true that America is supposed to be a place where people can live harmoniously despite our differences, but that is the key word: differences. We are not all the same, and our differences should be respected instead of being stolen because it looks appealing to you in one way or another. Culture inside of racial groups is so important and one of the few things that makes being a person of color in this country a little easier.
We do not live in a post-racial society, so it’s natural for a person of color to feel ostracized by our surroundings because of our race. There is underrepresentation of people of color on television and in magazines, and it’s often that white people make comments about our race that are offensive, and a lot of the time they don’t really care to learn and address the issue properly. Sometimes we are made to feel like we don’t belong, and that’s where our cultures come into play. Cultures of racial groups are safe havens. It’s important to feel like you belong somewhere, and like your race is something valuable in a society that makes people of color feel the very opposite. In a way, it’s like taking all the pain, suffering and heartache that naturally comes with being of a particular race and deciding that despite those difficulties, you are going to make the most of those poor experiences. Culture is a place free of judgment, a place of rest, and a place of belonging for people of color, and you cannot truly understand a culture unless you have lived that life, experiencing the good and bad. When a white person or person who is not of that racial group puts on the aspect of that culture that is attractive for the sake of looking trendy, they are doing three things:
- Saying that they don’t care that that thing was made by and for a racial group. “I like it, I want it, so it’s mine.” Theft.
- Showing how ignorant they are to the issues of people of color.
- Turning the experiences of people of color into a fad meant to be worn by anyone, without knowing what it’s like to be of that race.
In the case of Black people, many celebrities love us and want to wear our fashions and use our lexicon because it’s “cool”, such as Iggy Azalea, Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, Taylor Swift and the aforementioned Katy Perry, but when a serious issue within that cultural group arises… where are they? If they loved us so much, wouldn’t they have something to say about our struggling? Of course not, because they don’t actually understand the Black experience and they don’t love us as much as they think they do, they just love what’s shiny and beautiful about being Black. Another reason cultural appropriation of the Black community is such a big issue is because white people make fun of and dehumanize Black people for elements of our culture all the time, based on literally anything we do, but now they suddenly love it and want to wear that same thing they criticized us for doing 15 minutes ago? Absolutely not.
People of color don’t get to pick the race we were born into. We don’t get to become white because it’s easier, and we don’t get to decide how society treats us, so white people don’t get to choose which parts of our race they are going to adopt for themselves. This is a country where people are supposed to coexist, but using the term “melting pot” to suggest that America is a cultural free-for-all makes people of color feel even less safe and cared for in a society that is supposed to make us feel at home.