Appropriation Is More Than Fun, Because Culture Is A Referendum On Human Nature And Morality
Black America is in general agreement that Jessie Williams, who received the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards ceremony, delivered the “wokest,” most Black Lives Matter speech ever delivered in the annals of awards speeches. And it’s equally in agreement that Justin Timberlake’s “tone deaf” response to a Twitter user following the speech was the most “clueless” response in the annals of Twitter rants.
And that’s saying a lot, because we’ve had some doozies.
In the few minutes allotted to him, Williams loved on family and Black women. He encouraged Black resistance and pushback against “white appropriation.”
Black people definitely heard him, because that’s exactly what Twitter did when Timberlake — swept up in the sweetest words of the moment — wrote “inspired” on Twitter.
— Justin Timberlake (@jtimberlake) June 27, 2016
— Ernest Owens (@MrErnestOwens) June 27, 2016
Questioned about his own his past (and present) with “wearing black costumes” and white privilege, Timberlake did what many a so-called friend of the Black community does. He condescended.
The fact of so-called “white cultural appreciators” taking offense at the act of being called out on appropriating Black cultural products — without having to navigate through the lived experiences that produce it — is painfully sad.
Not just for Timberlake, but the agency of white allyship in general.
Once again, we’re left with another missed opportunity for a white person claiming to identify with the Black struggle to show authentic empathy, practice listening and digest truth.
For, were he listening, paying attention, and doing homework, he would know that:
Appropriation is not simply about sampling another culture’s view of the world in the name of fun because culture has always been, and remains, a referendum on notions of human nature, civilization, and morality.
It is so for this reason.
The history of race relations in America is the story of exaltation of whiteness, of the eugenics of something called the white blood, of the institutionalization of white culture as a superior form and content of the human species, of white human bodies as a race of homo sapiens apart from and above “the human race.” It is the story of systematically installing this view into the minds of all citizens, through art, music, laws, politics, science, medicine, on and on.
It is the story of forgetting and recollecting this history of a racial pecking order when the moment is suitable.
This is not hyperbole.
So cradled and adored has been white identity that people of color have literally built legal cases, gone to court, stood before magistrates and presented evidence which they hoped would demonstrate their close proximity to America’s white ideal.
So-called white allies — whether the average white person on the street or celebrity personalities — who misuse and mishandle anthropology, genetics and science with hastily written insertions of “we’re all the same” or “we’re all human” after a critique of white privilege demonstrate their preference for fantasy, not facts.
Not a fantasy of the path human beings are on to get to a genuine existential point of truly being “one people,” but of the hard work and struggle and organizing necessary to reach it.
Having difficult conversations about race and white privilege, even (or especially) when it makes you feel uncomfortable, is crucial to doing this work.
Maybe next time, Timberlake — or some other “white appreciator” — will try taking stock of this. Or, better yet, make sure that there is not a next time.