There has been a lot of discussion about black women and appropration lately- from the “Dear Black Women, White Gay Men Are Your Allies“ debacle, to criticism of Iggy Azalea and pushback against Katy Perry’s most recent antics. I’m not going to rehash all of that here, because I want to address something different- the classism against working class African American femininity and culture that is embedded in the rhetoric of many black people during conversations about appropriation.
Last week, for example, For Harriet posted a picture of Katy Perry and asked readers “What do you think of this image?” A black woman responded with:
“The other part of what frustrates me is the question of why so many black people ALWAYS want to get upset at someone claiming a so-called “black image”. i’m sorry, ghettofied representations =/= black to me. sorry, but that’s just some people’s internalization of negative self images taking offense…
The “not black, just hood” or “not black, just ghetto” train of logic is a fascinating (and oppressive) case of convenient, collective amnesia. All of a sudden cultural phenomena that were clearly developed in black communities, by black people, are “not black, just hood” because class privileged black people don’t identify with them. (Another common reason can be that people don’t know the black origins of a piece of culture because it has been adopted by working class communities of other ethnic groups who often live in close proximity to poor black people in urban areas.) I’ve seen it over and over and over again- colorful cornrows aren’t black? Twerking isn’t black? The grammar of African American Vernacular English, which HAS THE WORDS AFRICAN AMERICAN IN THE NAME, isn’t black? All of these cultural phenomenon are “just hood”? Please, tell me more.
It’s all pretty funny because if you tell a middle class or wealthy black person that they aren’t black enough because they wear Sperrys or play chess or speak Standard English, there’s a good chance they will get angry and launch into a speech about how hurtful that is, how blackness is multifaceted, and how you can’t just go around telling black people they aren’t black. Yet time and time again we turn around and do the same thing to poor black people because white supremacy has made us ashamed of each other. If you are a class privileged African American you cannot disown an entire class of black people. You cannot take the culture of a huge number of African Americans and fence it off from blackness because YOU are embarrassed by it. You cannot erase the contributions poor black women have made to black culture just because they don’t match your vision of respectability.
Another flawed argument is refusing to acknowledge that appropriation is problematic because the acts of appropriation are often based on “just stereotypes.” Sure, it makes sense to be upset that stereotypes of working class African Americans are being exploited for money or kicks by people who can conveniently sidestep the racism and classism that black people experience when performing black culture (ding ding ding! that is why appropriation is terrible). But you must also realize that the stereotypes being exploited aren’t “just” stereotypes- there are real working class black women with hopes and dreams and pride behind them. There are actual women named LaShaunte and actual women with bright red tracks, actual women who snap their necks when they talk, and actual women who wear cut-out dresses with sneakers. There is certainly nothing un-black about those women’s cultural expression, and damn it there is nothing wrong with the women themselves either. In real life, we should all be marveling at the richness and tenacity of the culture they have forged at the grueling intersection of race and class and gender oppression in America.
Understand that there usually isn’t even a good reason to think that an element of working class African American culture is bad. All too often, anything that poor black people do or say or wear or name their kids is considered culturally inferior just because the people doing it are poor and black. I’m sure that if working class black culture had birthed the suit, suits would be considered “ghetto” and when people decided to discuss the appropriation of suits by white artists, some middle class black woman would be in the background talkin about “Uh uh! That’s not black that’s just an ugly stereotype. Suits aren’t part of MY culture!”
Black women, we don’t have time for this. Keep the conversations about appropriation going, but ditch the classism please.