Source: Flickr Creative Commons
“If the rappers can say it, I don’t understand why we can’t say it,” says a WASP man in the comments section of an online news article.
Cultural appropriation (when facets of an oppressed group’s culture are adapted by the dominant culture, and are essentially stolen from the oppressed group) is nothing new. Recently, Bantu Knots, an African hairstyle popular in the motherland and here in the diaspora, was featured on models in a Marc Jacobs fashion show. Afterwards, not only was he given credit for the centuries-old hairstyle, but they were magically renamed “mini buns.” And in cities everywhere, high-end restaurants on the “urban renewal” bus have taken slavery-era black/ modern-day soul food staples like chitlins, collard greens and other dishes as their own. Not only have these luxury eateries detached these foods from their cultural significance (slaves eating these foods because they were easy to access, simply because they were the scraps “massa” didn’t want – and turning them into delicious, filling meals for their families), but they have also attached a heavy price tag to them, claiming another culture’s food as their own and making a profit. Native American headdresses stripped of their meanings for fashion, large numbers of awards in rap and hip-hop (two music genres rooted in African story-telling and the African-American experience) being given to people who don’t represent its cultural context and Halloween costumes trivializing cultural-historical figures (Middle Eastern princesses, East Asian warriors, etc.) are some other examples of cultural appropriation.
Clothes, fashion, food and music come to mind pretty quickly when thinking of examples of cultural appropriation, but what about words?
Like the N-word.
“If the rappers can say it, I don’t understand why we can’t say it.”
When a friend directed me to the comment thread, I knew what to expect, but I didn’t expect to see an adult ask such a question so honestly, so matter-of-factly. When I saw it, my stomach felt kind of weird – kind of like that feeling I had when I was younger (I was the only person of color in many of my classes) when a fellow classmate would comment on something (most of the time falsely) of African-American culture and add at the end “well my best friend is black” – as if that gives one a stake to some sort of claim…to an entire culture.
The N-word has an interesting history. I’m no historian, but in a nutshell, we can say that the N-word started as a means of oppression toward African slaves in America during the slavery-era. The use of this word, institutional degradation and involuntary servitude were all synonymous. This word was also the powerhouse behind the forced rape of enslaved African women including Mother Africa herself, the senseless killings of enslaved African men, women and children and in general, the dehumanization of all people and things of African descent. Some decades passed and the vile power behind the N-Word remained relatively the same, especially in the Jim Crow South.
In a nutshell, for the longest while, the N-word and its use left the African-American community powerless. But today, in many respects, that isn’t exactly the case.
Not just in some rap music, but for some African-Americans, the N-word has turned into a positive affirmation. A word used to describe a friend, a brother. For others, it’s still negative, but on their dime, not on the dime of another culture in an oppressive manner. This here is an acquisition of power, a seizing back of control that once wasn’t there. The taking back of a word a group of oppressed people once had no authority over, even though the word directly affected their own livelihoods, their lives and their deaths.
It’s one thing for an oppressed people to take back what’s essentially theirs, but it is a problem when a member of the dominant group – like the man who posted in the comment thread– someone still in this day and age with privilege and power no member of the oppressed group could ever attain (yes, even if he were president of the most powerful country in the world) – wants to snatch control away from the oppressed group just when it manages to muster up a morsel of agency over its enslaved past, fractured present and uncertain future.
It all comes down to power and control and in this country, some people want power and control so bad that they want ownership over words, even the words that don’t come out of their own mouths.
To the man from the comment thread and others like him: Next time you think about stealing ANYTHING from another culture, no matter who you are, what color you are, where you come from, or how much you may think you know, I can only hope you think twice.