What do rapper Iggy Azalea's "blaccent," Miley Cyrus' twerking stage show and Rachel Dolezal's self-proclaimed black identity have in common? All might be signs that white cultural appropriation in the United States has reached a new height of offensiveness, black leaders say.
The complicated racial identity of Dolezal, a white woman and Africana studies professor who identifies as black, became a national obsession this week, prompting debate about black and white culture and whether racial identity has evolved. While some defended Dolezal for seemingly embracing black culture, for many blacks and whites alike Dolezal represents a rare twist in the longstanding debate about the thin line between admiration for a race or culture and cultural appropriation, the often ill-intentioned co-opting of an oppressed group’s subculture by members of the dominant group for social benefit and financial gain.
"As a high-yellow [light-skinned] person of color, I have a problem with this," said Mariah Lopez, executive director of the Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform and a transgender woman who is of black and Latino heritage. "[Dolezal] has the rest of humanity to look to as an example of what you do when you admire another culture. You can stand in solidarity with the experience. You can support them economically. But you don’t do what she did."
Timothy Welbeck, an African-American studies professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who is black, said Dolezal and Azalea were doing similar things in "attempting to divorce hip-hop [and black identity] of its context." Both women "took admiration and an affinity to a point of offense," although Dolezal's actions are more egregious because of the depth of her deception, Welbeck said.
Posing As A Cultural Outsider
The embracing of different cultures by the dominant one is seen as progress in some circles, and is crucial to the survival of a subculture, experts say. But Dolezal didn’t need to mask her true identity to be taken seriously as a civil rights advocate and scholar of the African Diaspora, said Rob Widell, a white professor who teaches African-American history at the University of Rhode Island.
“Her deception here speaks to her use of blackness as a means to an end,” he said. “Something in her experience led her to believe that they only way she is going to have some sort of legitimacy was to appropriate a black identity. Historically, it’s just not been the case that you would have to do that.”
Widell, 41, said he unflinchingly owns up to the privilege he enjoys as an outsider to black culture. “I’m very aware that as a white, heterosexual cisgender male in the classroom, I don’t have to face the same types of questions about my legitimacy or about my place being here, that many of my colleagues who don’t have the same markers of privilege that I have do,” he said.
That acknowledgment establishes a person's trustworthiness, Widell added.
But white privilege seemed to be something that Dolezal, 37, rejected as she concocted a back story to explain her transition from a white girl born to white parents in Montana to the president of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP branch and a studio artist whose work centered around black identity and social oppression. Dolezal donned culturally black hairdos, bronzed her skin and hid her true origins to immerse herself in the African-American experience. She was outed as white by her parents last week and resigned a leader of the NAACP branch on Monday.
Controversy grew quickly around the Eastern Washington University Africana studies professor, who was challenged over claims of being a hate crime victim, lying about her race to sit on a Spokane civic commission, and for suing Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., for discrimination -- as a white -- while she was a student there.
Appropriation's Not News In Pop Culture
Pop culture has long explored the thin line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, said Charles Hughes, author of the book “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.” For blacks, music was a way to assert that they were not only as good as whites, but better at articulating their natural expressions of passion, said Hughes, who is a white Africana studies professor at Oklahoma State University.
Blacks also used music as economic capital, leading to financial and institutional independence for some. But appropriation of the expression by white artists – from Elvis Presley and 1960s doo wop groups to rappers Vanilla Ice and Azalea – commodified it in a way that offended blacks who used it to subvert the systems of oppression and inequality that they suffered because of their race, Hughes said.
“White artists who all of a sudden start doing black music, without necessarily sharing the benefit with black folks, that’s a real cause for concern,” Hughes said. “If you’re trying to sound or appear black, that just makes it worse.”
Presley, a soulful crooner, re-recorded black rhythm and blues singer Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton's song "Hound Dog" in 1956. Almost no one flinched, three years after the song took Thornton to the top of the R&B charts. It went on to become one of Presley's signature hits, while Thornton saw very little profit from her milder success with the song.
“You look at who made the most money and benefited the most [in black music] and it’s been white folks. That’s why cultural appropriation is such a hot-button issue,” Hughes said.
More recently, Azalea, the 24-year-old Australian protege of African-American rapper T.I., rose to the apex of pop music by affecting a culturally black accent and vernacular and flaunting physical features, like a large rump, for which some black entertainers had been ridiculed. She was recently recognized by Billboard, the U.S. music industry magazine, as 2014's top hip-hop act, angering many music fans. She has also been criticized for allegedly lacking an understanding about the origins of hip-hop music and for allegedly not penning her own song lyrics.
Cyrus, who has been praised by LGBT activists for embracing transgender youths through her social media, has hired black female backup dancers to twerk -- a style of dance that critics say objectifies black women's bodies -- during internationally broadcast performances.
Daniel Williams, chairman of the National Action Network's LGBT committee in New York, said Cyrus should be lauded for saying to the transgender community, "I celebrate you and your existence." But of performances that co-opt black expression, Williams said white artists should "allow people to own their own spaces, so they can have some credibility and recognition."
Joining A Disadvantaged Class
Dolezal's choosing to identify and live as a black woman perplexes race experts who cite the number of disparities faced by black women in the U.S. There is a far greater risk for black women to experience domestic violence, according to federal law enforcement data. Black women working full-time earn just 64 cents for every dollar a white men earn, while white women earn 77 cents, recent studies show. In the area of health, black women have a 43 percent higher risk than white women of delivering their babies prematurely, a 40 percent higher breast cancer death rate and higher rates of heart disease and hypertension, according to a Vox report.
Those conditions persist for black women due to structural oppression and economic inequalities that are passed down through generations, experts say.
“White folks always want to look for signs of progress in the long march towards racial reconciliation,” Widdell said. “That runs counter to the history that I know and that I studied. But it does present an opportunity for whites and blacks to investigate how real that progress is.”
Jelani Cobb, a prominent cultural commentator and African-American studies professor at the University of Connecticut, this week wrote that Dolezal’s desire to appropriate a black identity betrays her own learned understanding of the racism endured by blacks who do not move in between racial identities as easily.
“Whatever elements of beauty or cool, whatever truth or marketable lies there are that we associate with blackness, [African-Americans] are ultimately the product of a community’s quest to be recognized as human in a society that is only ambivalently willing to see it as such,” Cobb, who is black, wrote in an essay for the New Yorker.
In a statement released Wednesday, Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal, Rachel Dolezal’s parents, acknowledged the discussion that their daughter helped to start. “We hope and pray for a continuing global conversation on the issues of identity and integrity, which will resolve in the recognition that truth is a kindness and a first step toward freedom, justice and personal peace,” the Dolezals said.