Last night I had the incredible honor to participate in a panel at Hamline University entitled “The Harlem Shake as Blackface: A Critical Look at Cultural Appropriation.” Some truly inspiring and powerful voices spoke their truth about the problems with, dangers in, and hurt that stems from cultural appropriation like that of the Harlem Shake meme (shout outs to Dr. Daniel White Hodge, Mia Jackman, DJ Francisco, Chris McQuire, Mariah Kenya Cannon, Dr. Don C. Sawyer III, Ryan Willians-Virden, and Antoine Duke for speaking their powerful testimonies and truths).
Once the video of the event is out, I will make sure I publish it here on the blog.
As others in the panel responded to oft-asked questions like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just dancing!” and “What is this cultural appropriation thing anyway?”, I spoke to a question that I’ve been answering a lot since I published “Racism, Appropriation, and The Harlem Shake: “What am I supposed to do to resist/stop cultural appropriation?”
To be clear, every single time that I’ve been asked this question, it’s come from a White person, and most often it came from a place of defensiveness. While many folks of Color know exactly what they need to do to hold onto their cultures and preserve them in spite of White appropriation, we as White folks (even the most well-meaning among us) are usually clueless about how we can resist this subtle form of racism.
Because I’ve been getting the question quite often, I figure it would be easier to respond here publicly. That said, I am by no means an expert, so if you have ideas or suggestions for people to resist racist cultural appropriation, please share them in the comments.
How People of Racial Privilege can Resist Cultural Appropriation
1. Listen to Varied Voices and Perspectives of Color
Cultural appropriation is, at its root, more often a product of ignorance than of malice, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful in its impact. If people of privilege like myself did a better job of listening to and educating ourselves about the varied perspectives of people of Color, we would be MUCH less likely to act in ways that further appropriate cultural expressions from their roots and locus of control in communities of Color.
HOWEVER, this does not mean we should be going up to people of Color and saying, “Please teach me! I don’t want to be a racist any more!” Frankly, folks of Color are tired of having to educate us about history, oppression, privilege, and justice.
There are lots of ways for us to listen. As noted by Mychal Denzel Smith in his brilliant article “White People Need to Give Up Racism,” “White people have to diversify their media consumption.” We need to read, listen to, watch, and reflect on the voices of a variety of people of Color in our media consumption. If you want some suggestions of where to start, Smith offers some good ideas in his article.
And when we DO find ourselves in a position to listen to people of Color speak their truths, we need to shut up, listen, and stop thinking of ways that we can simply respond or push back.
In the case of the Harlem Shake meme, if more of the White folks who helped to launch this meme were aware of the life-saving force that hip hop music and dance has been in Harlem and of the history of the dance itself and of the ways that the culture of folks of Color is regularly stolen and repackaged by White folks, I like to think that most of them would have been less likely to participate.
We must remember that listening is the root of justice.