The Economics Of Appropriating Black Culture

By Esther Faciane
Originally Published on the I Am Woman Project

Photo by Joanna Nix

Pop culture is no stranger to the words “cultural appropriation”. Over the past few years, celebrities, fashion brands, and artists have been rightfully called out for their appropriating offenses. For example, when a non-Black person wears a du rag or wears cornrows for fashion purposes, it is seen as ignorant appropriation: if that person were really aware of the history behind cornrows, they would not have considered them fashion in the first place.

If items and hairstyles that Black people use in everyday life were considered “ghetto” a few years ago, why is it fashion when a white person wears it for the opposite reason it was intended for? This is the main reason why cultural appropriation is so offensive. It degrades the people who originated the customs and puts people who are already dominant in race, culture, and wealth on an even higher pedestal. It perpetuates the “white is right” ideology and leaves no room for Blacks or any other culture that is being appropriated to get recognition and financial gain. These are all common arguments that are made about cultural appropriation. But one argument that you might not hear about when you hear the phrase [cultural appropriation], is the financial consequences of the cultures that are being appropriated.

What are the financial consequences of cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation not only perpetuates negative stereotypes and degrades non-dominant cultures, but also creates room for economic extortion. This can effect whatever culture is being appropriated by not giving the original creator, artist, or culture their profit from the financial gains of the perpetrator. For instance, in 2015, fashion label KTZ copied a sacred design and used it for a sweater. The brand called it the “Shaman Towelling Sweatshirt,” which Salome Awa says they stole directly from her grandfather, Aua, who is one of the very last Shaman in the Canadian Inuit. Not only did that brand take the design and almost copied it exactly, but the designer was not of that culture, and neither were the people who actually made the garment. Yet they all profited from the Canadian Inuit’s sacred culture.

Cultural appropriation in the financial realm often looks like the “rich” or dominant cultural group profiting from the “poor”, minority cultures to create businesses or works of art. Katy Perry, for instance, used cornrows, watermelon, and long nails to portray a Black stereotype in her music video, “This is How We Do.”  Of course, she has since apologized for her extensive use of cultural appropriation and negative stereotypes, but apologies are still not enough, especially when she sold 1 million units and went platinum in the U.S. off the single. Further, those apologies need to be sincere—Perry has been called out on appropriating many different cultures on multiple occasions throughout her career. Though she always seems sincere—even appearing on the Deray McKesson’s podcast and said: “I will never understand, but I can educate myself and that’s what I’m trying to do along the way,” she continues to appropriate and profit.

In another example, Marc Jacobs didn’t hire Black models with real dreadlocks for his Spring/Summer 2017 runway show. Instead, he not only placed these wigs on white models, but then proceeded to say that Black women with straight hair and weaves are appropriating white culture.  This choice didn’t allow Black people to receive the cultural credit or to economically profit from a hairstyle that is specific Black culture and holds religious meaning. Further, Jacob’s remarks reveal a glaring lack of understanding around what counts—and doesn’t count—as cultural appropriation, and how rampant benevolent racially charged acts are carried out—often by high profiled people—within the fashion world.

Part of the reason why cultural appropriation is so pervasive in America is that there are no real consequences—especially regarding economic exploitation. In Australia however, there are actual laws in place that have to be followed when working with indigenous Australian artists or using them as inspiration. According to the Australian Council for the Arts, if an artist is funded by the council, the person working with the artist has to follow these protocols. The document states that “it is only natural for works to reflect the Australian experience, but the intention to include Indigenous experiences needs to go through a consultative process of collaboration and acknowledgment.” If America had laws like these, people would be held accountable for profiting off of minority cultures too.

Part of the reason why cultural appropriation is so pervasive in America is that there are no real consequences—especially regarding economic exploitation.

Another important reason why cultural appropriation keeps happening is that people remain uneducated about the words “cultural appropriation” actually mean. If we were taught Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American cultures in school, cultural appropriation would not be as big of a problem as it is now because we would have a better understanding about the various cultures that comprise America, and which cultures we—as a society—gain our influences from. With this solution, all races and ethnicities would have a better understanding of each other and realize that any form of cultural appropriation is wrong. Just as importantly, there would be more awareness around accountability when using other people’s culture for financial gain. The optimal outcome would be that the rightful owners of the culture would see profits for their work, their culture, and their history. However, the problem is that we are only taught European history from a European point of view, which leaves a multitude of cultures left out of the American psyche.

What would really happen if America loved Black people as much as they love Black culture?

So what would really happen if America loved Black people as much as they love Black culture? It would take a bigger conversation. It would take ears that are willing to listen. It would take a culture that is pushing for change.  It would celebrate Black culture instead of portraying negative stereotypes about Black people in movies, TV shows, art, and music. It wouldn’t leave Black people at a financial advantage because Black artists and Black designers would be hired to create works that use characteristics, idioms, or aesthetics specific to Black culture, that accurately represent Black culture, and that give back to Black culture as much as Black culture gives to the rest of our culture and society.

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The I AM WOMAN Project is a community empowering women to elevate, motivate and celebrate themselves through shared narratives. We showcase and celebrate women’s true power by sharing their stories, wisdom and inspirational insights across video, audio, and digital.

Esther Faciane is a 23-year-old self-taught freelance photographer. She has had her work featured on Racked.com, Nylon, Galore and was previously the store photographer for the Saint Heron Shop. Being from New Orleans, Esther’s main focuses are incorporating color and New Orleans culture into her photography, even though she currently lives in NYC.

 

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