TheGrio Daily

Cultural Appropriation, Explained

Episode 28

“Stop stealing our sh*t.” Have you noticed that white people love to wear cornrows when they go to Jamaica or Africa, but for some reason, they never wear them when they are in the United States? Michael Harriot noticed that as well and he is here to explain to you why that is and what exactly is Cultural Appropriation. 

You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. Black culture, amplified. 

Michael Harriot [00:00:05] Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this pretty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. Out, out, brief candle, life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. I have no idea why I’d know that by heart. Probably ’cause, like, I was made to read Shakespeare when I was in high school. And then I say it like that because, I mean, I guess I imagine that’s how… I have a terrible – I know I have a terrible “white people’s” voice. I know I can’t talk like white people, if I say Shakespeare in that voice, though, is that cultural appropriation? I mean, I don’t know, let’s talk about it. Matter of fact – welcome to theGrio Daily, the only podcast that dares to explain to you exactly what cultural appropriation is. 

Michael Harriot [00:01:02] I’m Michael Harriot, world-famous Wypipologist, and this is theGrio Daily. 

Michael Harriot [00:01:11] Yeah, like, I said, like, I have a terrible white people voice. I’m bad at impressions generally. There used to be this lady at my church who used to sell baked goods, and my sisters used to crack up when I imitated her, “pound cake, jelly cake,” like I could do the Gullah accent real good, but only my sisters are going to laugh at that. But, today I want to talk about – because this argument pops up all the time, this argument about cultural appropriation. And most people who enter, who wade into this discussion, they don’t clearly define what cultural appropriation is. They don’t understand it. You know, some people would say, “well, you know if white people culturally appropriate black people, then why are you using a computer or why are you typing this on a phone? Because white people invented that, so.” 

Michael Harriot [00:02:05] That’s not what cultural appropriation is, and by the way, a black person invented most of the parts of a computer and the cell phone. But, in any case, when we talk about this subject, about what is basically “theft,” where do we draw the line? What is cultural appropriation, what’s not cultural appropriation? What can white people do and what can’t white people do? Now, I would argue that the reason this conversation exists is the same reason that America exists – because white people think they own everything. They think they can just go somewhere and claim this land is for white people and it automatically becomes their’s. That’s why you hear white people saying stuff like, “That party was lit. We turned up.” I told ya’ll I got a bad, white people inpression. But you know what I’m talking about, when white people try to, you know, talk like they’re black or, you know, you can see a white person at work and they’ll say, “How are you doing, Jim? How are you doing, Nancy? How are you doing -” I don’t know. what’s another white name? “Brett!” And then they get to you and they say, “What’s up, man?” So to define cultural appropriation, let’s just create our own term. And the way I define it is cultural appropriation is the use of artifacts, art or anything of cultural relevance by one culture and misappropriating it for the benefit of another. It’s not, you know, like if you buy a painting by a black artists and put it on your wall, that’s not cultural appropriation. But, if you see a black artist create something and you create a “white” version of it or create a version that is based on it, that is geared for white audiences, then you are culturally appropriating a piece of black art. 

Michael Harriot [00:04:13] Like, what’s an example of this? Okay. For instance, right, like, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a white woman braiding her hair. Like, everybody knows that, you know, white women can take strands of their hair and, you know, twist them in strains. That probably existed before time, right? But, why is it that white women always braid their hair, like, when they go on vacation to Jamaica? Or to the Caribbean or to Africa? Like, you don’t ever see white people in France on vacation touring the louvre with cornrows. Right? They only do it when they go to black countries. Why is that? Because they have to take everything. They are claiming that hairstyle for white people. Or another example in the same vein right? Like, there is nothing wrong with Kim Kardashian braiding her hair. But when she calls them “Bo Derek Braids,” she is taking the relevance of that and transforming it to a white woman, not even to herself. To Bo Derek, a white woman. And that’s the difference between cultural appropriation and enjoying a piece of black art or, you know, referencing a piece of black art. So, if a white person says words rhythmically to a drum beat, they’re not culturally appropriating rap or hip hop, which was created by and for black people. But, why do all the white rappers have to sound black? Why do they got to use the “black” slang? Why can’t they just talk like white people who are making their own music? Right? And, for instance, is a black person who plays heavy metal music culturally appropriating white people’s music? Well, we know the answer to the first part of that question, because if it wasn’t for black people, all you would hear on the radio is polka music and I guess, I don’t know, baroque classical music. 

Michael Harriot [00:06:14] But the reason that those white rappers use a particular affect in their speech or those blue-eyed soul singers try to do a run in a particular style, is that they are mimicking what they see as an affect that is unique to “blackness.” And to try to replicate that blackness for the benefit or for the profit of themselves or for white people, it’s kind of a theft, right? Because that art was created because there were musicians, there were artists. There were deejays in black communities who didn’t have access to the same kinds of artistic expression and instrumentality that white people have. And to take something that was created in the vacuum, created by whiteness, and then use it for the benefit of whiteness, is appropriation. So it’s not culturally appropriating, if you say, “y’all,” right? Because white people say, “y’all,” but, like that white girl – I forgot what her name is, who say, you know, “meet me outside, how about that, I -“. It’s infuriating because what they are doing is not just using a part of blackness for their own benefit, but in a way, they’re mocking black people. Right? Like, that’s part of cultural appropriation is not just taking it and using it for your own people or for your own benefit without attribution, but it is using that thing, and in a way that is detrimental to black people. That’s a large part of course from appropriation. So, what are some examples of cultural appropriation? Like, when a white, rock band makes music that is influenced by the blues or by blues musicians, that ain’t cultural appropriation, because I mean, I’ll be honest with you, black people so dope, I don’t understand how white people just don’t bury their heads in a pillow and cry every day, that they can’t look, sound, sing, act and be like us. 

Michael Harriot [00:08:42] But, when a band like Led Zeppelin – look this up. Continually steals from black people without attribution, doesn’t recognize those black artists, and then uses that money for their own benefit to build their own legacy as if they are one of the most creative and influential and outstanding artists of our time. And say, “Aye,” without saying, like, “Oh, all we did is just, like give you all a “white” version of what black people were doing for a century.” Then that is cultural appropriation. Or, for instance, when the white people, I don’t know if ya’ll remember this, but it still sticks in my craw. The white people in the Democratic Party put on that kente cloth, and then knelt in defiance in Congress. That was cultural appropriation. Right? Because they were taking a thing. Right? Like, black people use that African symbology, those African fabrics, because of the heritage and the history that was stolen from us, right? And we use that because it means something to us. It is important to us. And to appropriate that for a political act that benefits white people, that ain’t cool, man. It’s appropriation. A step. Imagine if you went to work every day at a garbage dump because that was the only place that you were allowed to work. And then one day, you came home. And your safe in your house was empty and you found out the people who excluded you from all of the other jobs and made you work at the garbage dump, had stolen your “garbage dump money.” To help the places that you couldn’t work at. What would you think of that? That would be theft, right? Not just theft. That would be the most egregious kind of theft. And most forms of black art, most forms of black symbology, most things that are culturally relevant to black people exist because this country treats black people differently than it does, white people. 

Michael Harriot [00:11:21] And, if you’re going to be treated like a white person, if you’re going to live like a white person, if you’re going to enjoy all the benefits of being white that America has to offer, and still want the benefit of all that cool stuff that black people created, without saying, “this is something that black people created.” You’re stealing. And it’s the most egregious kind of theft because you’re benefiting from whiteness and you’re benefiting from the thing that whiteness has wrought. You benefit from the harm that whiteness created. You’re benefiting from racism. Stop stealing our sh*t should be the new name for cultural appropriation because, cultural appropriation, you see, it’s hard to say, you know, racists – and I know because I get a lot of hate mail. Racists find it hard to spell things and they capitalize everything. And so, like, let’s just start calling it theft. Let’s just start calling it, like, stealing our sh*t. Because all of those big vocabulary words that would never appear on Wheel of Fortune – they’re not adequate enough to correctly encapsulate what this country does to black art, to black creators, to black people who create something because of racism. And then have to watch it used by people who benefit from that racism. So stop still in our sh*t. Stop culturally appropriating. But, you could still use your computer. Even though a black person created it. You can still use your phone, even though a black person created it. You can still stop at stoplights and use your refrigerator and have use and benefit from all of the things that black people created for “everybody” to use. But, the stuff that we made for “us,” leave it alone. Stop stealin’ our sh*t. And also, one more thing. 

Michael Harriot [00:13:43] Download theGrio app. Tell a friend about this podcast. Subscribe. And watch us every day. And as always, we’ll leave you with a great “Black Saying.” Today’s comes from, the Great Black, entertainment and artistic figure, William Ray Norwood Jr., who once said, “we hit it first.” We’ll see you on the next episode of theGrio Daily.