Appropriate Cultural Appreciation

Friday, September 06, 2013

By Renee Bracey Sherman

If you’ve been watching the news, watching your Twitter feed, or posts on Facebook, many people have been discussing Miley Cyrus’ recent MTV Video Music Award performance in which she attempted to “twerk” on stage and on singer Robin Thicke during their duet of his song Blurred Lines. Lately much has been discussed about the rape culture language in his song and the sexual awkwardness of their performance in general, but most of the conversation has been about whether or not her performance was an appropriation of Black culture. As I perused through the social media conversations, I noticed a common thread: not everyone knows what cultural appropriation is.

So, let’s discuss and learn – what is cultural appropriation?

The short answer is when one from a privileged community uses something (a justice movement, style of clothing, dance, language, etc.) that is a part of a minority community’s culture and uses it as their own without citing credit, and often doing it wrong. In school, we have a similar idea called plagiarism, and students are held accountable for it. Cultural appropriation happens a lot. So much so, that we often don’t notice it when it happens.

Remember Madonna's famous ‘Vogue’ song? Of course you do. It topped the charts and still gets played…everywhere. Did you know vogueing, which originated as a style of dance performed by gay men and transwomen of color in NYC in the '80s, was a form of connection, community, and celebration of self for the queer community who were often rejected their families for their femininity, love of fashion, and sexuality? Madonna didn’t give you the history of or culture of vogueing, and she didn’t tell you that the houses in which the vogue competitions were held were safe havens for homeless youth. She just sold you the song on her album. Also, she did it wrong - no duck walk, no wrists, no spins, no cat walks. Today, vogueing is alive and well, check out this great video of queer youth of color vogueing at the Ruth Ellis Center in Michigan. Need more history, watch 'Paris is Burning' – a great documentary of the lives of the vogue houses in New York City.

Remember the Pepsi Super Bowl commercial of the “Harlem Shake”? The actual Harlem Shake is a dance that Black folks have been doing since the ‘80s and became popular again in the early 2000s when Missy Elliot and P. Diddy highlighted it in their music videos. It originated as a dance in Harlem, New York, and the challenge was to be able to do it well (which is hard enough) on a moving bus (even harder). When it was appropriated on the commercial, they did it wrong and didn't explaining that it was already a dance or use the dancers who know how to do it. Melissa Harris Perry breaks it down on her show, with actual Harlem youth.

In Cyrus’ case, not only is what she's doing not correct in style, but she erased its history and roots. Twerking has West African roots, made famous by Josephine Baker in the 1920s. As the Crunk Feminist Collective noted twerking was a ‘90s coming of age anthem for many teens: “twerk music from local New Orleans based musicians DJ Jimi and DJ Jubilee was always played on the radio.” It's also frustrating to Black women who have traditionally been called "hoes" or "video vixens" for dancing in such a way (and barely get paid to survive and have to work in a very sexually charged work environment), but when Cyrus does it, and creates a hashtag as if she created it, it's considered "cute" and her "sexual coming of age”. Not to mention she's getting paid, very well, to perform. It's White privilege at its best, and perhaps folks are having a problem seeing it because we've been watching it since the dawn of time…Elvis, jazz, yoga, the headdresses from the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, just to name a few.

It’s an ongoing problem, but what do we do about it?

We call it out when we see it. By countering the larger narrative that shows whichever dance, traditional ethnic clothing, food, etc. is being appropriated as a ‘new’ repackaged thing, we demonstrate that we do not tolerate it and we educate the larger community about the antiquity of our ancestors. We make sure our community is seen, not for someone to market and profit off of, but to celebrate our histories.

But what happens when we don’t realize when we ourselves are on the profiting end of the appropriation? Often it shows up as us becoming defensive regarding on the issue. Think about how we feel when people who haven't lived our lives use our stories for things that we haven't approved AND don't cite us as the source - It feels stolen, repackaged, and inauthentic.

For me, when I'm often being challenged by something, I try to take a moment and think about why I'm feeling so challenged. Then I take a breath, unclench my jaw, and start my research. I stop reading the articles written by the privileged group that keep me feeling safe in my current belief, and read articles by those who are calling out the appropriation. I listen to their stories and experiences because they are the voices less heard and are feeling the appropriation. They are the ones who have done the research on the historical and cultural context and can articulate how and why this is a pattern. It's then that I often realize, the issue usually is: I was uncomfortable with having my privileged checked. I didn’t like the realization that I was complicit in a system that was oppressing those closest to me. And that’s how privilege works, even though we may know that we have it, we still benefit from it in society and we can’t always see all the ways. When communities call it out, we need to take a step back and look for what is invisible to us. It doesn’t feel good to be called out when you’ve messed up, but it’s part of being an ally and creating a more just world. Acknowledge, accept, and educate.

This is probably not the last time that we will see cultural appropriation on stage, and probably not the last time we’ll see it this week. But when we as allies come together with communities to challenge cultural appropriation we are refusing to accept society’s plagiarism. We are ensuring that dances, foods, and cultures are preserved in their authentic form – not a watered down version for mass consumption. Our music and dances are complex, with long histories, sorrows, and joys. Our foods are from our ancestors, with rich stories to be shared over a meal with a community you love. I am not saying that those who want to explore cultures they are not a part of can’t; I am saying that when you do, do it with someone from the community by your side. Hold their hand and their heart. Don’t do it because it’s this week’s fad to be thrown away with next week’s trash or because it’s something fun to get you street credit. Do it because you truly want to invest in the growth of culture, cultural exchange, and are in it for the long haul. Learn the history and the stories, and then share the genuine meaning with others. Give credit where credit is due. There’s no need to stamp your name on everything, let others share their cultural expertise and open more minds. When we accept the melting pot version, everyone loses out, because no one has the chance to experience something deep and authentic: our lives.

Renee Bracey Sherman is a contributor to Echoing Ida, a project of Strong Families. She is a reproductive justice activist who shares her own abortion experience to encourage others who have had abortions to speak out and end the silence and stigma. She's shared her story on the BBC NewshourFeministing.comThe, and various college campuses and is frequently featured on RH Reality Check.


  1. My limit was hit when MC tweeted out a note from her father that said "if twerking had been invented 20 years ago I would have done it".