Insensitively taking from minority cultures reinforces oppressive power dynamics.

There are people who deny racism still exists; people who are convinced we live in a “post-racial” society; people with conceivably good intentions who, in an attempt to engage in a social justice conversation, find themselves saying things that paradoxically show the covert racism they initially argued doesn’t exist.

I came across an online article recently published by WUFT News covering a controversial Snapchat photo. The photo received a complaint from UF’s Black Student Union for perpetuating harmful stereotypes of black people. The photo showed four white women from a sorority with their arms crossed, wearing long black T-shirts with the words “Trap Queen” printed across them. The WUFT News story didn’t necessarily shame anyone, it simply called attention to the photo’s racial insensitivity.

The article was immediately met with an abundance of negative feedback from readers, some commenting that the “article is beyond ignorant,” “to assume ‘trap queen’ has anything to do with race is inherently racist” and, worst of all, “the whole thing makes the Black Student Union look stupid, which of course everyone is afraid to say in fear of offending them. Yeah, you look stupid. Deal with it.”

Illustration by Sara Nettle

Illustration by Sara Nettle

The most troubling part of the online dialogue that erupted was that nearly everyone who commented seemed to feel targeted as an oppressor, even reacting aggressively to defend their point, as if the article was pointedly shaming them and everything they identified with. They didn’t seem to see anything wrong with the situation or why anyone from the black community would feel offended. Someone commented that the article is a “perfect example of another blatant attack piece on the Greek community.”

Another commenter wrote, “There was no offense intended and there should’ve been none taken. Ever heard of dressing up in a costume just for the fun of it?” This comment, while aiming to wave away claims of cultural insensitivity, was itself insensitive: Someone else’s culture is not a costume you can simply put on and then throw away. To do that is to dehumanize an entire community of people.

“When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure,” feminist writer bell hooks writes, “the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over.”

Due to the ubiquitous nature of social media, black slang specifically is constantly reinterpreted and overused by people who have no interest in, or understanding of, its original cultural significance. For example, take “bae,” #squadgoals, “on fleek,” “ratchet,” “fuckboy,” “basic,” “shade,” “Bye Felicia,” “turn up” and “nigga,” which have saturated popular culture so heavily it’s hard to remember where the terms came from or what they originally meant. Consequently the politics concerning who uses black slang, and in what context, becomes a matter of contention when the original meaning of a word is worn out by popular use.

Many people who use black slang may not realize they are participating in, or creating, a double discourse that reinforces oppression in racialized communities. While a person may not intend to offend, claiming ignorance — or being ignorant of one’s own ignorance — cannot be used as an acceptable excuse.

Illustration by Samantha Schuyler

Illustration by Samantha Schuyler

To be white is to have arbitrary, historical power that monopolizes a space in the center of our society. To be white is to be the benchmark, the standard. This poses a problem because it puts all white people in control of power structures — a position no racial group should ever occupy. And if “whiteness” continues to be inextricably linked with power, then our words and behavior have socio-political implications we should all be aware of.

The Atlantic journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it “The Dream,” a fantasy of American greatness that largely excludes black men and women, despite the wealth of our country being built off the backs of slaves. It is ignorant to assume the idea that black people are institutionally equal, having just as many resources and equal opportunity, simply because the culture has been commodified and used by white people.

UF African-American English Ph.D. student and Postcolonial Studies scholar Randi Gill-Sadler said the problem with these structures is that you have people participating and invested in black culture who are divorced from caring about actual black people.

“Power that comes from whiteness, from class, whatever the case may be — you have a particular amount of power that allows you to temporarily participate in a culture or take from a culture and use it for your own ends,” Sadler said. “This may be the No. 1 issue with appropriation, that people who have no investment in the actual well-being of black people are able to have access to black cultural expression and black cultural production. There isn’t actually any credit being given to the black cultural producers.”

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Illustration by Sarah Senfeld

At the same time, it could be (and has been) argued that this form of cultural exchange is ultimately a good thing — that it is building a tolerance for diversity, and that black people and black culture are becoming more commonly accepted. If it weren’t for the historical exclusion of anyone who is not white from mainstream society, which continues to exist as structural racism, then this argument could make sense — but this is not the case. We live in a society that loves black culture but doesn’t like black people (as we’ve seen so frequently in police violence against black men and women), so what may appear to be widespread acceptance of black people is actually a reorientation of white privilege that reinforces oppressive power dynamics.

“Don’t tell me you identify with something and then your actual personal politics don’t even acknowledge the culture or engage with black people,” Sadler added.

If people want to engage with black culture, or black cultural expression, there’s nothing wrong with that on the surface. When people fail to acknowledge — or are unwilling to acknowledge — the power dynamics between themselves and the culture they’re trying to engage with, they are abusing a power that stems from invisible ideological forces.

“If you’re able to take that, if you’re able to make money off that, exploit that, and gain something off that in a way that the people from that culture cannot,” Sadler said, “that’s a power structure that we need to evaluate and dismantle.”