On the Inherent Privilege of White Culture: an examination of cultural appropriation

edit: this began as an article about the rapper kreayshawn, and turned into a much longer article on appropriation of black culture in mainstream white media. I’ve left it as I originally wrote it because kreayshawn is still a big part of this. 

I wanted to write something about Kreayshawn a long time ago, but unfortunately never got around to it. Lately I’ve been hearing more about kreayshawn because there are a few up and coming female rappers getting some heavy press right now, and the comparisons have inevitably sprung up. 

I live in a predominantly white, middle class neighbourhood and attend school where the environment is based around a lot of wealth and predominately white traditions and histories. Kreayshawn was an interesting phenomenon when she first came out because I kept hearing things like ‘she’s so sick!’ and ‘she has so much swag’, and ‘this is so ghetto’ (ghetto being used as a positive adjective). it’s always interesting to me the ways in which artists like kreayshawn, who market themselves as ‘ghetto’ or ‘swag’ are picked up by mainstream white culture. 

Mainstream white america appropriating black culture is not a new phenomenon. From Elvis Presley to Vanilla Ice to Kreayshawn, white artists have found mega musical success based on appropriating culturally and historically black musical and fashion styles. White culture loves to pick up ‘ethnic’ trends. Why is this? There’s a pretty strong movement within white culture (especially today) that values concepts like ‘authenticity’ and this idea of ‘realness’. These two values exist in opposition to the mainstream culture which is based on mass manufactured goods, and gets associated with ‘pre-packaged’ identities, ‘cookie cutter’ personas, and the like (see Justin Timberlake circa the N’SYNC era). This trend is really noticeable right now with the rise of the hipster movement - mostly propagated by white men and women with enough money to reject mass marketed and mainstream clothing and music in favour of traditionally ‘low class’ alternatives (those alternatives being no less expensive). White culture loves this idea of ‘vintage’, of history behind clothing, behind music, behind style. There’s nothing less fashionable in white culture today than a pair of jeans from the Gap, which certainly explains the Gap’s abysmal sales numbers. 

Dolly Parton once famously exclaimed, ‘it takes a lot of money to look this cheap’ during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show. This mantra has become extremely popular within white culture, especially in fashion trends. Magazines showcase pictures of celebrities wearing clothing that looks like it was purchased at goodwill, or perhaps left behind at their apartment by a cocaine addict who decided he didn’t want it anymore. Ripped, dirty jeans, hole-y white t-shirts, ‘grunge’ chic; Mary-Kate Olson’s now famous foray into ‘homeless chic’ is a good example. Yet, when you see the prices listed beside the clothing items, many if not most of them are astronomically expensive. $400 for a white ripped t-shirt. We pay to have our jeans ripped and stained, we pay for this grunge, we pay to look like we have history. And that’s the key point here, history. Clothing that is eccentric, clothing that looks poor, or dirty or grunge-y or vinage is clothing that looks like it has a story, like it represents a struggle; it’s clothing that makes you interesting. it’s clothing that give you experiences, gives you a past. And this is so important for a lot of white culture because most of the people who can afford to buy this clothing don’t have any of those experiences. But you can buy those experiences, by buying this clothing. By buying this clothing, all of that appropriated culture and history all of a sudden exists on your body - you’re interesting. You’ve got a past. You’re real, you’re so authentic. You don’t shop at the Gap. 

White culture’s appropriation of Black fashion and musical style is an appropriation of history, of lived experiences. When you’re the privileged party, you don’t have any of those experiences that make you ‘authentic’, that make you ‘real’, that give you ‘swag’. Take Justin Timberlake, for example. As a teenager he achieved mega fame with the musical group N’SYNC, but in order to achieve success musically as an adult, he had to re-craft his entire image. it’s important for artists like this, who experience success as children or young people, that any further success is not simply based on solely albums sold, but also on image. They want to be ‘taken seriously’, they want adult male fans, not just screaming little girls. They want to be hip, they want to have a kind of gravitas and authenticity, a kind of ‘swag’ (we’ll get into why this word is important in a minute) - they want to seem ‘legit’. The boy from N-SYNC with his bleach blonde hair, four part harmonies and old navy and nike clothing transitioned into a young man with ‘soul’. His videos featured a style of dancing that was less choreographed and more R&B. He shaved his head (a common hairstyle for…who? Oh yeah, Black men), he woo-ed black and latina girls in his videos that had titles like ‘senorita’; he collaborated with renowned black produces like pharrel and timbaland, he wore trucker caps and baggy jeans, gold chains and diamond stud earrings. he moonwalked like michael jackson. He became a white man with swag.

This idea of swag is really important to the white male mentality, especially in music. White culture rejects femininity in any form as an attribute held by dominant males. White men in music are either young boys who can afford to be cookie cutter, can afford to be ‘cute’ because they’re marketed to young girls. But men cannot be cute, they cannot be feminine in any shape or form. They need to be tough, they need to have edge. Swag is the answer. The notion of ‘swag’ has typically been an attribute of black men. There’s an attitude there, an edge, a smooth quality that bespeaks authenticity, realness; ‘I deserve to be here, and I deserve your respect’. Culturally, white men aspire to have these qualities for themselves. Young white upper middle class boys dress in styles popular amongst urban black youth, they wear their pants low with huge shiny sneakers, they wear caps and chains and listen to rap music and speak in urban slang even though they grew up in a four bedroom house and their family vacations in florida every winter. 

Young male musical acts do the same thing today. Justin Bieber wears diamond studs and sings about ‘shorties’, he is mentored by Usher and features Ludacris in his songs. He is white and looks prepubescent, and the girls in his videos are white too - but his friends are black, silent, giving him that edge of authenticity. Drake looks on from his perch in the ‘Baby’ video, helping to cement that this kid is ‘real’, that he’s not a baby (pun intended). he features a group dance off in the video, it being in and of itself a phenomenon commonly associated with hip hop culture in black urban areas, and the people who dance and break dance in the video aren’t justin, they’re his black friends - talented, and silent. This is echoed in the ‘somebody to love’ video, where he chases a young black girl and is flanked by silent black back up dancers. he’s a young white boy leading a team of black dancers in a style that their culture created. I particularly like the part of the video where Justin is dancing with three other dancers, all male, all black - he steps forward and the dancers disappear into him, as if he swallowed them up. The symbolism is probably lost on Justin, but for me it screams out loud and clear. Probably the worst is the ‘one less lonely girl’ video, where Justin sets up shop wooing a girl who looks black but definitely passes for white IN A LAUNDROMAT THAT ONLY BLACK PEOPLE ARE USING. Ooh, authentic! It’s so real! He puts a laundromat in his video because it’s easy and it looks cool; he doesn’t care about the symbolism and history behind public laundromats that only exist in ‘poor’ neighbourhoods. 

On the other hand, black men in music, many of whom come from backgrounds that either they themselves or white audiences would call ‘ghetto’ (50 cent, Tupac, Lil’ Wayne, T Pain, to name just a small amount…) aspire to a kind of lifestyle that mimics that of the ‘white gentleman’. They drink champagne, they wear three piece suits. They have, despite their violent lyrics and often violent backgrounds, a dapper air about them. Kanye West and Jay-Z exemplify the model of the ‘black businessman’ - male black musical artists who become moguls in their own right, who become extremely rich and live what might be called a ‘white lifestyle’. The popular image of the wealthy, white business magnate is one that has been elevated in black culture as a mark of success- they aim to become the owners of these empires, the masters of their game. Jamie Fox features Jake Gyllenhaal and Ron Howard, two majorly successful white men in the artistic industry in his video ‘blame it’. A major mark of prowess for black men and black music artists is being with white women, and many music videos (including blame it) show these artists wooing and being fawned over by white women. At the same time, black women are exoticized and stigmatized by white men and black men alike. So while back men in music aim to make it to the financial level that is commonly held by white men, white men appropriate a culture that is often comes out of a lower standard of living than their own in order to appear ‘authentic’. 

What does all of this have to do with Kreayshawn? Well, quite a bit. Moyazb’s article (On Kreayshawn and the Utility of Black Women) from the crunk feminist collective does a phenomenal job at opening up why kreayshawn (real name: Natassia Zolot) is so problematic:

this is partly why Kreayshawn makes me mad. The White Girl Mob media darling blowing up the interwebs whose potential deal with Sony is making waves makes me angry in a way I haven’t been in a long time. Her appropriative swag is yet another reminder (not that we needed any more this month) of how little black women are valued in our society, even in genres we co-create. In a moment where cool is synonymous with swag, a particular manifestation of black masculinity, Kreayshawn’s dismissiveness and denigration of black women animate her success. For her, calling women bitches and hoes is funny, a category she is somehow exempt from via her whiteness and sometimes queerness. She’s got swag because she fucks bitches too, though she’s quick to point out she’s “not a raging lesbian.”

And also:

About a year ago, comedian Andy Milonakis (Who you might remember from his brief MTV fame) and Rapper Lil’ B decided to parody rap music and made the satirical “Hoes on My Dick” which features the choice language “Hoes on my dick cuz I look like Madonna” or “Hoes on my dick cuz I look like grandma.” Anyway, we were supposed to laugh. Ha ha! Isn’t funny/ironic when they say misogynist things when they know it’s wrong? Kreayshawn took their track and made it her own adding her own lyrics, “rapped” (if you could call it that) with all due seriousness and folks love it!As Crunktastic has already pointed out on this blog, the derogatory slang words used for women imply race. “Hoes” are black and the proverbial punchline (pun intended) for the LA hispster/hip hop mash up sound that music critics are lauding. The supposed *wink wink nudge nudge* associated with their misogynoir is what makes them so edgy and so real. The objectification of black women as a lyrical trope is what makes Kreayshawn interesting. Look at this white girl who talks like a black man! Isn’t she awesome?

Yes, kreayshawn grew up in Oakland, and this culture is her culture too. But she is also a very beautiful young white woman getting famous off of her appropriation of black masculinity and use of racial and gendered slurs that she can use because ‘I’m from there’. She and her white girl mob were so much more likely to get a record deal than any female black rappers in her neighbourhood because they’re all waifish, beautiful white women who seem ‘ghetto’ and ‘real’ because they talk like lower class black women and wear traditionally hispanic jewellery like bamboo earrings and have hairstyles commonly worn by black women. None of this is necessarily her fault - she’s pretty open about the fact that she grew up in a low income, predominately black/hispanic neighbourhood and pretty open about the fact that major influences in her life have been black musical artists and black women, and that’s great - but the problem is that we don’t have any ACTUAL black women representing this lifestyle and this history. What do we have? We have Kreayshawn, a beautiful young white girl with black men all around her passing her joints as she sits pretty in hipster clothing with her pretty white friends, using derogatory and racist language because she can, because it seems okay. The bottom line is that there’s no room in mainstream music right now for a black female rapper to fill in this void. White culture doesn’t want to listen to a black female rapper who raps about oakland city and joints and violence. White culture likes Kreayshawn because it seems like almost a gimmick, this beautiful white girl in this lifestyle that belongs to black people. That’s the entrance that white culture wants into that lifestyle - not an actual black woman. All of her style, her hair: it looks cool and edgy to white culture because these style markers aren’t white in nature - so it seems authentic. It seems like she has a history, because what she’s wearing has a history. A black history. 

They don’t want to listen to actual black women tell these stories - there’s no market for that. But they’ll listen to a white girl tell these stories because she’s the avenue in without being ‘too ghetto’. White culture doesn’t want a female black rapper talking about these issues because they don’t want to examine the societal forces that create places like oakland, pockets of crime and poverty with predominantly black and latino populations. They want a white girl with swag, but not the real stories. it wouldn’t be so bad for kreayshawn to be popular if we HAD those black female rappers - but we don’t. 

Young white girls sing along to ‘gucci gucci’ thinking about how cool she is, feeling like they have swagger when they sing it, not understanding the appropriation that’s taking place, and the history behind what kreayshawn looks like and tries to be. Kreayshawn thinks she can get away with sexist comments ‘because she’s a girl’ - that’s not how sexism works. You can have ovaries and be sexist and use misogynistic remarks. She also has the privilege of being ‘an occasional lesbian’ instead of a ‘raging lesbian’ which is apparently a bad thing. 

It’s funny, because of course there would be a young white girl as music’s representation of this historically black culture, surrounded by nameless and silent black men and women in her videos with her white girl mob around her - why should we even expect anything else with the crazy amount of white washing that happens in hollywood and north american music? Privilege isn’t anyone’s fault, but it does need to be examined. Kreayshawn never addresses these issues, and her ignorance about this privilege is what hurts her the most. 

 

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