The presentation that I attended by speakers V. Dozier and Khalia Ii entitled The Black Present and Presence highlighted principally how the accomplishments and culture of African American Women have been continually stolen and disenfranchised by non-black people in today’s modern media. Mrs. Dozier introduced what is commonly referred to as co-optation, which describes stealing or using without proper citation or compensation. This co-optation takes form in spaces like fashion, media, and culture, and fundamentally undermines the cultural history, struggles, and hard work of Black Americans.
The co-optation of black culture is something that while not discussed often in modern media, is an increasingly detrimental problem to the progress of black culture in America, and often takes the form of cultural appropriation and what Dozier describes as being a “culture vulture.” In her section of the presentation, Dozier began by discussing the history of several uniquely or originally African American traditions, styles, and cultural traits to use as a segway into a commentary on the way that other cultures (predominantly white society) use and have used these aspects of black life and society to their benefit. She gave the examples such as the “dap up” that rose out of the black power movement following the war in Vietnam, the way Nike Air Force Ones were popularized by Nelly’s hit song “Air Force 1s,” and how nameplate necklaces started as a unique style among black women. While these things gradually making their way into general pop culture might not seem immediately problematic, it is important to note that these styles that we now see everywhere we go in modern American society, are only that way because of the gentrification that they’ve faced on their way out of being uniquely associated with Black American society. For example, Dozier explained how extreme and flamboyant nail designs were a very specific and unique aspect of the black female experience and culture, and how it was originally considered by mainstream culture as “ghetto” or “ratchet” until Kylie Jenner popularized the trend to the masses and destigmatized the once scorned black female style choice. This is one of many examples of non-black people culturally appropriating, or being what has aptly denoted a “culture vulture” and often marketing a sort of whitewashed form of black culture for their profitability without having to have dealt with the previous racialized stigma that was originally attached. Unfortunately, this is not something new in American culture and society. White people have been profiting from the cultural stereotypes of Black Americans since the times of slavery. Much like people like Kylie Jenner can take these elaborate long nails that were once looked down upon as being from the ghetto and turn them into a profitable fashion statement, so too did white playwrights in the 1800s, where racial stereotypes about black people were put on the stage in characters like “Jim Crow” and “Sambo” first popularized by actor T.D. Rice aimed to portray vile racist beliefs in theater using blackface and tarnished clothes (461). While much more extreme, the way that these racial stereotypes were seen as disgusting interpretations of the black existence were used for ticket sales and used to perpetuate further racism amongst the masses it was meant to entertain. Seeing what white people like Rice were able to do such as making money and furthering their career through taking what was then seen as being part of the black experience, can additionally be seen in acts of cultural appropriation which stars like Jenner can and have used to make money and further her career.
Dozier also discussed how this co-opting takes place in other forms of media, especially in social media spaces like Twitter, journalism, and writing. She talked about qualifiers and their impact on social media spaces. She introduced this idea by doing a demonstration on how black women were much more likely to be written about and denoted specifically as different, whiteness and maleness are the default, in google scholar articles. She further proved her point by discussing how this plays out in social media spaces like how there is “Twitter” and then there’s “black Twitter” (and “librarian twitter” as she comically added). This helped her explain qualifiers, and how niche and specifically minority spaces have to use qualifiers to justify their existence outside of this white male default. The same kind of cultural appropriation and “culture vulture-ing” plays out here too, where non-black people, and especially large corporations will try to integrate into these social media spaces to either monetize it or try to make it theirs in different ways. This cultural appropriation in media is not just on Twitter and other social media sites but in written media and journalism. The most appalling example she used of this was a white woman by the name of Jennifer Buck who wrote a book entitled “Bad and Boujee,” journalistic writing aimed at explaining a “trap feminist theology.” This was immediately problematic as she, as a white woman, was selling novels on the shelf that used the image, likeness, and experiences of Black Women to make money and shows how this encroaching on racial and identity politics for personal benefit directly disenfranchises the experiences of black people as well as the work by black women which she stole from to write the novel, including that of black authors, journalists, theologians, and scholars, like that of author Sesali Bowen, who actually coined the term “trap feminism” and whose work was blatantly stolen with no more than a footnote of credit for her work in the field, the likes of which would have made Buck’s book impossible to write had she not done the legwork.
This same co-optation and monetization of the black struggle find its way into other facets of American society as well, most recently in the Black Lives Matter movement. For many years now, Black Americans have fought for their voices to be heard about their struggle for equality in this country, oftentimes to be silenced and written off as extremists. So was the case in the 1960s when Black Americans fought the issues of segregation and police brutality in the Civil Rights Movement, where they were met with further violence from police and national guard troops at their peaceful protests. This was an issue they had faced for years, and it rarely garnered any kind of national attention when police would use violence against the protesters. Many were injured and even killed in these clashes with police and it did not raise many issues outside of black circles. It was not until four white students were shot and killed by police in a protest of the Vietnam War at Kent State University that the overbearing and forceful tactics used by police upon protesters were called into question (958). Similar issues can be seen in the recent Black Lives Matter movement, coined by activist Alicia Garza, which followed the killings of unarmed black men (not limited to) Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and most famously George Floyd (Esposito and Romano 3). In the beginning, these movements were largely covered as ‘riots’ and ‘anarchy,’ and associated with similar negative connotations. This was until white Americans started joining the protests and would popularize the movement beyond Black Culture to the point where, at least in my own experiences at peaceful protests in Portland, Oregon were being largely managed and led by white people for their own personal feeling like they’re helping. This led to the monetization of the BLM movement by many large corporations that used the movement to help sell products or boost brand popularity. This co-option seems to come from the fact that what was adopted by, and popularized by media and corporations was not the center of what BLM originally stood for in its conception but rather a form of what authors Luigi Esposito and Victor Romano call “Benevolent Racism” which refers to a framing that disregards the real intentions of the movement to make it easier to stomach for society at large. This ‘white-saviorism’ and framing of this movement to include white people leads to “practices that ultimately uphold the prevailing racial status quo in the name of uplifting or empowering the Black community” (Esposito and Romano 5). This is just another example of how white people taking from the black community while making it more socially acceptable in a sense, ends up being detrimental to, and disenfranchises the experiences of Black Americans.
In conclusion, the co-optation of the black experience and use of cultural appropriation in all its forms directly discredits, delegitimizes, and disenfranchises the work and experiences of Black Americans and does nothing else but help to phrase these experiences into a palatable, white-washed, and watered-down version of black culture that upholds the dominant white society that it aims to dismantle.
White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2021.
Esposito, Luigi, and Victor Romano. “Benevolent Racism and the Co-Optation of the Black Lives Matter Movement.” The Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 40, no. 3, 2016.