Having only lived for 20 years, with the bulk of those years spent in a behind-the-times rural community, I haven’t had much opportunity to directly experience cultural development. In other words, only on rare occasions was I ever cognizant of my cultural surroundings – the food we ate, the music we liked, the way we spoke – and their tendency to change or develop. Within the past year, however, nearly all of America (young and old) bore witness to a thrust of cultural development directly in the public view. It was a physical thrust, one which began in Miley Cyrus’s lower hips and landed in Robin Thicke’s groin during MTV’s 2013 Video Music Awards.
If you’ve been paying attention, you will have noticed the recent mainstream explosion of “twerking,” a dance revolution led by a former Disney Channel star and her flock of teenage look-a-likes on social media sites. Today, the term “twerk” can be found in everything from college party themes to high school pranks to cardio aerobic exercise routines. This twerking frenzy, the countless homemade web videos, and the ultimate fact that Miley Cyrus has now become synonymous with rear end gyration have all caught me off guard, and left me in disbelief. When I saw the mainstream media scrambling to cover the twerking phenomenon, however, I realized that it was all very real, and very wrong (see a cringe-worthy “scientific” breakdown by ABC news ). I was shocked not at the lewdness of twerking, but at the enthusiasm with which mainstream America embraced it, so many years after its introduction.
The underlying point of contention is this: Miley sure as hell isn’t bringing the twerking craze to African-Americans. Everyone who (unlike Miley and ABC news) knew of twerk-style dancing for years are now feeling hipster-like resentment – we knew of the move long before it was cool enough to become a suggested exercise for middle-age suburban white women. In fact, VH1 recently put together a chronological plot of the existence of twerking in popular black culture that traces back at least two decades.
However, this issue runs deeper than the socially and rhythmically challenged Miley Cyrus. It is also a problem more complex than any twerking or dancing. It is, in fact, an instance of what people have come to term “cultural appropriation,” the process of one cultural aspect being absorbed and possibly even attributed to another cultural group. While this practice is often viewed as unjust, its complexity (the degradation, the economic incentives, the intermingling of cultures) can reveal the difficulties in making it right.
To be clear, I understand black culture to be a subset (and cornerstone) of American culture in general, and no one should pretend that the two are separable. Just as African-Americans are distinctly American, twerking too is an American concept, derived from African and Latino influenced styles of dance that have persisted in minority communities since this nation’s founding. But behind the half-scoff, half-actual resentment coming from the black community at its recent explosion, there also arises the very real question of how to make cultural appropriation fair.
Misappropriating other peoples’ cultures is no new thing, to be sure. Countless aspects of mainstream American culture have been derived from smaller subset communities, in examples from pizza to hip-hop. Accordingly, there are a range of opinions on cultural appropriation; responses spanning from indignation (“so my culture is good enough to be enjoyed by whites, but I’m not good enough to avoid prejudice”), to optimism (“at least this is giving our culture and innovation the grounds to be widely admired”). Personally, many instances of discourse on the topic have led me to realize that there are several unresolved issues beyond the initial indignant reaction.
As an example, we can look to food and how some institutions (our own university included) handle cultural misappropriation in another way. Dining halls and restaurants will label foods and even flavors as “Asian,” “Indian,” “Mexican,” or whichever broad ethnic title is assumed to bring more credibility to the dish. Here, at least, there is some kind of recognition. However, people of these ethnic backgrounds often find these vague labels to be degrading, or even offensive. Similarly, would it be better if instead of doing a “Miley Cyrus twerk,” non-black Americans did “the black dance?”
Moreover, there may be cultural characteristics which could be discomforting or even damaging if aligned with one community. For black Americans, this point is especially poignant. Traits most openly attributed to the black community are often the most frowned upon. Ebonics, hyper-sexualization, and thuggery (urbanized hyper-masculinity) are not necessarily the proudest achievements of a people, but they are all traits that have enjoyed mainstream popularity and been attributed to the black community. It may be that, as blacks, it is our own fault for the existence of these trends, or it may be that American society is less willing to openly attribute phenomena deemed positive or innovative to minorities (for example, Rock & Roll music). Nevertheless, this process of negative-attribution reinforces the idea of things like misogyny, criminality, and general ignorance as “acting black.”
Finally, we all must recognize that attributing cultural practices and building stereotypes are essentially two sides of the same coin. One of the most challenging aspects of redeeming cultural misappropriation is how easily it becomes hypocritical to demand recognition for cultural contributions and simultaneously denounce broad cultural assumptions. It is a delicate line between “twerking is a black thing” and “blacks therefore all twerk.” I don’t believe this challenge should serve as a complete refutation of giving cultures credit for their innovation, as recognition combats the ignorance of the masses. But it is important to realize that recognition alone cannot stop cultural appropriation in America. After recognition is obtained, what does cultural appropriation really mean in the world’s most diverse nation? In the cultural melting pot, can any one ingredient attempt to remain independent and distinct?
And so in my first instance of witnessing cultural misappropriation, I cannot convince myself that we should blame Miley Cyrus for “stealing” twerking. Blame her for her terrible performances and her tendency to awkwardly handle interactions with African-American culture, certainly. But underneath it all, she is only doing what Americans do best: incorporating and expanding interesting sh*t to the masses, and then fumbling to recognize the deeper cultural connections.
We all benefit from the sharing and mixing of cultures, and when our own culture is appropriated, we must recognize the other implications besides hurt pride and hipster sentiments. I do not argue that appropriation is completely acceptable, but I believe that it is not a practice without benefit or complexity. I am saying that it is important for Americans to recognize two things; the prevalence of cultural appropriation in our society (with only the recent example of twerking), and the complexity of the issue we face. In order to redeem the wrongs that result from its practice, we need to look at cultural appropriation for what it is; a cornerstone of American culture.