CULTURAL APPROPRIATION OR CULTURAL APPRECIATION?

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Rachel Dolezal, the beleaguered white woman who was outed as a liar living life as a Black woman, has raised the collective ire of many in the Black community. This is in spite of the fact she graduated from Howard University, had relationships with Black men, and wears African American hairstyles. There is a new documentary about her life on Netflix entitled “The Rachel Divide.” This name is quite appropriate because it has brought out a lot of feelings and has split the Black community into opposing camps regarding her “reverse passing.” Some people profess to hate her because they claim that she is taking advantage of white privilege to live life as a Black, and that at any point she has the option of becoming white again.

Dolezal was raised with Black adopted siblings, and eventually adopted one and raised him as her son. She also has a half-Black biological son. She is an accomplished artist and uses Black themes in her work. Since the controversy, she has suffered greatly and struggles to make a living. She is disliked in the white community for wanting to be Black, and she is disliked in the Black community for the same reason. Ultimately, in order to attempt to give herself a new lease on life, she has adopted an African name, slightly changed her appearance, and ventured out with the hope of acquiring new economic opportunities. The documentary is heart-wrenching, but there are those who hate her so much that they refuse to watch it. Ultimately, her major “crime” is that of lying, and of “cultural appropriation” according to opponents.

Ironically, currently there is another attack on an individual based on cultural appropriation. Bruno Mars, arguably one of the most lauded entertainers of his generation, has been maligned because he is benefitting from his love and use of Black music. This is the case even though he constantly talks about the Black origins of his music and expresses a great appreciation of it.

Just exactly what is cultural appropriation? According to Wikipedia, “cultural appropriation is a concept dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power. Cultural appropriation is often portrayed as harmful in contemporary cultures, and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating, minority cultures, notably indigenous cultures and those living under colonial rule.”  Based on this definition, Bruno Mars does not fit into this category. He is part Puerto Rican and part Jewish. Rachel Dolezal, on the other hand, might be seen to fit this category.

Whether Rachel Dolezal is guilty of cultural appropriation or not, she has sacrificed a lot for her convictions. Moreover, this situation has revealed the fact that some oppressed Black people just can’t wrap their brains around the notion that there is someone who is white who would actually want to be Black. This says as much about the Blacks who oppose her as it does about the act of cultural appropriation.

Rachel Dolezal’s situation brings to mind the phenomenon of “transgender” people who feel that they were born in the wrong bodies. She has given up everything to live her life as a Black person, and she seems no closer to reverting back to white than she did years ago.

White oppression has wounded the Black community to such an extent that whenever there is an opportunity to clap back it is taken with gusto. Rachel Dolezal, and to a lesser extent, Bruno Mars, are victims of this backlash. They have the nerve to love Black culture! In this regard, the question may be asked if they are guilty of cultural appropriation or “cultural appreciation.” Emotions aside, the latter is obvious.

Ultimately, if it is true that all humans have a common origin, then race may indeed be an artificial construct, as some observers are now saying. Whatever the case, we have a teachable moment wherein Black people can come to realize that there is deep value in being Black. The Rachel Dolezals and Bruno Mars of the world send this message loud and clear! A Luta Continua.

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