Aggravated by Appropriation

The Dangers of Cultural Appropriation


Image courtesy of Google Images

Alexandria Montgomery, Staff Writer

It was November 6 in my American Government class that I realized how many of us are ignorant of the ill-nature of cultural appropriation. I am always itching for a conversation about social issues, particularly social issues people of color are faced with in America and beyond. Naturally, after we completed notes, I raised my hand and asked Mr. Meyer if we could discuss cultural appropriation. Turns out, my class did not know what cultural appropriation was. After explaining it to them, and citing Miley Cyrus twerking as an example (as explained by Nadra Kareem Nittle), I received great backlash. One boy sad, “Twerking is American culture.” I responded with, “No, twerking is an appropriated form of African dances.” I then went on to explain how the cultures of people of color (those of non-European descent) are appropriated in American society. A white student in my class then said, “We’re people of color too. Look at us, we aren’t clear.” …I just stared at him.

The term cultural appropriation refers to the process by which elements of a marginalized culture (typically that of POC, or people of color) are borrowed, or appropriated, by a non-marginalized, privileged group.

Simply put, cultural appropriation is when the culture of a group treated as inferior is stolen by a group regarded as superior.

On many occasions, Miley has appropriated the culture of black people. Even though twerking is seen by some as American culture, by definition, Miley Cyrus twerking is cultural appropriation.

The ubiquity of twerking in pop culture is undeniable. We are inundated with images of gyrating body parts. These images, however, are a misappropriation of twerking and its true derivations.

The word ‘twerk’ can be traced back about twenty years. It was first, to our knowledge, used during the 90s in the underground bounce scene located in New Orleans. The form of dance can be traced back to West African traditional dancing – most notably the dance of Mapouka, which is colloquially known as ‘the dance of the behind.’ This originated from Cote d’ Ivoire.

This is cultural appropriation. What was once a non-sexual, culturally symbolic Afrocentric dance has been appropriated, sexualized, and resultantly fetisized by Eurocentric media, culture, and advocates. Miley Cyrus has appropriated an element of black culture, and because of her white privilege, she does not have to deal with the stigma placed on young women of color in America due to twerking.

Miley Cyrus is a paragon for cultural appropriation.


Iggy Azalea is another celebrity contributing to the pervasiveness of cultural appropriation. Australian rapper and urban poster girl (read: white girl who has appropriated black and Indian culture and has subsequently labeled herself urban and has resultantly been credited with being ‘edgy’ and ‘original’), Azalea has infiltrated pop culture, beginning with her summer hit, Fancy. My disdain for Iggy was first born when I heard the intro to Fancy:

“First things first I’m the realest, realest.”

Donning a poor ‘blaccent’ along with black slang, I knew Azalea would be another celebrity capitalizing on a mixture of white privilege and appropriation of the cultures of people of color. With the release of her single, Bounce, came a grimace and eye roll on my part. Laden with a poor depiction of Indian culture, Azalea had done it again in her video. She had appropriated, or rather, misappropriated a marginalized people with no show of contrition after her transgression was brought to her attention.

Shot in India, the video featured Iggy covered in traditional Indian dress, complete with a sari and bindi. She is surrounded by Indian women as backup dancers. Just these two components of the video are controversial. What makes it worse is the song has nothing to do with Indian culture, its deep history, or former oppression. The lyrics automatically shoot down the argument that Iggy was paying homage to India. She isn’t. She dismantled Indian culture, clothed herself in ‘trendy’ elements, and discarded the stigma and struggles Indians face.

Cultural appropriation can occur on many scales and points on the gamut. The most ubiquitous, of course, is that in pop culture the most minuscule is your average person wearing a bindi or African head wrap. Appropriation becomes problematic, though, when it is trivialized and normalized.

Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus, like many white mainstream ‘artists,’ use a combination of their white privilege and the appropriation of people of color’s cultures to propel themselves to fame. This leaves the people of color ravaged and without the cultural credit they deserve. Borrowing characteristics of a culture and wearing the stolen characteristics under the limelight wrongly depicts a people and who they are, while the dominant people are credited with being innovative or trendy (Nittle). This oppresses and marginalizes the minority group.

In a majority of the instances of cultural appropriation, the result of the culture hijacking leaves the people of color feeling oppressed (rightfully so), while the non-minority walk free of stigma. Too often, this contributes to and upholds white privilege and supremacy. Racism is a systematic oppression of non-whites through cultural ‘norms,’ representation in the media, and government legislature.

Cultural appropriation has the potential to be racist.

I’m tired of cultural appropriation. I’m tired of my people being tired of cultural appropriation. I stand in solidarity with all people of color when I say this. Our cultures are not a trend. Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea, get out of hip hop and ditch your poor ‘blaccents.’ Those in my government, stop defending appropriation. Katy Perry, don’t dress up as a geisha. It’s a poor attempt, should I even call it an attempt, at honoring Asian culture. No more dressing up as Native Americans for Halloween. We are not a costume. We are a people who have transcended years of trials and oppression to earn our space in society. Our culture is what binds us to our roots. You are not permitted to pick and choose pieces of us you find trendy. You are not allowed to combine those pieces with your own to further your privilege and supremacy. Putatively, it’s racist, and we are tired. No more appropriation.