“There is no white community”: cultural appropriation and pop-culture in the US

How do we understand race in the modern digital age? In our conversation on Wednesday about the essay “On Being White and Other Lies” by James Baldwin, we discussed the choice to become white when European immigrants reached American shores. These people gave up their unique heritages for homogeny. As James Baldwin wrote, “America became white because of a necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying black subjugation” (Baldwin 1). This led me to question how we see ourselves as Americans today, and the future of race in America because of this homogeny. As a midwesterner, I share many interests and speech patterns that are considered universally “American”. I love hot dogs and baseball games, I say “ope” in awkward moments with stranger, etc. But because of the institution of white supremacy, anything American has become synonymous with whiteness. As a false identity created to support racism, it is ironic that today it is popular for young white people to appropriate black culture.

American pop-culture is becoming increasingly more homogenous, and it is harder and harder to separate internet slang from African American culture. Mainstream colloquialisms popularized on social media are drawn heavily from African American Vernacular English. Daily, I hear familiar words and sayings I remember from growing up, the way I speak with other black people, emerging as poor imitations from the lips of white students. I hear my culture distorted and appropriated, used like a knowing look, an offhand word or phrase thrown into a conversation as a reference of that one TikTok we’ve all seen (remember that meme?) like a joke we’re all in on. The AAVE is usually preceded by a pause, like a comedian before a punchline. An extreme example would be of the viral TikTok of a white woman describing her frustration with her concert tickets, exclaiming, “No like, I finna be in the pit” , which garnered an appropriate amount of backlash.

We see this in other ways online. If we think back to viral videos on vine or popular reaction pictures and gifs from the early 2010’s, most of these images were at the expense of a black person. A modern Jumpin’ Jim Crow – the image of blackness continues to be used as entertainment for white people. Baldwin equates the choice of whiteness to a “moral erosion”. He uses the example of black people in athletics, and discusses how white people watch in either relief or embitterment by the black presence on the team, but do not face what black athletes had to pay to get to that position because of white supremacy. Black bodies were used as commodities to build this country, and although slavery seems long ago the black body continues to be commodified: the product of our tongues (music, language etc), our hair, our lips, our curves, our style are sold on the market: lip fillers, BBLs, waist trainers, self-tanner.

With the appreciation/appropriation of blackness in mainstream American culture, does Baldwins assertion that “there is no white community” still ring true? This is a difficult question given the universality of American culture. I think that the problem of whiteness as described in Baldwin’s work has reached farther extremes than Baldwin could have imagined in the 21st century. Homogeny has eroded the uniqueness of black culture and commodified it for economic gain. Is this commodification and appropriation a symptom of the “crisis of leadership” ? That paradox that “those who believed that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves” (Baldwin 5)? Possibly a lack of definition in white culture caused an reaching to other cultures for definition.

However frustrating and degrading cultural appropriation can be, African American culture’s integral role in making American culture is the fulfillment of Baldwin’s assertion that “We—who were not Black before we got here either, who were defined as Black by the slave trade—have paid for the crisis of leadership in the white community for a very long time, and have resoundingly, even when we face the worst about ourselves, survived, and triumphed over it.” (Baldwin 5). Black culture’s dominance in America is a testament to our resilience and is something to be proud of.

Some could say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that might be a little too on the nose.

Baldwin on race, whiteness, and privilege

In the opening lines of “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies” James Baldwin writes, “there is in fact, no white community” (177). This reading being my first exposure to the content of this class, I was particularly struck and intrigued by this assertion. I wondered what Baldwin meant by “community” and how he could assuredly make, what at first seemed to me, such an immense statement. As I continued to read this piece, however, the meaning of this initial comment began to make more sense. In combination with his later point that “no one was white before he/she came to America,” I interpreted Baldwin’s argument here to be a reference to the notion that race is a social construction. In this sense, these initial remarks affirmed my understanding of race that I had come to in other classes, primarily in the “Political Psychology of Racism” with Professor Davis.

Yet, as I continued to read this piece and then “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin proceeded to challenge my interpretations of the opening statement of “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies,” race, privilege, and whiteness. Rather than simply presenting the idea that race is socially constructed, I now contend that Baldwin goes beyond this in suggesting the purpose behind defining race, and with that, identifies a need among White people to preserve the understanding that race represents inherent differences between black and white “communities.” To this point, Baldwin explains, “America became white… because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation” (178). He expands further that “it is the Black condition, and only that, which informs us concerning white people” (180). I believe that these points culminate movingly in “The Price of the Ticket” where Baldwin closes with “they require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own” (842). According to Baldwin, to become white is to rise while to become black is to sink, and, thus, race has no significance beyond the system of oppression in which it was created. This idea of an unearned elevation made possible merely be being white is a useful way for understanding not only race relations but more specifically white privilege. In fact, one of the first readings for my class with people incarcerated at Westville Correctional Facility as a part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program devoted a quite a few pages to Baldwin in discussing what it means to have privilege. The “price of the ticket” requires complete assimilation in exchange for belonging, and it also affords enduring privilege to whoever “pays” and their subsequent generations– manifest, for example, in the increased likelihood of the arrest of someone like one of my classmates at Westville who grew up in an over-policed neighborhood.

Don’t Be Salty

In James Baldwin’s “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” the prolific author argues that “[n]o one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.” (177). In the process of oppressing primarily Black and Indigenous populations, white Americans made “a moral choice” to become white (Baldwin 180). According to Baldwin, this choice has made white Americans “as speechless as Lot’s wife—looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt” (180). Re-reading the essay, I was struck by the parallel between Baldwin’s description and another wife of Lot: Mrs. Dalton from Richard Wright’s Native Son

Wright makes a concerted effort to emphasize Mrs. Dalton’s whiteness. Mrs. Dalton’s “face and hair were completely white; she seemed to [Bigger] like a ghost,” and “her grey eyes looked stony” (49). Mrs. Dalton wears “flowing white clothes,” and often keeps a “white cat” by her side. Truly, the woman is entirely blanched of pigment. Above all, Mrs. Dalton––a living pillar of salt––is allegedly the most sympathetic character to Black Americans. 

Like Lot’s wife, Mrs. Dalton is unmoving in her whiteness, to the point where she is incredulous to her maintenance of systems of oppression. Bigger is clear: even Mrs. Dalton only “wanted him to do the things she felt that he should have wanted to do [emphasis added]” (Wright 61). Although Mrs. Dalton prompts her husband to donate millions to charities, sends a single Black man to college, and is generally amicable towards Bigger, she is blind to the fact that her wealth is exploited from Black families. She and her husband employ Bigger at a wage of $25 per week, which is ostensibly generous until the reader realizes that their daughter has a discretionary budget of thousands of dollars (equivalent to hundreds of thousands today). 

It is easy to read a novel like Richard Wright’s Native Son and talk about Blackness. It is harder, yet equally necessary, to talk about the construction and preservation of whiteness in the novel and in our own society. One of the most important lessons that we might draw from Wright’s characterization of Mrs. Dalton is that even the most well-intentioned white Americans uphold and profit from systemic anti-Blackness. It is not enough to merely post anti-racist infographics on Instagram. Black activists have popularized a number of vital ways for white Americans to be more ethical: donate to mutual aid funds; buy from Black-owned businesses; etc. While heeding those calls, white Americans might also learn from Native Son and investigate the sources of their income. 

If white readers like myself and many of my classmates do not turn our critical lens inward, we make the grave error of being blind to our own actions. However, as we know from our novel’s introduction, Wright’s overarching project in Native Son was to speak with “forthrightness and independence” to both Black and white Americans, whom he believed “continued to cling to a range of fantasies about the true nature of the relationship between the races.” Even today, many white Americans cling to the fantasy that implicit bias trainings and a Democratic President will automatically undo centuries of oppression. While these liberal projects (like Mrs. Dalton’s) are well-intentioned, they are not enough. We must ask ourselves probing questions. Are you invested in a real-estate firm that profits from red-lined neighborhoods? Do your parents own a business that pays starvation wages to POC? Does your University invest in private prisons (hint: it does!). These are just examples, but my point is simple: we must not be frozen in our privilege. We must break free from the salt that encapsulates us.