“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.

Hidden Fees: The Price of the Ticket

Baldwin’s On Being White and Other Lies and The Price of the Ticket left me with more questions than answers. I come from a mixed line of Irish and Filipino, but I’ve always called myself white. Upon coming to college, I joined the Filipino-American Student Organization, and my friends there encouraged me to embrace more of my ancestry. But I always came back to the question: what right did I have to claim my Filipino heritage? Baldwin seems to fundamentally disagree with that question. Baldwin bluntly states in On Being White and Other Lies that “White being, absolutely, a moral choice (for there are no white people)” (canvas document, pg 4). The claim that whiteness is a moral choice stems from the reasoning that being White means to choose safety and assimilation. To subjugate identity and subsequently accept an oppressive society for the purpose of subjugating everyone else. But Baldwin goes much further in The Price of the Ticket when he writes, “The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white…I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white” (pg 842). I know this is true because all I remember of my Irish grandmother is how she pined for Galway. And the paintings on my wall of the Philippines from my great-grandfather’s memory. Reading Baldwin changed the question in my mind: why did I claim whiteness? In doing so, I inadvertently relinquished my heritage for the prospect of fitting in. 

Furthermore, Baldwin offers a much deeper understanding of systems when he discusses politics. Baldwin states that “This necessity of justifying a totally false identity…has placed everyone now living in the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people” (canvas document, pg 3). The dissection of the political atmosphere, of which everyone has grievances of varying degree, struck a similar note as a section of a reading from a separate class. Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems points out that the respective purposes of individual people or groups may add together to form a system that does not match anyone’s interests. Thus, economic interests, corruption, capitalism, self-serving protection, and poor support for recovery can result in a society where crime and drug addiction are difficult to combat (Meadows, pg 15). Baldwin does an excellent job of pointing out a similar vein in systemic racism: “Those who believed they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves” (canvas document, pg 4). The action of “white” people to control Black people causes them to become White, in what Meadows’ labels as a feedback loop. White people rise by forcing Black people to sink. The similarities of systems are strange but ultimately convey one of the reasons racism is so extremely woven into American society.

The Cost of Whiteness

On Wednesday, the groups presenting on Baldwin and Civil Rights posed the following questions: How are our identities related (Black vs white, male vs female)? Are they interdependent? How so?

In our recent class discussions, we have considered the question: what is the cost of whiteness?

To me, the answers to these questions are quite similar. 

In Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler states the following: “Th[e] exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject…This zone of uninhabitability will constitute that site of dreaded identification against which–and by virtue of which–the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life. In this sense, then, the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is, after all, ‘inside’ the subject as its own founding repudiation” (xiii).

In this excerpt, Butler is describing what it means to exist as a queer, trans, gender nonconforming individual, but I believe her understanding of these unlivable conditions also apply to being Black in America. She describes an articulation of a norm here as inextricably linked to the creation of the abnormal. In fact, she extends this to say that the existence of what is normal is actually reliant upon what is abnormal. Applied here, and in response to the original question posed by this group, I might ask: what would it mean to be Black in a world void of whiteness? Blackness fortifies the regulatory norm of whiteness. Whiteness cannot be without its direct opposition to and distance from Blackness–the abjected, unlivable, uninhabitable position in society. Thus, what whiteness costs is Black lives. Butler may say that the privilege of whiteness makes the site of the materialization of Black bodies devalued and endangered–quite literally not just figuratively, as we see everyday in our society. 

I think Baldwin would agree with this application of Butler. I think he would understand Black bodies as abjected in society, as never existing as the subject but only as the nonsubject that grants the subject livability. 

Post-Mortem Treatment of Whiteness and Blackness

One of the things that stuck with me from our discussions this week – in a horrific, searing kind of way – was that of the post-mortem treatment of whiteness and blackness. We see this most precisely in Mary and Bessie, who, because of their differing races, face significantly different care post-mortem. During the courtroom proceedings, Wright chooses to include an explicit objectification of Bessie’s body in service of a white woman’s justice. 

Bessie is neglected in life and in death. She explains the social death that characterizes her life to Bigger; she exists solely to work for white people and the white-benefitting systems that oppress her. Bessie’s neglect within the text is authenticated by Bigger, her rapist and murderer: his “eyes widened. He had not thought of Bessie but once since his capture. Her death was unimportant beside that of Mary’s; he knew that when they killed him it would be for Mary’s death, not Bessie’s” (Wright 304). He forgets, again, later on: “He had completely forgotten Bessie during the inquest of Mary” (Wright 331). Bessie’s social death is ignored during her life with Bigger, yet is corroborated in her actual murder by the same person. Not only is Bessie’s own death completely neglected as deserving of justice, but it is further demoralized when her body becomes a spectacle within the courtroom. “They were bringing Bessie’s body in now to make the white men and women feel that nothing short of a quick blotting out of his life would make the city safe again…Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely evidence” (Wright 331). Bessie’s “bloody and black” body is objectified by the coroners/judge/lawyers in justice-seeking for Mary. Bessie, then, is raped twice in death: once by Bigger after her social death, and yet again by the white public and courtroom, after Bigger has murdered her (Wright 331). Mary’s body, contrastingly, is burnt, in a near-cremation. Her corpse, thus, is free from post-mortem objectification. She carries freedom even in death. 

This notion becomes further convoluted because a black body is being used to prosecute a black body. In other words, Bessie’s body, as black, becomes the proof of which to prove male black monstrosity and secure white justice. Bessie becomes an exhibition, for the eyes and cameras of the white people, whom she felt had killed her in social death long prior. An exhibition, in which she would have “resent[ed]” (Wright 331). When viewed through the lens of film critic Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”(1975), the female body is fetishized to displace anxiety of the male spectator. The mechanism by which we view Bessie’s post-mortem body is dissecting, dehumanizing, and objectifying. All processes of which continue in service of racism and whiteness.

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.