Want to know the latest evidence that racism is alive and well in America? Blake Lively has expressed on Instagram that she is happy that she has a behind like a black woman’s. “LA face with an Oakland booty,” she phrased the matter, with a picture of herself turned with back, as it were, to the camera.
Most would see this as a little joke. However, amidst our culture in which the space for jokes about anything other than how lame white people are has shrunk, Lively has been trounced over the past few days for “appropriation.” That is, Lively is stealing something from black culture. Of course she isn’t being accused of stealing her own butt. Rather, her celebration of it as akin to a kind of butt that black women are often praised for is “theft.”
It won’t do to claim that there is no conventionally assumed association between black women and being generously endowed in the area above the back of the thighs. With all due acknowledgment that individuals differ, a rich vein of discussion by black writers taking the concept of a “black booty” as a given would suggest that Lively is hardly crazy in analogizing her bottom to that of a darker-complected woman. The issue is whether she is, in doing this, taking something away from black women, stepping on their territory.
Note how odd this reasoning seems when spelled out, rather than merely proclaimed via the hissing of the word “appropriation.” Is today’s usage of “appropriation” an advance in our understanding of intercultural relations, or is it just a new way of being angry?
It’s important not to caricature an argument. Let’s break this down by establishing the areas of agreement between those who treat statements such as Lively’s as “appropriation” and the rest of us.
We all agree that no group should make more money off of, or become more famous because of, the creations of others because of bigoted preconceptions. Elvis, although he hardly did it cynically, comes to mind: Black musical style was central to the birth of Rock, and yet he earned vastly more purveying it than any black artist could have.
We all agree that disadvantaged groups should not be ridiculed. When Harvard’s Sigma Chi hosted a party “celebrating” Columbus Day called “Conquistabros and Navajos” in 2010 they deserved condemnation. Blackface parties, ditto.
We all agree that it’s okay that groups have shared technology, as opposed to culture. We do not consider the Romans to have “appropriated” the alphabet from the Greeks.
We all agree that it isn’t “appropriation” when from below. None of us think black people, battling oppression, have been wrong to have cotillions, study Greek, or consult therapists.
We all agree that it’s okay that there has been rampant cross-cultural fertilization between human groups, upwards as well as downwards, since our species began. This would include the fact that whites were central to the creation of ragtime, jazz, and rock using black musical styles as a foundational element. None of us wish America’s music were still jigs, marches, and weepy parlor ballads while black people played the blues quietly among themselves.
So: The culturally sensitive person must not imitate black people — hear that, gay white men who like to take on some speech and gestural traits of black women? — or even point out positive traits they share with them in public. Or, wear a Mulan costume for Halloween unless Asian. And so on.
But the rationale here is not as self-evident as many think. First, why is imitating someone “from above” only a sin today? Does anybody really wish new music didn’t emerge in 1920s Harlem? Or, given that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, why is that suddenly not true when it comes to today’s “appropriations”? Here is where many think they have an answer: “To imitate is to take away.” But when gay men imitate black women’s gestures, black women still have them. Maybe I’m behind the curve, but I see no signs that our sense of the difference between a white gay man and a black woman is beginning to blur.
Another standard line is “You can’t take on our traits because you haven’t been oppressed.” But in another mood we might see it as self-defeating to analyze your entire persona as a response to how people get you wrong — whose every slang idiom, way of moving, gesture, or hairstyle is a response to white people not liking them.
At this point, one may also hear that it’s stereotyping to even think there is such a thing as “black culture” anyway. But if so, then how is there anything to claim is being “appropriated” in the first place?
It all goes in circles and really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Black women have often complained that society gives them a bad rap about the issue of how much “back” baby got, but when Blake Lively expresses joy that she has exactly that kind of endowment in a salute to black women, she is roasted over the coals as a racist?
This way of thinking — and make no mistake, whites join in as heartily as anyone else — will seem as convoluted and peculiar in the future as Arian debates over the divinity of Jesus do to us now. There’s a fine line between seeking social justice and seeking simply to be offended, and the way “appropriation” is used of late crosses into the latter zone dismayingly often.
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.