Black people cannot be guilty of cultural appropriation. Period.
By Hari Ziyad
October 18, 2017
Two weeks ago, Brooklyn Nets player Jeremy Lin unveiled his new dreadlocks to controversy. Lin, who is of Taiwanese descent, was quickly accused of cultural appropriation, and fellow basketball star Kenyon Martin even called the hairstyle and its allowance “foolishness.” Whether or not Lin’s locks were appropriative is not actually what I’m interested in discussing here, as I have long grown tired of those conversations, and am more interested in discussing what always underlines the violence of “appropriation” in the first place: anti-Blackness.
But what was so illuminating to me about this conversation was what Lin said in response, and the anti-Black ways the public embraced his “clap-back.” In a now deleted Instagram post, Lin posted a picture of Martin’s Mandarin tattoos, writing, “At the end of the day, I appreciate that I have dreads and you have Chinese tattoos [because] I think its a sign of respect.” PinPoint Sports called it the “kindest comeback of all time,” and the Washington Post confirmed Lin “kill[ed Martin] with kindness.”
I noticed two fascinating things unfolding here: First, there was the juxtaposition of Martin’s (Black) aggressive ignorance with Lin’s (non-Black) benevolent—albeit murderous—thoughtfulness. At the same time, there was a conflation of Martin’s act of getting a Mandarin tattoo with Lin wearing a hairstyle modernly associated with Black cultures. (It shouldn’t have to be stated that most Black people understand other ancient cultures also locked their hair, but it does—which is why this essay is necessary. Using basic logic, however, Black people assumed that Lin was modeling his own hair after Black people, and he later confirmed this.)
By speaking out against appropriation, Martin, and by proxy all Black people who may have been influenced by another culture in some way or another—which is to say, all of us who have been forcibly colonized and particularly those of us of the diaspora—become whiny hypocrites, perpetually caught in a “gotcha” situation that has always already revealed we are too ignorant about culture to have concerns about our own taken seriously.
But Black people adopting staples of another culture is not the same thing as other people adopting Black cultural symbols at all. And by conflating what Black people do with appropriation, we easily slide into the common ways we make Black people deserving of the violence against them.
The conversations around Jeremy Lin’s clap-back reminded me of a white person a few years back who saw the Sanskrit tattoo on my side and thought that was his cue to enlighten me on Sanskrit and ancient India. It also brought to mind a common occurrence when I purchase things with my credit card in delis here in New York City. Middle Eastern cashiers love to tell me that last name is Arabic, like I couldn’t possibly know that. Because I am Black (and particularly Black American)—just Black, and I always confirm this when they ask—I couldn’t possibly have a meaningful connection to Sanskrit and Arabic. Even though I was raised Muslim and Hindu.
It is important to understand that Black peoples’ interactions with other cultures are not based on a historically violent relationship of taking from and benefiting from those cultures, which is what appropriation consists of.
There are Black people who are born into nearly every culture in the first place. In contrast, because anti-Blackness is global, everyone benefits from Black culture while the dehumanization of Black people persists. As Preston Anderson points out, even if Lin had his own personal history with locks, Black people “know very intimately [that] the burden of locs was placed on us. Jeremy Lin gets to be edgy. White kids get to be avante garde and, for them, it’s a statement of rebelliousness. For us, we’ve fought to be able to keep them in the NFL, in the army [etc.] We’re still fighting to have them not associated with criminality and this is a fight no other non Black group has had to fight around them.”
This is why, while Black folks can definitely perpetuate violence against non-Black people, Black people adopting other cultures or customs is not appropriation. Appropriation is about benefiting from other cultures while simultaneously dehumanizing them. An anti-Black society by definition means all non-Black people do this, and no Black people are able to.
If we are going to have a conversation about Black people adopting from other cultures, or about the cross-cultural violence Black people admittedly enact, we are going to also have to have a conversation about the general assumption that Black folks are stupid and don’t know anything about what and why they do the things they do.
Because while Black people inherently dehumanizing a culture in the process of taking from it isn’t a thing, assuming Black people don’t understand their own behaviors—and the violence this assumption leads to—most certainly is, and it hardly is ever addressed.
And we know why.