Book Review: White Negroes

White Negroes:  Wen Cornrows Were In Vogue…And Other Thoughts On Cultural Appropriation, by Lauren Michele Jackson

This book seems to come from a point of view of envy.  A great deal about leftist discourse can be understood from its desire to simply turn the existing (and reputedly unjust standard) on its head without concern that it is any more just than it was before.  Whereas in the past it was viewed as a good thing for someone to pass as white because it provided for the chance to live one’s life without being troubled or bothered because of one’s ethnic identity–for most people have always judged by appearances and not demanded to know the detailed genealogy of those people they happened to be sharing public space with, for the author those who are able to pass are counted as white and their own particular ethnic origin is disregarded as far as regards questions of appropriation.  So it is that the author views the half-Ecuadorian Christina Aguilera as being white and appropriating urban tropes during her career simply because she is light enough to pass as white.  Examples like that abound in this book of the way that the author views those who are able to move between mainstream white culture and an appreciation of less mainstream cultures with a great deal of envy and dissatisfaction.

This book is a bit less than 200 pages and contains four parts and nine chapters.  The author introduces the book with a discussion about appropriation as being fundamental to American mythmaking before looking at appropriation specifically of black culture, in various areas.  First, she looks at sound and body (I) by discussing how this occurs in music (1) as well as fashion (2), in looking at how blackness looks different when attached to perceived whiteness.  After that the author discusses how appropriation occurs in art and language (II) with a look at how high art often reconceptualizes previous experiences of others (3) and how hipsters can be considered as white Negroes in their attempts to be cool (4).  The author discusses technology (III) with a look at the meme, something I can relate to as an edgy meme lord (5), along with the question of the viral star and how such people gain viral fame (6).  Finally, the author discusses appropriation in the economy and politics (IV), discussing how white chefs copy comfort cooking from blacks (7), and how the author feels about entrepreneurial culture (8) and the search for freedom as well as her role as an angry activist (9), before discussing such matters as appropriation as business as usual, as if it that was always a bad thing, before the usual acknowledgements and notes.

That said, this book is not nearly as unjust as most books in this sort of vein.  The author seriously explores what it leads people to move back and forth between different identities or leads the to engage in cultural appreciation of the sort that the author disapproves of.  The author even manages to present reasons why people like Rachel Dolezal should not be simply insulted for their complex assumption of a complex racial identity.  At its core, the author appears to be arguing for respect for those who create the culture that gets appropriated.  I do not personally view appropriation as anything unusual or anything necessarily negative, but all the same I also agree that we should respect those whose culture we adapt, and not make them invisible or pretend that we came up with the ideas ourselves when we clearly did not.  Whether or not that would resolve the larger cultural battle over such matters as now exists, it would at least allow those of us who view cultural appropriation positively to know that we were doing justice by those whose culture we so openly and honestly appreciate.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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