MMXLII Reflection: Are White People Allowed to Twerk?

Cultural appropriation is an unexpectedly hot topic right now, pushed to the forefront of our collective consciousness by no less than Miley Cyrus and her recently released video “We Can’t Stop.” More than one critic has suggested that a video which was created for a wealthy Caucasian artist but whose look and feel can be easily traced to a specific segment of hip-hop culture, one most associated with African Americans from lower socio-economic backgrounds, is problematic at best and offensive at worst. And in a story with any number of parallels, certain segments of the South East Asian community have taken to the blogosphere to protest the use of traditionally Indian garments and music in performances of Selena Gomez’s new song, “Come & Get It.” At the same time, plenty of commentators have risen up to defend both girls. In this MMXLII Reflection, we’ll consider where the line in the sand separating cultural appreciation from cultural appropriation ought to be drawn.
 
We’ll start by proposing that some cases of cultural borrowing are clearly acceptable and even positive, while others are clearly offensive. For an example of the latter, check out this Ashton Kutcher-starring Popchips commercial from last summer.
 

 
We think it’s fair to say that most of our readers would describe that ad as inappropriate. On the other hand, consider a phenomenon most of you will be familiar with – Caucasians obsessed with Japanese culture, and especially anime and manga. These Japanophiles consume Japanese media, eat Japanese food, even learn Japanese, yet very few cultural critics or Japanese Americans (at least that this author is aware of) seem to be complaining that that obsession constitutes cultural appropriation.
 
The question, then, is what’s the difference between the anime nerds and Ashton? Why is one clearly offensive and another clearly acceptable, and where does the line lie between these two extremes? How are we to make judgments about seemingly borderline cases, like the Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez videos?
 

One difference is immediately obvious. The Popchips commercial, like so many depictions of South East Asians in Western media, is played for laughs. In contrast manga enthusiasts, however much ridicule they themselves might be subject to, are a largely guileless group. It’s a good rule of thumb that borrowing from another culture in order to mock it is never cool.
 
But that’s the sort of commonsense you don’t need us to tell you. And it’s also too simple a standard to capture the many-angled complexity that the debate over cultural appropriation embodies. There’s nothing deliberately funny about white girls twerking, but there are plenty of people who have found it offensive. So we’d like to suggest two more warning signs that cultural borrowing might be problematic.
 
The first is ignorance. In our opinion, the reason white fans of Japanese anime get a pass is the very reason the rest of society might glance at them slightly askance. They are often obsessed with Japanese culture, so much so that they are driven to try to truly understand it. Respectfully delving into another culture with the goal of greater understanding and sympathy isn’t offensive, it’s laudable and even necessary in a country as diverse as ours. It’s exactly the sort of engagement that will be crucial to master as our world becomes more interconnected and our nation becomes more diverse.
 
On the other hand, it’s all too common to see Westerners take the objects and customs of other cultures out of their original contexts and assign them new meanings – meanings that are all too often superficial or commercial. That’s inevitable when you borrow the trappings of a culture without trying to understand the culture itself. It’s also disrespectful. Cultural appropriation is often described as theft, and we would argue that that theft occurs not when the object or custom itself is borrowed, but when it’s meaning is displaced. It’s not the object that’s stolen, but the meaning behind it, a distinction that we believe people who seek to engage with other cultures would do well to bear in mind.
 
The second warning sign, one that’s been touched on by many commentators in the Miley-Cyrus-twerking debate, is when a dominant culture begins to borrow from one closer to the fringes of society. The distinction between this form of cultural borrowing and the sort that occurs when immigrant populations begin to assimilate into new cultures is the answer to a question that’s been asked too many times in the debate over cultural appropriation: “Then why is it OK for (insert non-white minority group here) to (insert historically Anglo-Saxon tradition or behavior here)?”
 
The first answer, and one that’s been pointed out many times, is that Western culture is imitated because, thanks to a variety of historical factors, it has dominated numerous other cultures for much of recent history. For years colonialism meant that non-white indigenous peoples were, more often than not forcibly, coerced into adopting European traditions, customs, and belief systems. Even today, people learn English mainly not to exoticize themselves, the way an American might drop an “Hola” into conversation with a fellow English-speaker, but because doing so is economically practical in a world where an enormous amount of business is still conducted in that language. The motivating factors are wholly different from those of a white person adopting, for example, a clothing item usually worn by members of a specific minority group.
 
Second, as has been pointed out endlessly in discussions of Miley Cyrus’s video, it’s infinitely more problematic for the rich to play at being poor than for the poor to play at being rich (and make no mistake, that added socio-economic dimension is often present in these discussions.) Disadvantaged groups adopt the trappings of their more-advantaged counterparts because they aspire to their status. Such mimicry is a tribute to the success of the advantaged culture. When the advantaged play at being disadvantaged, they make light of the adversity that accompanies and has often produced the tropes and behavior they’re imitating. Refusing to acknowledge those hardships is disrespectful.
 
So, all of this being said, what’s the verdict on Miley and Selena? To be honest, we’re still not sure. We don’t feel qualified to pass judgment on the two, and, more importantly, we’re hoping you’ll give the issue some thought. Because what does seem clear to us is that cultural borrowing can be deeply positive. If done correctly, with the right intentions, it can be beneficial, even essential to a diverse society like ours. If done incorrectly it can be disrespectful, hurtful, and divisive. As 2042 looms ever nearer, and our country becomes ever more diverse, learning how to navigate such tricky waters will only be more crucial than ever before.
 
Photo from Hollywire.

6 Comments
  1. What a crock of crap. If anyone is offended at the video or any of this, they should really take a step back and get their priorities in order. Should Americans be offended every time they are portrayed as fat? No. Because Americans ARE fat. These people are actors and entertainers playing a role. No one is trying to make a racial or cultural statement. This was obviously written by an overly “culturally sensitive” white guy, that has no business being culturally sensitive.

    1. Thanks for your comment – I can totally see why this topic might strike you as trivial. It is interesting to me that you assume I’m white. I’m actually not, but why did you feel it would make a difference if I were? And doesn’t your argument that a “white guy” has no business being culturally sensitive sort of support the article’s argument that it’s not always appropriate for white people to copy the behaviors/styles/etc. of other groups?

  2. I really appreciated this article. As someone who is a little out of the loop of pop culture, I was introduced to what happened through the excellent article on Groupthink (the “Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus” article). I was glad to see so many people calling out the problematics of this performance and placing it in the broader racial context in which it exists, despite the hemming and hawing of many white people at this issue being raised.

    As a white woman, who likes to think herself fairly well informed, an anti-racist advocate and someone who enjoys thinking about social justice, I was a little taken aback at the fact that I never thought about the idea of twerking-white-girls being racist. This was a little disturbing for me, because you see – I love twerking. As in, I love butts and that movement comes naturally to me. As in, I pretty much only ever twerk when I’m alone, but occasionally will do so in public. As in, I didn’t start loving twerking when Miley Cyrus did it at the VMAs. So I got worried – was my love of twerking racist? I mean, I’m not great at it and I don’t do it that often, but I enjoy that shit. So I found your article, after reading a really good one about how white college girls often have a problematic relationship with twerking in that they consider it ‘ghetto’ and ‘slutty’, and this helped me think more about it. I don’t know – I see that it is a bit of cultural appropriation, but I’m coming from a place of loving the dance and not in trying to coopt the social positioning of black women, especially not as a mockery. So, now that I think about it, the only real answer is now I’m just not gonna twerk because either it is racist and I’m being an ass about it, or if I’m doing it in a somehow non-racist way, I don’t want to have a conversation like this everytime I want to dance.

    But you know, white people who are getting so mad about this discussion and bringing out facepalm-worthy arguments of reverse racism – too fucking bad. It’s not that hard to respect other cultures, and if you feel deprived of something as a result, well it’s not quite as bad as being deprived things like rights, respect, and many other things throughout the course of history. If I can’t (or maybe shouldn’t) twerk, oh well. Thanks for the thought provoking article!

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