Commodifying, Consuming, and Appropriating “Blackness”

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Within a capitalist economic system, Commodification is the transformation of goods, services, ideas and people into commodities or objects of trade. A commodity at its most basic, according to Arjun Appadurai, is "anything intended for exchange," or any object of economic value. Wikipedia

We should recognize the Blackophobia that lies behind much Blackophilia, and that both may be representative of the continuing ideological and cultural power of White supremacy in the 21st century. (Yousman, 2003, p. 371) There is a direct and abiding connection between the maintenance of White supremacist [capitalist] patriarchy in this society and the institutionalization via mass media of specific images, representations of race, [and] of Blackness that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of all Black people.(hooks, 1992, p. 2)

In American popular culture Blackness is both hypervisible and simultaneously invisible, and “While Black youth prominently figure in the war on drugs and in prison populations, they are equally prominent in film, music, TV, sports, and advertising.

All kinds of commercial industries use their creative expression to remain commercially viable” (Watkins, 2014). From stars such as Elvis, Madonna, Eminem, and Iggy Azalea, to teenagers in distant nations, to powerful corporations, there is a racialized fascination with Black people and Black popular culture. Indeed, we live in a society and culture that believes itself to be “post-racial” and “colorblind,” yet we are seemingly color-struck with “Blackness” (Rose, 2014). 

Despite Black people’s hypervisibility within pop culture, and the unprecedented consumption of Black images, our contributions to American society are often ignored, and Black culture is still viewed as deficient. This comes with the disregard of, and refusal to acknowledge Black cultural contributions and enrichment to American culture (Ford, 2003).

The notion that consumption of constructed images of “Blackness” will bring about reduced anti-Black feelings, attitudes, and prejudice in a White supremacist culture is spurious; it is telling that slogans such as “Black Lives Matter!” have been appropriated by White culture and, without acknowledging the painful reality that generated the term, altered it to “all lives matter.”

The simultaneous fascination and dread, attraction to and repulsion toward Blackness can be described as the “Blackophilia / Blackophobia” conundrum: Blackophilia (manifested by White consumption of Black popular culture) is linked with Blackophobia (fear and dread of African Americans). Coexistent with White youth fascination with hip-hop culture and African American athletes and celebrities is the continuing manifestation of White youth resistance to programs that challenge institutional racism…

[T]hese phenomena may be best understood as interrelated aspects of White supremacy. (Yousman, 2003, p. 366) These interrelated aspects have been present within the historic blackophilic consumption of Blackface, which was speculated to have assuaged blackophobia. Through the derision of Blacks, simultaneous fear and fascination of Blackness could be mitigated and contained. Consequently, White youth adoption of Black cultural forms in the 21st century is also a performance, one that allows Whites to contain their fears and animosities towards Blacks through rituals not of ridicule, as in previous eras, but of adoration. Thus, although the motives behind the performance may initially appear to be different, the act is still a manifestation of White supremacy, albeit a White supremacy that is in crisis and disarray, rife with confusion and contradiction. (Yousman, 2003, p. 369)

As spectacular consumption of Blackness runs rampant, critiques of the adoption of Blackness by non-Blacks without the “burden,” or consideration of a racialized Black experience, have grown. Blackness is rampantly consumed, commodified, and appropriated, while Black people daily lose their lives to police brutality and systemic racism.

Being the object of spectacle, “the meaning of ‘authentic’ Black life and culture is partly generative of mediated and mass marketed images” (Watts & Orbe, 2002). Upon its release, the rap song “CoCo” by O.T. Genasis gained quick and widespread commercial support, climbing the top 100 charts in little time.

"To this day!"

At the time of the Michael Brown killing in August, 2014, and during the November 2014 trial of the police officer responsible for his death, the music video for “CoCo”–released in October of that year–depicted large, dark-skinned Black men in plain white tees wielding guns at the camera while consuming illicit substances. There was a strong similarity between the way these Black men were being represented and the rhetoric that surrounded the Brown murder; they seemed to align and even complement each other. On closer analysis, the connection between the consumption and representation of Blackness and the justification of violence against Black bodies becomes clear: One could make the argument that the cultural industries’ relentless marketing of black...violence and corruption in television, films, and popular music makes a clear and consistent contribution to a social reality in which black[s] are shot by police without provocation, people of color are jailed at rates far exceeding the incarceration rates of white criminals, and candidates win elections by preaching racially coded law-and-order messages.

(Yousman, 2003, p. 382) I postulate that such widespread and uncomfortably popular anti-Black images of Black men around the time of the murder worked to assuage the cognitive dissonance that surrounded the case.

The same way that Blackface justified Jim Crow discrimination and slavery, modern images of threatening Black men work to justify and normalize violence against Black bodies as “natural” (Hill-Collins, 1990). Representation thus has profound power in our socio-historical-political experience. It is necessary both to critique and analyze constructs of Blackness that dominate mass media and pop culture; becoming conscious of the way cultural productions are framed by, and through, White supremacy (Watts & Orbe, 2002) helps us understand how the mass media serve as a system that maintains White supremacy (hooks, 1996). According to Feagin (2006), “another type of intergenerational reproduction and transmission of cultural understandings that sustains systemic racism involves the perpetuation of critical racial images and stereotypes by such cultural institutions as the mass media, which have mostly been controlled generation after generation by Whites in power” (p. 45). The Black community has historically had little agency in the way our images are represented, and the very real ways that these images affect the Black community from the macro level (institutional) to the micro level (healthy development of self and identity, self-esteem, etc.); (hooks, 1992; Hill-Collins, 1990; Yousman, 2003).

Dominant images of Blackness have long been in the control of White elites who have used images to maintain systems of social, economic, and political domination (Feagin, 2006; hooks, 1992; Hill-Collins, 1990). Long before the arrival of settler colonialists in what we now call “America,” White supremacists constructed racialized representations of Blackness and Black people to assert their superiority (hooks, 1992). “Blackness” is reliant upon essentialized and stereotypical notions that were constructed to affirm White domination over Africans. These notions are both deeply embedded and in the American psyche, institutions, and culture and are continuously exploited to maintain the status quo (Feagin, 2006; hooks, 1992; Youman, 2003). These centuries-old images are propagated contemporarily through mass media, commodification of culture, and spectacular consumption of the “other” (hooks, 1992; Watts & Orbe, 2002). On the surface this may seem innocuous, even flattering, to the communities being consumed.

The spectacular consumption of commodified Black cultural expression appears harmless when one does not understand the deeply embedded politics of representation and how these images are multifariously linked to the systemic oppression that Black American’s experience (Yousman, 2003). Because these images are in fact meant to perpetuate White supremacy, it is no wonder that the consumption of “Blackness” has not resulted in reduced anti-Black prejudice, discrimination, attitudes, habits, feelings, or actions, but in fact it has worked to perpetuate them (Feagin, 2006).

While the Black body continues to invoke feelings of fear and danger, this same body is admired and commodified in the music and sports industries (Leonard & King, 2012). As hooks (2006) writes, One could talk about American mainstream culture as being obsessed with Blackness but it is Blackness primarily in a commodified form that can then be possessed, owned, controlled, and shaped by the consumer...and not with an engagement in Black culture that might require the want to be a participant and therefore to be transformed in some way by what you are consuming. (hooks, Cultural Criticism)

Engagement in these images often equates to participation in the negation of “authentic” Black experience (hooks, 1996). These mass-produced images are decontextualized and stripped of authenticity in the process of distribution for mass consumption. Further, these images rely on centuries old racist stereotypes that are still used to justify Black oppression as “U.S. institutions [and culture] have been thoroughly pervaded by enduring racial stereotypes, ideas, images, emotions, proclivities, and practices” (Feagin, 2006, p. 8). Feagin (2006) notes that most White Americans’ ideas about race include collections of negative stereotypes concerning African Americans.

Racist images such as Blackface are transmitted inter-generationally and become embedded in individual and collective White consciousness, thus leading to the persistence of systemic racism: Often, and importantly, the images that White youth consume most voraciously are images of Black violence, Black aggression, and Black misogyny and sexism. These are the very same images that both mainstream conservative politicians and far-right White supremacists invoke to justify regressive social policies or violent reprisals. (Youman, 2003, p. 379) The racist images do not disappear; Feagin (2006) writes that, “negative stereotypes and images of African Americans and other Americans of color are constantly used, refurbished, played with, amended and passed along millions of White kinship and friendship networks, from one community to the next” (p. 44). 

The Afro-Americanization of White youth has been more a male than female affair given the prominence of male athletes and cultural weight of male pop artists. This process results in White youth–male and female–imitating and emulating.