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What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?
Africans/African Americans have long played an integral and influential role in the meta-fabric of American culture. However, our unique contributions, especially to popular culture, have been and continue to be regarded as invisible, despite our hyper-visibility within pop culture. Historically and contemporarily, dominant
groups have constructed Black images in simplistic and stereotypical representations (Hill-Collins, 1990). These representations, particularly in the mass media, have a long political history dating back to images popularized from the time of slavery (hooks, 1992) and mirror White ideas of Blackness, or how “Blackness” is imagined through the perspective of “Whiteness” (hooks, 1992). The White male consumer has played an essential role in the shaping of these images; as a consequence, “spectacular consumption is a process through which the relations among cultural forms, the culture industry, and the lived experiences of persons are shaped by public consumption” (Watts & Orbe, 2002, p. 1). For example, bell hooks noted that rap music, an arena of high consumption, is the perfect paradigm of colonialism.
We think of rap music as a little third world country that young White consumers are able to go to and take out of it whatever they want. We would have to acknowledge that what young White consumers, primarily male, often times suburban, most got energized by in rap music was misogyny, obscenity, [and] therefore...rap came to make the largest sum of money. (hooks, 2006)
Here the relationship between the White consumer appetite and the popularization of certain racialized representations is noted. This is part of the process of “eating the other” (hooks, 1992), “or the tendency for cultural difference to be commodified as a source of titillation and pleasure for White consumers” (Yousman, 2003, p. 378). These representations have had adverse social, political, and economic consequences for the Black community; the violence of Jim Crow against Black Americans was partially justified through the dehumanizing Blackface minstrelsy representations that were dominant and popular during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. White actors donning Blackface and parodying behavior they attributed to Black people propagated some of the most damaging stereotypes of Black Americans in history (Riggs, 1986). These same dehumanizing representations are still dominant and popular. Such representations of “Blackness” allowed ideological justification for racism and encited the anti-Black violence of Jim Crow segregation.
Today, the commodification of Blackness within our mainstream media serves as a kind of pervasive symbolic blackface, acting with the same political motives on minstrelsy. Just as minstrelsy justified and bolstered Jim Crow violence, contemporary symbolic Blackface burgeons and buttresses contemporary anti-Black violence (Yousman, 2003).
Hooks writes, Should we not be suspicious of the way in which white culture’s fascination with black masculinity manifests itself? The very images of phallocentric black masculinity that are glorified and celebrated in rap music, videos and movies are the representations that are evoked when white supremacists seek to gain public acceptance and support for genocidal assaults on black men, particularly youth. (hooks, 1992, p. 9) From the misrepresentation of Black culture, to the commodified images of Black bodies, Blackness serves as a “sharecrop” that is simultaneously consumed and criminalized.
While Blacks are used to sell everything from clothes to detergent to cars and soft drinks, they are also disproportionately represented within the criminal justice system (Leonard & King, 2012). The exploitation and consumption of the “exotic other” for pleasure are linked, and patterns of this exploitation have taken many forms. Often fantasies of the “other” are exploited in a manner that maintains relationships of domination (hooks, 1992). So, why Blackness? Within our contemporary space and time, the conversion of societies from industrial to post-industrial, the explosion of media and cultural institutions, and the persistent challenge to White Supremacy have uniquely altered Black social identity (Yousman, 2003).
The dialectical relationship between Black resistance to systemic oppression and the continued maintenance of White privilege have resulted in a crisis within the Western world and White identity (Yousman, 2003). As a consequence, “spectacular consumption arises in part out of the desire for white folk to reconstitute their identities through acts of black consumption” (Watts & Orbe, 2002, p. 7).
Response to this push and pull of the status quo has “led many White youth in two seemingly opposed but actually interconnected directions: retrenchment in White supremacy and voracious consumption of African American popular culture” (Yousman, 2003, p. 375). In our commodity consumer culture, just as one’s body can be bought and sold on the open market (HillCollins, 1990), one can purchase “identity.” Most importantly, this identity may be found through “eating the other”:
It is this current trend in producing colorful ethnicity for the White consumer appetite that makes it possible for Blackness to be commodified in unprecedented ways, and for Whites to appropriate Black culture without interrogating Whiteness or showing concern for the displeasure of Blacks. (hooks, 1992, pg. 154) As spectacular consumption of Blackness runs rampant, Black Lives Matter forced its way to the forefront of popular culture through its critique of White appropriation and consumption of Black culture. Black Lives Matter condemns the lack of genuine engagement or realistic understanding of the Black racial struggle in the creation of Black images consumed by Whites.
As noted by the Black female rapper Azealia Banks, amongst others, nonblacks who partake in hip hop culture and perform “Blackness” fail to speak on, or critically acknowledge, the racism that inseparably comes with having a Black identity (Stenberg, 2014). Contrary to popular belief, the consumption of “Blackness” has not resulted in reduced anti-Black attitudes, prejudices, or inequality. The tendency to identify Blacks as “exotic others” is rife with conflict (Yousman, 2003). Just as the “White identification with African American cultural styles has been noted since the first White performer burned a cork and darkened his face, we see the contemporary manifestation of the ambivalent consumption of ‘Blackness’” (Yousman, 2003). I argue that the essentialized and simplistic construct of “Blackness” that is popularly consumed and applauded by Whites harms the Black community, as it is in fact linked to the maintenance and perpetuation of White supremacy:
“As White cultural imperialism informed and affirmed the adventurous journeys of colonizing Whites into the countries and cultures of ‘dark others,’ it allows White audiences to applaud representations of Black culture, if they are satisfied with the images and habits being presented” (hooks, 1996, p. 287). I posit that the spectacular consumption of “the Other” has not and does not challenge systemic and institutionalized racism, despite providing a shared cultural space with much potential for political intervention.
Source Information: McNair Scholars Research Journal, Vol. 9 , Iss. 1, Art. 10, Nyambura Njee