Lauren Michele Jackson Wants to Change How We Talk About Appropriation
The term appropriation has undergone a strange evolution in recent years. It used to be a straightforward descriptor for a mundane process: the migration of ideas, practices, and aesthetics between groups or locales. Early hip-hop artists appropriated the breakbeats of funk and disco records. The Brothers Grimm built their fairy tales from classical European folktales and lore. Traditionally, “appropriation” would not imply any judgment about these exchanges; if there were something violent or exploitative in an act of appropriation—such as the various caricatures of Indigenous peoples that pepper sports regalia and Halloween apparel—it was particular to the act and actors, not the process. But since the term drifted from social science to social media, it has come to connote something inherently sinister. To appropriate in common parlance is to seize, to pillage, to colonize.
Critic and scholar Lauren Michele Jackson presents appropriation more artfully. White Negroes, her new essay collection, reintroduces many of the foundational moments that shape our view of appropriation, from Miley Cyrus twerking to Rachel Dolezal reinventing herself as a black woman to Paula Deen being outed as a racist, and offers new tools for navigating the cultural collages that define our times. Building her analyses from tweets, music videos, Reddit exchanges, and lists of banished words, Jackson writes of appropriation with a sense of scale and scope that’s piercing and whimsical in equal measure. Her wry, leisurely tone channels criticism as a salon rather than a war zone, allowing her to examine the frictions of cultures colliding without sacrificing wonder or empathy. White Negroes is a space where critique and curiosity coexist.
In a phone conversation full of laughs and insights, Jackson details how she came to value appropriation as an analytical tool and the strange but not always pernicious reality of black aesthetics existing outside black communities. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Stephen Kearse: I read Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” and there’s a point where he cites an unnamed black friend that feels entirely rhetorical. I read his essay after reading your book, so I was keyed into how black people get used to advance white arguments. Do you think that person in Mailer’s essay actually exists?
Lauren Michele Jackson: At the end of the day, I think it kind of doesn’t matter whether that friend existed or not, because as you say, reenacting this moment serves a rhetorical purpose. As readers, I don’t think there’s any way for us to verify or fact-check or access some real-life historical moment, but we can investigate what this moment, fictional or nonfictional, is enabling Mailer to do.
SK: How did that essay come to inspire your book? Where did you first read or encounter it?
LMJ: It had to have been sometime in grad school, maybe sometime in undergrad. I think it’s one of those essays that’s in the air, especially when people start thinking about cross-racial exchange and appropriation. But what I think is really interesting about that essay is that it’s infinitely weirder and stranger than most people expect. The title of the essay and the persona and person he’s elaborating upon, the “White Negro”—he only uses that term once across the whole essay. It’s in some sense an ethnography of the White Negro, but it’s not exactly the sort of straightforward diagnosis of white people appropriating jazz music that’s implied when it gets invoked. A lot of people like to invoke Eric Lott’s Love and Theft without actually having read what his theory is about, what that study is about. They say, “Love and theft! They love it so much, that’s why they seize it!” Which is not Lott’s argument—not at all.
I honestly can’t remember when I first encountered Mailer’s essay, but it was in the back of my head as I was compiling this project and thinking of a name for it. In some ways, the connections between these two works are fairly loose: I’m borrowing a term and elaborating upon it for my own purposes. But because I am borrowing, too, I want to actually acknowledge the essay and do a close reading of it in a way that feels meaningful.
SK: As a term, “appropriation,” like “racism,” seems to strike fear into the hearts of white people. They stop listening as soon as they hear it. What makes it a useful tool for you and your purposes?
LMJ: “Appropriation” is useful to me because it describes a gesture and it describes a movement. When it comes to headlines, we’re accustomed to thinking of appropriation when we don’t like what it looks like or we think there’s some sort of ethical dilemma to it. But part of the argument I make from the get-go in the book is that appropriation gets a bad rap. When we hear “appropriation,” we think of Miley Cyrus twerking, but rarely do we think about the fact that rap music could not exist without cross-cultural, cross-racial, and cross-generational appropriation. Appropriation is movement. And that animates what I study: movement across ethnicities, aesthetics, traditions, histories.
So the word has been very useful for me whether we’re talking about a context that’s a little stickier, a little messier, and feels bad or a context that’s very celebratory and allows some of the greatest works of art to emerge. I think it’s much more interesting to go behind the scenes of an aesthetic rather than condemn it and move on. Some cases are more interesting than others: In the years since, when I look back at Miley, I think that moment was actually a lot less fascinating than we gave it credit for.
LMJ: This is one of the reasons I chose not to focus on her for too long in the book. As far as pop music, the representative I chose was Christina Aguilera, because I wanted to get back into that really strange, early 2000s moment and go back to my preteen childhood years. I had enough distance to go back and think, “What is really going on here?” What was happening in her transition from the Disney kid to the young, upstart pop star? What was going on with the press and the way the tabloids were writing about her, and what about that contributed, in a material and also mythical way, to the music that she was making at that time? I think that’s much more interesting than saying, “Christina Aguilera, you’re bad!”
SK: You mention Christina and Miley Cyrus, and in the book you cover them alongside Rachel Dolezal and Sweet Brown. You’re kind of going through the appropriation discourse’s greatest hits, and you’d written about some of these figures before. How did you find fresh perspectives on them?
LMJ: A few of the things I had written about before in a smaller, somewhat rushed form, in the sense that if you’re writing for a publication, you have to write, say, a thousand words in a few days.
SK: I’ve been there.
LMJ: We’ve all been there! That’s going to be a much different piece of writing than something you get to sit with for weeks or months, something that you write and revise and then don’t look at for months and come back to and go, “Oh Lord, what did I write?” So I think I benefited from that extra time and from being able to put certain subjects in context with other things that I hadn’t written about before. Getting the chance to really weave things together produces a much different sort of thinking and approach to writing and analysis.
SK: It’s very clear from reading your book that you love art and music and food, and you’re invested in how they’re written about. What’s your first memory of encountering something that you were interested in that you felt was misattributed or misrepresented in writing?
LMJ: I think in some ways the impetus to go to grad school is partly the confidence to think you have something to add. You have to have the audacity to think your voice is needed, if not necessary. So part of that is not necessarily having this gut disagreement with something but instead thinking something much softer like, “If I tweak the conversation this way, we could be having a stronger conversation about this text or that phenomenon.” I use the word “tweak” or “tilt” because that’s the best you can aspire to sometimes.
As for a single instance of misrepresentation, I have those feelings all the time. I’ll pick something from more recent memory. I have a piece I wrote for Vulture about Crazy Rich Asians and Peik Lin’s character, and I think that essay became bigger than Crazy Rich Asians in the sense that it was also trying to think about what we do with the fact that social media and the Internet allow you to encounter black vernacular without ever encountering a black person, a real genuine Negro. The Internet didn’t invent that. If you’re someone whose exposure to black people was limited to McDonald’s commercials and The Cosby Show—
LMJ: Well, at least with jazz back in the day, you had to go to the jazz club, you had to go to the other part of town to hear the live music. That’s totally not true anymore. I wrote about this with regards to the “blackfishing” phenomenon, too [in which white women cosplay on social media as black or brown women through the use of makeup, language, fashion, or stolen images]. You can be a 19-year-old girl in Sweden, like Emma Hallberg, and you’re flipping through your Instagram, and you see Kim Kardashian or the models at Fashion Nova, and you are unknowingly receiving messages about what’s fashionable and what’s trendy, and you might not have any clue that there’s a tenuous connection there to the stylistic influences of black and brown girls. And how could you? You’re a 19-year-old girl living in Sweden! So what I wanted to put out there in that Vulture essay was that this is something we have to reckon with, something we have to talk about. And if we always think of it in terms of a deliberate theft—as in “I see you, black person, walking that way, moving that way, dressing that way, and I am going to take what you have because I want your swag, I want your glow, I want your vibe”—if we always talk about appropriation that way, we’re going to keep reaching this impasse, because it doesn’t make any sense in regards to how people actually live.
SK: Whenever you cover memes, you emphasize their content and among whom they circulate and how. How did you come upon that approach?
LMJ: I’m a person who is very online. My thinking is entwined with the Internet and has been since the days of AOL and AIM, for better and (mostly) for worse—which is to say that my thinking on how culture, race, and gender work doesn’t turn off when I go on Twitter or Instagram but is informed by those things. One of the first pieces I ever wrote for the Internet was actually about memes, in 2014—and when that piece came out, I noticed that memes were talked about as these raceless, genderless, cultureless things that just spring up and go away. Despite the fact that these memes circulate in online communities, are made by humans, for the most part, and feature human or anthropomorphic characters, for some reason we treated them as these purely technological artifacts. And that was just not my experience with memes. That was not my experience with the Kermit drinking meme or Pepe the Frog. Well before Pepe became the symbol for the alt-right, he was still a character that you could describe in racial and gendered terms: He was like the sad, lonely dude.
I think now things have changed a lot, and we’ve realized that memes have this political valence to them. So there are now people whose job it is to sit and report on memes. And yet I still want us to keep in mind that memes are art objects and are subject to all the messy discourse that shapes our society. So yeah, memes are fun and interesting to think about. Also, it’s hard sometimes to translate analysis of memes to a text, especially one that’s going to be frozen and printed in a book, because meme culture moves so fast. I was trying to be cognizant when I started writing and editing White Negroes that people weren’t going to be reading it for another two years. So I tried to focus on the elements of memes that aren’t going to change too much from one news cycle to the next.
SK: How much of your online experience do you document? Some of the tweets, memes, and moments you cite were just so perfect, I could instantly tell that you were there. Or at least it felt that way.
LMJ: I’m a little bit obsessive about archiving. I think because most of my writing lives online and I’ve written about online culture, I’ve gotten in the habit, if I see a tweet and think, “This would be an interesting illustration of x-y-z,” of e-mailing it to myself and putting it in a folder and also taking a screenshot, because we know tweets don’t live forever. For this book, I had folders for each of the chapters, and anytime I found anything that I thought would be pertinent to the topic, I’d put it in that folder and move on and not even think about it until it was time to write. So across the years I’ve built up a cute little storage system for Internet artifacts that maybe will get used and maybe won’t. I also have fun thinking about my favorite meme history and just going back to, say, what was it like when Crying Jordan was a thing. You always gotta have fun writing about culture, and I try to do whatever I can to recreate the atmosphere, especially for someone who wasn’t there. I think that’s the job of the critic.
SK: You mention fun. You incorporate a lot of humor into your writing. Is that just who you are, or do you think there’s a rhetorical benefit to it?
LMJ: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I have this fear that I’m deeply unfunny. I love to laugh, but I never thought of myself as someone who could perform comedy. When Eve Ewing blurbed the book and mentioned, “Oh she’s funny,” I like died. I didn’t set off to write a hilarious book, and I don’t think it’s a hilarious book, but I try. All of my favorite writers inject some sort of comic element into what they write about and have a good sense of humor, so hearing that makes me feel really good.
SK: In the book you write, “Antiracist as a noun does not exist.” That was one of my favorite lines—when I read that, I felt a white feminist somewhere in the world have a heart attack. There are points like this where you pivot from your analysis and just go for the gut punch. Was that important to you: to outline the stakes of some of the things you’re writing about?
LMJ: I never want to overstate the value of what I do and what I write about. We came to this weird moment post-Trump—and even pre-Trump, during the election—where critics were expected to make a case, within the criticism, for why their criticism exists. Like because you’re talking about this show that happens to feature black people, you also have to make a case for why this show is the show you have to watch or why it’s “important” for the American people to see this! Or whatever. The simpler answer is that art is important, and even though this one poem isn’t going to impeach Trump, it doesn’t need to do that to be valid as a poem in the world. So as someone who writes of fairly frivolous people and objects and subjects, I never want to make it seem like what I’m doing is more precarious than it really is.
But at the same time, it all belongs to this wider matrix that is all connected. And the way we value or don’t value black cultural production and the way we treat it, whether it’s copyrighted or not, all has a connection to how we think about why black people are here and what we’re here for. From the plantation to the present, you can do a reading of all that history through Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible. That’s what I love about writing about culture. Culture is erupting from all the various social and political and economic phenomena. So it is important to think about that and write about that. But you’ve gotta meet it on its level. You gotta meet Paula Deen where she is.