“Everyone wants to be Black until it’s time to be Black.”
You hear that phrase quite often in Black communities after witnessing yet another moment of culture-jacking.
It might be a white teen saying “wooo chile” (pronouncing “chile” like the country instead of like “child” with a silent “d”) because they saw someone say it on Twitter. It could be a white woman getting her hair micro braided because she saw a model on YouTube do it or a white guy throwing up blood gang signs in a photo because his favorite rapper with face tattoos did it on Instagram.
On the surface, it looks and feels pretty harmless. No one owns a hairstyle or hand gestures or vernacular per se. But then you think about the enormous privilege that comes with being able to go in and out of Blackness whenever it’s convenient. A white person doesn’t have to worry about someone calling them a thug or ghetto. They aren’t getting disqualified for jobs because of their name or how they choose to wear their hair. They aren’t being judged unfairly for pulling up at the stoplight blasting rap music. They aren’t having countless assumptions dumped on them because of how they dressed in one photo. Arrested? Killed? Not even a blip on the radar.
In fact, a lot of white people are actually profiting off of culture-jacking. Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Timberlake are all superstars who have become successful by integrating Black culture into their public personas making it palatable for a whiter, more mainstream audience. A few of the aforementioned have even caught some heat for abandoning their “urban” personas and turning to whiter personas for their next records. And they’re only the tip of the iceberg. The entire Kardashian empire is practically built on white people taking the best elements of Black culture and physical features, while still maintaining their whiteness and of course, profiting majorly off of it. They’ve been at it for so long, many have forgotten that the Kardashians are in fact, white. While they would prefer you believe otherwise, Armenian is not any type of melanated ethnic heritage. The youngest and arguably richest of the Kardashian family (who is actually a Jenner), Kylie Jenner, doesn’t have the Armenian excuse to use as to why she looks so… racially ambiguous. The tans, butts, and lips are not even a talking point anymore. Everyone just accepts and even imitates the Kardashian way.
Last year, The New York Times did a feature on a young, Black TikTok influencer named Jalaiah Harmon who was the originator of the Renegade dance, a viral TikTok dance trend. Jalaiah had a small following on the app, but like many smaller influencers, she was determined to build her following by uploading original content in the hopes that something would indeed go viral. She choreographed the dance, uploaded it to the app, and watched as others took to her dance uploading their own videos replicating her dance. Jalaiah’s dance was taking off, but it wasn’t until a larger influencer, Charli D’Amelio, who boasted tens of millions of followers saw the dance and uploaded her take on it that the dance really soared. Whether you’re 14 or 41, having a handful of people, not to mention millions, embrace your creation is exciting.
Everyone was doing Charli’s dance! Wait. What’s that? Charli didn’t create the dance? Oh. That’s right. Therein lay the issue, Charli was receiving all of the credit while Jalaiah was resigned to watch someone else get credit for her creation. It’s a tough lesson to learn, particularly on an international stage. To give Charli credit, we can’t be sure she set out to be malicious in doing the dance. She likely saw a trend and jumped on board. It can also be very tricky to pinpoint the source of an online trend and most people on social don’t cite their sources when uploading new content, but the Renegade saga is only one of many tales of white influencers stealing content from Black influencers. White social influencers have long been accused of sourcing content from lesser-known Black influencers and then going viral off of stolen ideas. By the way, Jalaiah and Charli don’t harbor any ill will toward each other and Charli did invite Jalaiah to do the dance together in a TikTok on Charli’s feed.
Two teenagers posting videos online doesn’t seem like it should matter. And it doesn’t until you begin considering the monetary side of influencing. Charli is one of the app’s most popular influencers. She gets paid to create content. The more views and followers she has, the more money she can command from brands. Having her name attached to one of the most popular TikTok trends (especially as someone that popularized it) meant more opportunities and subsequently, money, for her. Jalaiah, on the other hand, was not getting paid to create content. Having a viral dance was going to simply be a cool anecdote she could share as an ice breaker at summer camp.
Jalaiah has since become a larger influencer in her own right gaining thousands of followers and inked brand deals as well, but that was largely in part due to the attention she received thanks to the Times. She got lucky. Many Black influencers find themselves in the same position of creating something viral but never seeing a profit while white influencers monetize off of stolen content.
Charli, by the way, just closed a deal with Hulu for her own show on the platform.
Social media has made it easier than ever for Black influence to permeate quicker and deeper into mainstream culture. A white kid in Iowa who lives in a neighborhood with nary a Black face to be found can follow a few accounts and soon find himself in online Black social circles learning new dances, laughing at jokes, and having conversations with people he would have never found in real life. Since it’s the internet where everyone can be anyone, he could even portray himself as Black if he wanted with no one being the wiser. The doors have been opened even wider for people to learn and discover all types of content which means Black culture is getting discovered and shared at record speeds.
Thanks to Black Twitter (no, it’s not a separate app from Twitter but a series of topics and conversations within Twitter that Black people frequent), Black vernacular has found its way into the mainstream. It’s not uncommon to see a Black Twitter trend suddenly appear all over the internet days later. Recently, the phrase, “It’s the _________ for me” began cropping up as a response to funny tweets with the blank being filled in with whatever specific detail about the content that made it particularly funny to the poster (eg “It’s the jump off the couch for me”). Pretty soon, that phrase started appearing not just online, but in real world conversations (to note, that phrase was already pretty common in Black circles) with white people attempting (often incorrectly) to weave it into their own conversations.
This time last year, Clubhouse and OnlyFans, sounded like a new restaurant chain akin to an Applebee’s and an overpriced meet and greet package at a Katy Perry concert. Now, they are the two apps on everyone’s radar thanks to the early adoption by Black people.
Clubhouse originally gained popularity when big names in Black culture started having exclusive conversations on the app. What were Oprah, Virgil Abloh, and Chris Rock talking about on this Clubhouse app? Pretty soon the invite-only app was opened up to regular people, but it wasn’t until Black Twitter began embracing the app and doing everything from having rant sessions about maintaining wokeness in white America to putting on full-blown Broadway-esque productions that white people began to take notice and joined the app. Now, it’s one of the fastest-growing apps internationally.
OnlyFans started as a way for exotic dancers and sex workers to earn some cash via exclusive NSFW content that fans could access through paid subscriptions. Many Black dancers and sex workers were the first to try out the app and while all was going well a perfect storm was coming to really shake things up. The massive unemployment rates in 2020 found many people searching for alternate sources of income. It’s always been known that sex sells, but up until OnlyFans, there wasn’t really a safe app where the average person could financially profit off of sex work from the comfort of their home, iPhone in tow. The final gust of wind that rocked the foundation, came in the form of a musical endorsement from Beyonce in her verse on Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage Remix in the summer of 2020. The singer shouted out the app right after a TikTok mention validating and normalizing those that were already on and causing those that weren’t privy to OnlyFans to take note.
Everyone wants to be Black.
The Black cultural impact isn’t just restricted to the United States. A quick google search will show you Filipinos singing R&B ballads like it’s 2000 (or just look at the success of Bruno Mars whose entire schtick is Motown revived and who many are surprised to learn isn’t Black at all and is of Filipino and Puerto Rican descent), Koreans demonstrating how to transform naturally straight hair into styles traditionally worn by Black people, or Chinese artists rapping while carelessly tossing out the one English word that typically means a punch in the face when used by anyone who isn’t Black. And it’s all profitable.
Black consumers spend more than $1 trillion dollars a year and yet, when it comes time to enter into brand deals where their influence is needed to make a product “cool” or simply give a brand that much needed diversity token, they are sorely underpaid in comparison to their white colleagues. Many Black influencers are sharing stories of discovering that budgets were suddenly not able to accommodate their rates even though their white counterparts were easily accommodated or even worse, being asked to work for free when white influencers were offered payments out of the gate. That’s if Black creators even see the deals at all. A lot of brands are finally realizing Black people set the cultural tone. If your brand has the Black buy-in, just like in an election, you’ll win. The thing is, Black brands want Black culture, not necessarily Black people.
In the 80s and 90s as fashion houses became more mainstream and accessible to the modern consumer with many luxury brands resolving themselves to serving an elite clientele. One that was wealthy. Exclusive. White. Around the same time, rap began to blow up and as rappers began to earn money, they wanted to highlight their financial come-ups via fashion. Pretty soon, rappers began embracing luxury brands often incorporating them into their songs and music videos. Gucci, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Prada all became household names because rappers were talking about them. You would think any brand would rejoice at this incredible and most importantly, very free, advertising. As it turned out having Jay-Z and Diddy rocking their labels on the red carpet wasn’t exactly the advertising these brands wanted. In fact, they felt it diminished the value of their brand to be so closely associated with “urban” lifestyles and consumers.
A Harlem-based fashion designer, Dapper Dan, became one of the biggest names in the street fashion scene and can even be credited with bringing Gucci and Louis Vuitton to the forefront of hip-hop fashion. In the 80s, Dapper Dan opened a boutique featuring redesigned jackets, sweatsuits, pants, and even sneakers featuring the logos of these brands that were the hottest items to have in hip-hop fashion. As Dapper Dan’s popularity grew, he soon found himself being sued by the luxury brands for copyright infringement which was a legalese way of saying, “we don’t want our brands on Black people.” Cardi B recently called out the contradictory attitude luxury brands have toward Black people in wanting them as customers but not as brand ambassadors in an Instagram video saying, “They say that we depreciate the value. Actually, we add value because when we mention brands in hip-hop, their sh*t goes up… When Bodak Yellow came out, you can google their sales went up.’ She was correct. In Bodak Yellow, Cardi B seasons her chorus by singing about “red bottom” Louboutin’s and Business of Fashion reported that searches for Louboutin’s increased by 217% after Cardi B’s endorsement.
It wasn’t until very recently that luxury brands finally started embracing Black endorsements by partnering with the biggest names in the industry as spokespeople. Rihanna partnered with Louis Vuitton to collaborate on her Fenty line of cosmetics and fashion. Cardi B is now an ambassador for Balenciaga which even included a billboard inside of the Louvre Museum. Naturally, Gucci Mane found a partner with Gucci proving that you can speak or even name your dreams into existence. Gucci also brought on Dapper Dan as a designer in 2017. It only took a few decades for luxury brands to realize Black culture was the heart keeping fashion beating.
But even a small step forward can be knocked back 10 steps. In the fall of 2020, Salehe Bembury was racially profiled by police in Beverly Hills as he was leaving a Versace store, bags in tow. In the video footage Bembury captured of his stop, he is patted down, frisked, and searched by cops after being accused of jaywalking or shopping while Black depending on which side of the race bus you sit on. At the end of the ordeal and finding nothing to arrest Bembury for, the police even accuse Bembury of attempting to “change the narrative” to one less favorable for the cops although the video footage clearly shows otherwise.
Bembury is Versace’s Vice President of Sneakers and Men’s Footwear. He was racially profiled while holding merchandise from his employer.
You can’t have a Black cultural influence conversation without talking about Michael Jordan. Nike’s deal with Michael Jordan may have been the smartest and most lucrative shoe deal in history. Decades after their launch, Jordans are still extremely hot sellers with everyone from diehard sneakerheads to toddlers to Billie Eilish rocking some variation of Jordans. Prices can even go as high as tens of thousands of dollars for a pair of sneakers popularized by one of the greatest Black athletes of all time. Jordan hasn’t played professionally since 2003 and yet each new shoe launch finds lines wrapped around sneaker stores often filled with people who weren’t even alive when Jordan last played.
MJ was more than just a shoe man. He was also responsible for changing the entire look of fashion on the basketball court. It wasn’t until Jordan began wearing his basketball shorts longer and baggier to be more comfortable on the court that other players followed suit with the NBA eventually adopting longer shorts for all of the team uniforms. This fashion move like almost everything Jordan did, found its way into the mainstream as well with NBA wannabes and those that just liked to rock athletic wear buying longer shorts. The NBA hasn’t looked back since.
The summer of 2020 opened a lot of the general public’s eyes to the racial disparities in the United States. For the first time, many white people were suddenly finding themselves realizing they had been living in the bubble of privilege while Black people were dealing with the same centuries-old ignorance and racism. Perhaps the immersion of Black culture into the mainstream confused people. We can’t be racist if Black influence is literally everywhere. It’s pretty insulting when you realize how crucial and embedded Black culture is within the larger scale of American culture and yet we have made such little progress in eliminating racism. It’s the same cultural rape that goes back centuries even as far as European explorers ravaging through Africa to “conquer” it while deeming it a savage and unfit place. At the same time, they were robbing centuries of culture and history, taking it back to Europe as their own, and now for a small fee, you can look at some old school culture jacking with a white spin on history in a museum. The truth is society loves Black culture, not so much Black people.
It’s great to embrace Black culture and even better to financially compensate the people that are shaping the culture, but at the same time don’t embrace a culture solely for the palatable bits. If you’re going to consume Black culture so readily, you have to consume it all. You must also acknowledge the pain and struggle of the people bringing you the fashion, dances, comedy, and language. You can’t wear Jordans while not missing a single word of Dreams and Nightmares, but sit at home and post a black square that you’re going to delete in a month on your Instagram feed when another Black person is senselessly killed. Fight for the people bringing you the content you’re so readily consuming. You can’t say you love Black people and the culture but suddenly embrace your privilege and decide it doesn’t suit you when things get ugly. These are people’s lives and they don’t get the same luxury of deciding not to be Black when cops decide to use a chokehold or a gun or a white supremacist plows through a church or a school. Culture isn’t an à la carte option. It’s prix fixe. All or nothing.
You can’t be Black until you don’t want to be Black anymore.