NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– To Gabi Fermin, imitation is not a form of flattery. At least not at her Upper West Side Catholic school where her mostly white peers think it’s cool to speak in AAVE – African American vernacular.
“I’ll overhear a group of white girls talking in AAVE and giggle after a ‘funny’ statement was said,” Fermin, 16, said in a Skype interview. These same girls braid each other’s hair into cornrows and call themselves “ghetto.”
Fermin, whose parents are from the Dominican Republic, feels insulted by her schoolmates’ behavior, considering it a form of racism. “There’s no escaping the stereotypes, the micro-aggressions. As a student of color, it’s tiring to deal with every day.”
The appropriation of black hairstyles, language and style by the white community is not a new phenomenon amongst teens, but recent celebrity spats (Amandla Stenberg vs. Kylie Jenner; Iggy Azalea vs. black Twitter) have percolated the conversation into mainstream media and put a spotlight on many black teens everyday experiences.
Like Fermin, Genesis Villella, a recent Bronx graduate, also dealt with offensive remarks at her Manhattan high school regarding her black identity while witnessing her white peers being praised for their appropriation.
“It gets annoying when white people are praised for the black features and black hair that they acquired while people tell black girls that they’re ugly for being born with these features and having black hairstyles,” said Villella via Skype. “The thing is, when black girls have the deep skin tones, big lips, hair and butts, we’re shamed for it– called ugly, ghetto and uneducated, or just hypersexualized. Black stuff is cool, black people are not.”
“I honestly hate it,” said Sophianie Etienne, 16, over the phone, about the double standard. “Let’s say a white person gets dreads. They’re seen as chic and out there or whatever. But if a black person gets dreads, they’re seen as dirty or drug addicts.”
For Etienne, a student from Irving, Texas, white appropriation of black culture stems from the popularity of black singers.
“Look at Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj,” said Etienne. “They’re both huge celebrities with a massive following of people of many different races. People are gonna try and imitate them because they’re so popular.”
But imitation doesn’t lead to equality for writer Zipporah Osei. “Black people know how to have fun despite all we have faced and continue to face and there’s something about that that’s interesting to other cultures and races,” said the 17-year-old resident of Yonkers, N.Y. “They hate us but they don’t hate what we create.”
It can be harmful to a young girl, said Osei, who was often teased for her dark skin as a child.
“Young black girls are living in a confusion that leads to them hating themselves,” she said. “If a little girl is called ugly for having big lips but sees someone of another race praised for having full lips she begins to wonder if it’s the lips that are ugly or the fact that the lips are on her black skin. Once she makes that connection she realizes that her being black makes her inherently ugly and what she has will never look as good on her as it would on someone else so she begins to hate the way she looks. It’s extremely damaging for them to see their features ripped from them and praised as soon as they’re put on a white girl, who will never have to face the backlash and alienation and mockery. That’s what makes appropriation so wrong: It makes our culture a costume for them to take on and off without any consequence.”
Janus Adams, the Emmy Award-winning journalist, author and social commentator, called appropriation a “pendulum swing between politics and culture,” in a phone interview.
“It’s nothing recent; [white] people feel entitled to black culture, and in turn wear it as a costume. And it’ll take young, black women uniting to tell their stories to combat the problem and drown out those profiting from African Americans and make them take a look at themselves,” she said.
And to Fermin, it’s all just derogatory. “The fact that people actually think of it as a compliment when white celebrities flat-out appropriate black culture disgusts me completely. It seriously shouldn’t be taken as a compliment on any level. It’s all really an insult.”