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Lauren Michele Jackson On 'White Negroes'


Lots of people and companies have been called out for cultural appropriation. But cultural appropriation is not always as obvious as Khloe Kardashian's cornrows. Some people say it can be a major fashion house's use of a tribal print for its $1,000 scarf or a YouTube makeup artist using techniques from the world of drag without so much as a nod to the originators. And it also can be making millions off Southern recipes created by a black chef paid less than $10 an hour. In a new book "White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue ... and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation," Lauren Michele Jackson, a professor of English and African American studies at Northwestern University, adds her voice to the raging debate. And she joins us here. Welcome.

LAUREN MICHELE JACKSON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you write that cultural appropriation is about power. Can you explain?

JACKSON: Yeah, so when people are upset and they use the word appropriation, what they're really upset about is the power imbalance that is rooted in larger structures of inequality in this country and in the world whereby certain people get to profit off of their intellectual property.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So someone taking an idea and then all of a sudden, you know, making it their own and making a lot of money off of this. And you have a lot of examples in this about what you consider cultural appropriation, right? And I want to start with Christina Aguilera and the Kardashians because in this book, you really make the case of a lot of sort of things that we're all familiar with and people that we all may know. And you kind of look at it through the lens of cultural appropriation. Tell me why you chose those two women.

JACKSON: Well, the Kardashians are, you know, kind of the obvious go-to. You know, Kim is, like, the person for discussion of culture appropriation because she's so public and because so much of her publicity rests on an ability to sort of ping pong between sort of racial signification. So, you know, in one moment, she seems very white. In one moment, she seems very brown. And another moment she seems, you know, if not black - is, you know, certainly borrowing from a certain aesthetic that doesn't come naturally to her.

And so, you know, I thought Christina Aguilera is, like, a really great test case because not only was she - did she come up through a tradition of singing funk records, jazz records, R&B. Not only does she return to black musical forms later in her career, not only does she have so many diva-isms that we can trace all the way back to things like Motown. She's close enough yet far away enough that I think I could say something new about that period or say something interesting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you know, this issue has been debated and debated. It's triggering to white conservatives. White liberals find it annoying, too, because people say culture influences each other. Artistic expression, in particular, shouldn't and can't be contained.

JACKSON: I mean, I would agree. I say right in the introduction of my book, you know, cultural appropriation cannot stop. It won't stop. It's more about the general circulation of things. And unfortunately, we live in a world where the general circulation of things is incredibly racist and incredibly antiblack.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about Paula Deen, the Southern chef who became an empire and then had a dramatic, though temporary, fall from grace after admitting using the N-word regularly in a court case. And there were various other unsavory facts. Why did you want to include her?

JACKSON: I think what was most interesting for me about Paula Deen is not really that she turned out to be, like, a closet racist or anything like that. I was actually more interested in what her popularity said about America at that time. What is the, you know, the sort of comforting culture that America looks to? And why is that embodied by somebody like Paula Deen? And so I call her a white-faced mammy because she was America's mammy. She was pleasantly plump. She was smiley, she had this sort of aspecific Southern accent that, you know, makes you feel like, you know, cozy and, like, warm by the fire. And what actually took her down was not saying that she said the N-word in her past. It was diabetes or the knowledge that she had diabetes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that she was pushing this unhealthy food on America while actually being very sick herself. What do you think people should do? I mean, I know that that's a heavy load to put on you, but you have written a book about cultural appropriation. And it is sticky. What should people do? What would you like to see?

JACKSON: What I would like people to do is think, pause, move slowly, realize that you are part of a community and part of a structure and that nobody moves through the world as an individual, and nobody moves through the world untainted by the things that structure our world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lauren Michele Jackson - her new book is "White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue ... and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation." Thank you so much.

JACKSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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