Jeremy Lin’s velvet-gloved clapback at Kenyon Martin for his Instagram rant calling Lin out for his new dreadlocks brings to light an interesting paradox for black culture in America. Is black culture separate and distinct from American culture? Or is it an integral part of the patchwork quilt that makes up the country’s culture, and thus open and available to all?
Martin’s remarks suggest that unless you are black, you aren’t allowed to actively partake of and participate in black culture. Those who do run the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation.
What exactly is cultural appropriation?
Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. It is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.
I don’t buy into the notion of cultural appropriation as defined above. Cultural mockery — the exploitation of a culture for the benefit of members of another culture, or to the detriment of the members of the culture itself — is something else and should be called out and avoided at all cost.
Black culture, though rooted in Africa, was born and raised on the plantations, sharecropping fields, urban ghettos and segregated communities of America. It developed and emanated from the spaces and places where black folks found themselves. From the pitch-dark days of slavery to the shadow of emancipation and the dawn of desegregation, these communities gave birth to what we now know and celebrate as black culture. Other than Native American, Alaskan and Hawaiian culture, it is the only culture that was developed on these shores and as such should be open to all to celebrate as American.
One thing standing in the way of this is the color line. Race can be divisive and often creates clear lines of demarcation in our country. Our history has proven that we can’t win when the battle lines are drawn according to race. However, we may have a chance with culture.
Whereas culture may come from one group of people of a common ethnic or racial group, it doesn’t have to be exclusive to that group. And when handled right, it can become a place from which we can all find common ground.
If we move some of the discussions that we have around race to one of culture, then we may be able to find a mutually beneficial way of solving some of the problems we face. That’s not to say that we should ignore race or make the false declaration that we are living in a post-racial society. However, where the issue of race can often be divisive, culture doesn’t have to be.
Martin made the mistake of conflating race and culture, which are not one and the same. I was reminded of this a day before his infamous Instagram post.
I was at a group dinner in San Francisco. I was seated next to a Chinese woman and her Jewish husband. About 15 minutes into the dinner, she looked at me and asked, “What are you?” I smiled and said, “What do you mean, what am I?” She said, “What is your ethnicity?”
I told her that I was black, and went on to tell her that my mother was Hawaiian and my father was African-American. I told her that while I was ethnically mixed, I was culturally black and was raised in a black neighborhood in the South. I don’t have any real cultural connection to the Hawaiian blood coursing through my veins other than my middle name, Kimo (Hawaiian for James).
She was stunned and revealed to me that while she is ethnically Chinese, she was born and raised in Hawaii and as a result considered herself to be, at least in part, culturally Hawaiian. From a cultural standpoint, she was infinitely more Hawaiian than me.
Just because she is not ethnically Hawaiian doesn’t mean that she can’t access or claim the culture that she was raised in. And just because I am — and know little about the culture and have never visited the island, by the way — doesn’t mean that I have some right to call her out for her adoption of “my” culture as a part of her own.
Later that evening, I told her and her husband that I have spent the last 20 years in the service of black culture as an executive for black arts and cultural institutions and as a small-business owner. I told them that I traveled extensively and have been to every continent except Antarctica. The one thing I find almost everywhere I visit is a significant amount of the American culture these people abroad appreciate and identify as American comes directly from black culture. The big difference is that they don’t see a distinction. They simply see it as American culture.
The problem is many white people in our country don’t see the totality of American culture that is exported and enjoyed by the rest of the world as an extension of themselves as Americans. Conversely, some blacks in America don’t see black culture as a true part of American culture.
When I introduced this conundrum to my dinner mates the gentleman had an epiphany, and in an instant he began to see how he and I truly shared a cultural connection as Americans that could serve as the foundation from which we could begin to appreciate and maybe even celebrate our differences, which we did throughout the rest of the evening in conversation.
In my travels, I have learned, initially much to my chagrin, that as much as I am culturally black, I am also very much culturally American. I eventually had to come to grips with the truth that I have just as much if not more in common culturally with the average white guy shopping at the local Walmart than I do with some of the people who look like me when I travel abroad.
Jeremy Lin attempted to find common ground with K-Mart by pointing out the former NBA All-Star’s collection of Chinese tattoos. Although there was definitely some implied shade in his comments, Lin, unlike LeBron James’ persistent “son-ning” of Kyrie Irving, flipped the script by “pop-ping” Martin and giving him his props as a basketball old head: “Thanks for everything you did for the Nets and hoops … had your poster up on my wall growing up.”
If you agree with Martin’s logic, it would be OK for Becky With the Good Hair to go onto Instagram and tell Beyoncé to step away from the blond weave.
All of this, of course, just continues to force us to choose sides and move us further away from one another in the widening polarization of America.
It’s time for us to look in the mirror and realize that as Americans we may not all look alike, but we do have cultural connections that can unite us and, yes, a significant part of that culture is black.
The rest of the world sees it. It’s time for us in America to recognize and accept it as well.