In White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue... and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation (Beacon, Nov.), literature professor Jackson explores how appropriation manifests in music, art, memes, and more.
Parts of this collection analyze pop culture. Are you able to enjoy popular media while still keeping your critical mask on?
I don’t think you can write about pop culture without a deep love for pop culture. It’s one of the more accessible archaeological objects that we have as an ongoing record of the present, when it comes to thinking about mythology, racial aesthetics, and American culture. It’s impossible to watch and turn your brain off entirely, so it’s a pragmatic question: do I want to save this in the back of my mind to write about later?
How should white consumers of media approach material that’s accessible to them but not created for them?
When Beyoncé’s Lemonade came out, there was a refrain in social media of “[white people,] this is not for you.” I get it. It’s intended to preempt the space that is so often given to white confusion. But popular culture doesn’t work like that. When you’re approaching something that doesn’t immediately make itself available to your understanding, the ethical response should be curiosity. It’s always okay to be confused. The problem people run into is when they want to give their confusion more space than is actually deserved. But I think being quietly curious is a good thing and the best way to approach things cross-culturally. You can do research, which sounds so formal, but we all have Google, we have friends, we have educators.
What advice do you have for white creators who feel inspired by the work of artists of color, or trends from black communities, but who don’t want to be appropriative?
Citation matters. Every discipline has embedded ways of giving credit to the people who came before. There’s a cognizance around being inspired by, borrowing from, or building upon the work of white creators that falls away when it comes to black artists, creators, and inventors. It’s not a matter of making up a practice that wasn’t there, but of reevaluating the ways in which you treat sources according to their cultural background.
Do you expect white and black readers to approach your work differently?
Given the disparity between white life and black life in America, I expect a racial division in how people interpret the words. Black readers might be nodding and thinking, “This totally resonates with me” at some moments when white readers think, “I’m not sure about this” or are overly enthusiastic. The book is not intended to be punitive. I wanted it to be an exploration and an unfolding of the racial aesthetics that we often take for granted. I hope there’s a pedagogical aspect over the didactic.