Appropriations of culture are not all equal

My Iggy Azalea phase lasted for all of two weeks. It started because I was struggling to take a large, complex issue and pare it down to a succinct and clear article for Global Sisters Report. I needed motivation, so I clicked open Spotify (music site) and tried to summon up the names of female rappers – women whose chutzpah I could borrow.

I landed on Iggy Azalea because 1) it was a name I could remember;2) I had vaguely positive thoughts about the two Iggy songs I’d heard on the radio; and 3) at the time, I had nothing against her. I played her album “Reclassified” a couple times through, and it worked. I got my story done and everything was peachy keen.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with Iggy Azalea, she’s a 25-year-old white woman from Australia who’s become divisive – to say the least – among music fans. Some people dislike her simply for being a white musician in a black music genre. That’s a lazy argument and I’ll get to it later, but for other people, the issue is deeper. It’s not so much that Azalea is a white woman making “black music,” it’s that she puts on black culture like a costume to do it. Most notably, they have a problem with Azalea’s “blaccent” or the black, U.S. southern accent she affects when rapping.

I started reading into the case against Azalea shortly after I first listened to her work, and the more I read, the more I felt that I – in good conscience – could not keep listening to her music, even if it was just to pump myself up to write. Personally, I am not offended by white artists who opt for predominantly black music genres like rap, Hip-Hop or R&B. If that’s the music you feel in your soul, then by all means, don’t let something as arbitrary as melanin prevent you from doing what you love.

The problem I now have with Iggy Azalea is that she isn’t rapping as herself. She’s rapping with the voice of a black woman that she isn’t, treating blackness like a prop. Meanwhile, one of her earlier songs begins, “Tire marks, tire marks, finish line with the fire marks. When the relay starts I’m a runaway slave-master, s---ting on the past, gotta spit it like a pastor” (emphasis mine), and she has a record of tweeting racist comments against black people, yes, but also against pretty much everyone else who isn’t white.

What Azalea hasn’t tweeted about is anything about the very real race relations crisis we’re having in the U.S. right now. She’s been called out on it more than once, and she usually responds with sass and a little bit of token lamentation. But if Azalea can assume blackness when it’s profitable (And it is. “History has shown that white people much prefer their black music to be performed by white artists,” as Jezebel’s Kara Brown puts it.), she ought to at least be respectful of black culture when it’s not. And that, for me, is where she has failed.

In the last few days, many people have tried to tie together Iggy Azalea and Rachel Dolezal, the now former-president of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter who was outed as white by her parents on Thursday. Some of the attempts have been humorous – my personal favorite plays on the #AskRachel hashtag that dominated Twitter on Friday as black people created tongue-in-cheek mini quizzes about black culture for Dolezal that would ostensibly prove her true race. But even though #AskRachel made me chuckle more than once over the weekend, I don’t think what Dolezal has done – living as a black woman for at least a decade – and what Iggy Azalea does are one in the same.

I should probably pause here to say that I think the whole Dolezal situation is crazy. Claiming to have a black biological father when you don’t is totally nuts, as is concocting a story about a racist and abusive white stepfather. So is possibly faking hate crimes against yourself. All of that is crazy. But is it racist? Is it the same as assuming blackness when it benefits you, only to retreat into a space of white privilege when it doesn’t?

I say no. Many others disagree, stating that Dolezal wanted blackness, so she took it (an act of privilege) or noting that, on the reverse side, most black people don’t have the option of becoming white when it suits them – and those were able to “pass” as white, usually suffered for it.

I hear and understand those points. But I think we have to consider the fact that, as far as we know, Dolezal was not assuming blackness temporarily, and she definitely wasn’t doing it for monetary gain. At least I hope she wasn’,t because when it comes to salaries, black women make even less than the white women who are making 78 cents for every white man’s dollar – so pretending to be black woman isn’t a stellar career move.

Certainly, Dolezal is vulnerable to the attack that she fetishized blackness, but I don’t think we can say she was appropriating black culture just for fun. Could she have retreated back into whiteness? Sure. But did she? I think that’s the more important question. It’s not as if she went out at night, disguised as black woman while reaping the benefits of whiteness during the day. Dolezal kept this up 24/7. For years. She was 100-percent invested in this façade. And who’s to say that she wouldn’t have lived the rest of her life having everyone around her believe that she was a black woman? And if she had, if she had been seen and treated as black woman until her dying day, would it really matter that she hadn’t been born into all the cultural burdens that come with blackness? Even if she lived them in adulthood?

Plenty of black people are angry about what Dolezal did. I am not one of them. Hers was not the Iggy Azalea approach to blackness, which is not to say it isn’t problematic on its own terms. It just isn’t the same thing, and I think it deserves compassion rather than anger.

The fact of the matter is Dolezal could have been a civil rights activist as a white woman. She also could have taught Africana studies as a white woman. She didn’t necessarily need to be a black woman to do either of those things, but maybe she felt like she did. Or maybe she just wanted to be black. Either way, it does make you wonder what conversations about race did or didn’t happen that led to her wanting to be seen a black woman. I, for one, don’t condemn her for it, but I do have questions.

Last week, Marian Sr. Nicole Trahan wrote about race in the Catholic church for Global Sisters Report’s Horizons column, asking, “What is God saying to us in this moment of our history? What is God calling me to?” Like me, she had more questions than answers, though Trahan’s questions weren’t about Rachel Dolezal per se. Still, I think her questions applicable.

When we read something like this, or encounter someone like Dolezal, how is God calling us to respond? Better yet, how is God calling us to respond to the broader issue of race worldwide, both in and out of the church? I think it’s with peace and love. And that’s what I’m praying for Rachel Dolezal this week.

And maybe Iggy Azalea too.

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff reporter for Global Sisters Report based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @Dawn_Cherie.]