There's always, for instance, that non-black friend with a penchant for racial slurs who blurts out "But my best friend is black!" any time he or she is accused of racism, the same friend who proudly declares "I watch 'The Wire'!" anytime a black person enters the room.
All too often, people with possibly all the best intentions in the world study, employ, and adopt supposed markers of "cultural authenticity" and stop short of real, meaningful discourse about privilege in America. When black women are used as props in music videos to give off a very specific attitude and image of "street credibility," and the bodies of women of color end up serving as disposable avenues for a male character's coming of age, we simply continue to adhere to harmful paradigms of race and gender. "Isms" will be eradicated only when those with privilege pass the microphone to marginalized constituencies and let them speak for themselves, not when they decide to show "appreciation" for culture by hiring Japanese dancers to work as caricaturized background props for a white woman.
Privilege is the ability to choose and adopt elements of a selected culture and apply them to yourself however you see fit. It's the ability to adopt twerking and "ratchet" culture as a way to seem "edgy" without being deemed filthy and sexually deviant in the way a black person would. It's the ability to joke about having an "inner black woman" when you do not ever, in fact, have to experience life at the intersections of racism and sexism in the way a black woman does. It's the ability to dress up like a sexy geisha without ever needing to live under the constant barrage of tropes about the hypersexualized Asian woman.
While I understand that culture represents a constantly changing collection of social habits, language, and shared experiences, I firmly believe that cultural shifts need to be moved and governed by people who actually live within these cultures, not by privileged individuals who are simply looking for another marker of maturity or worldliness. The truth? Your unrivaled collection of Tribe Called Quest and Fugees albums does not make you an ally. Your Asian girlfriends and proudly hoisted set of "authentic" Japanese samurai swords above your fireplace does not make you an "honorary Asian." Your "deep" friendship with the Dominican man who makes your toasted-bagel-and-cream-cheese breakfast every morning does not suddenly make you color blind and should not excuse you from deeper conversations about our respective roles in perpetuating race and gender hierarchies in American society.
Rather than let those with power continue to profit off of their removed and often inaccurate characterizations of marginalized populations, we must push for more diverse voices at the highest levels of media production. We must have the ability to occupy the leading roles in our own stories and the right to define ourselves. The state of media today may have you confused, but tokenizing and using our "exotic" bodies as shiny rungs on the ladder to privileged self-growth is not the way to go.
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