From viral dances to ‘American Dirt,’ author Lauren Michele Jackson explains the difference between creative evolution and cultural theft.

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” It’s telling that second half of the quote has been erased, inverting Wilde’s pithy insights into the inferiority of impersonation into a lofty justification of mimicry. Yet the impulse to mirror those around us goes beneath the surface of things. Copying is not always a conscious choice. It begins on a neurological level with the mirror-neuron system, an involuntary and automatic response to help us negotiate the world by creating physiological and emotional connections with others.

Since being first discovered two decades ago, scientists have begun to investigate the role mirror neurons could play in the imitation of language, sounds, actions, and ideas. Taken out of the laboratory, we can see this phenomenon play out in everyday acts of appropriation such the viral transit of the latest word or turn of phrase, a fresh new ingredient or cooking technique, a dance move or pose that seamlessly works its way into pre-existing choreography. Appropriation, it seems, is a profoundly human impulse.

“I think appropriation has a bit of a bad rap,” says Lauren Michele Jackson, author of the new book White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue…and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation (Beacon Press). “The word itself is just indicating an instance of transport. It’s making something appropriate to another purpose. We appropriate things all the time without our knowledge. A lot of the art and cultural forms that we depend on and love could not exist without appropriation.”

“Appropriation triggers a powerful public response when mediocrity and privilege intersect.”

Jackson cites hip hop as an enduring example of appropriation in many forms. Born in the Bronx in the early 1970s, hip hop sprang forth as a new style of art, music, and dance invented by teens who blended shared elements of multi-ethnic Black and Latinx communities while remixing the past and present. “Hip hop emerged out of cross-generational, cross-cultural, cross-racial, and cross-national forms of cultural appropriation, mixing, and acculturation,” Jackson says. “We don’t tend to think about appropriation in those contexts. We usually only talk about appropriation in flagrant cases, but in and of itself appropriation is not the big bad. It is something that cannot be stopped, prevented, or fought against. As long as people are living, breathing, and talking, making, and creating things, appropriation will happen and it ought to happen. That’s the way art evolves.”

Yet the conversation around appropriation is fraught with the pain of larger wounds inflicted by systemic practices stemming from the colonialist mindset, constituting a virulent form of intellectual and cultural theft. “The area where appropriation becomes an issue is when you look at the imbalance in power in society and start to observe who gets to call claim to a certain intellectual property, who gets to be credited for things that they make or innovate, and who doesn’t,” Jackson says. “The problem isn’t appropriation; the problem is the de facto inequality that suffuses the American landscape and a global context as well.”

Social media has amplified the conversation around appropriation as groups historically relegated to the margins have become integral voices in shaping the mainstream discourse. With a panoply of perspectives weighing in everyday, it seems as though every week another celebrity, fashion house, or influencer makes headlines for appropriating other cultures in a manner that exposes the power imbalance.

“‘We don’t really talk about people who depended on a Blackness of their own imagination to become the avant-garde,’ [Lauren Michele Jackson] says.”

In 2020 alone, we have witnessed the debacle of American Dirt, the novel by white American author Jeanine Cummins who received a seven-figure advance to write a fictional story of a Mexican woman forced to become an undocumented immigrant living in the United States with her son, inspiring members of Latinx communities nationwide to call out the predominantly white publishing industry. More recently Jalailah Harmon, 14, was finally given credit for creating the Renegade, one of the most viral dances online after her moves were copied and shared on TikTok uncredited by popular white influencers. This is to say nothing of Chet Hanks’s egregious patois accent flouted on the red carpet at the Golden Globes, which he defended as only a man born into wealth and power could.

Appropriation triggers a powerful public response when mediocrity and privilege intersect, creating another blatant cultural rip-off. “I think it’s a matter of [being] conspicuous and inconspicuous,” Jackson says. “Miley Cyrus twerking on stage is very conspicuous. Meanwhile we have musicians like John Mayer and Ed Sheeran who owe a debt to genres and styles of music that were invented and innovated by black musicians and black traditions of the past, but we’re not talking about that all the time because it’s not as conspicuous. There is a certain element of virtuosity that allows certain appropriative gestures to go unremarked upon. If you do the thing well and you’re good at it, we have other things to talk about your art besides where your influences come from.”

Jackson contrasts the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s 2016 painting, Open Casket, which depicted the corpse of Emmett Till, to the exaltation of Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein. “We don’t really talk about people who depended on a Blackness of their own imagination to become the avant-garde,” she says. “We don’t really talk about quieter instances of appropriation because we’d be talking about everything.”

But it might not be the worst thing if we did. Picasso’s appropriation of African masks reflects the political and cultural climate of the time, when the Global South was largely colonized and its art was described as “primitive” — a term used throughout the greater part of the twentieth century by major white-owned institutions. Exploring and exposing the unconscious and conscious acts of appropriation allows us course-correct inequality in its many forms and give originators what they have rightfully earned. Honoring the creative impulse invites us to take greater responsibility not only for what we make, but to delve deeper into those who have inspired our ideas as well as hip other people to the original source material. Though it’s become commonplace to usurp other people’s ideas for personal gain, Wilde long ago warned, “Everything popular is wrong.”