Fully Appreciating Culture Without Appropriation: A Guide in 15 Steps

There are many people confused about cultural appropriation and the difference between appreciation and appropriation. They are also baffled by the idea that a dance, music style, fashion or hair style can be specific to a certain group and therefore one should look into embracing that activity with care. On April 10, 2016, The Try Guys released a video where they tried stepping, a style of dance that is very specific to Black fraternities and sororities in America. Had this experiment gone wrong, Black Twitter would have exploded, but instead it passed with a chuckle, wink, and a hand clap.

So the question is: what did they do right or how does someone appreciate and embrace a culture that’s not your own and not get accused of racism, ignorance, or cultural appropriation? To answer that question (because I’m sure inquiring minds what to know) here’s is a list of 15 things they do right; so strap in ’cause this going to be a trip.

One

The first image in this video is of Black men. This visually sends the message that whatever we are about to see is something that they, as black men, have mastered. This is our first image.

giphy

Two

The second image that we see is the Try Guys sitting down…. Learning. Coming into the space with humbleness.

How this could have gone wrong: They could have interrupted a step routine and then ask to be taught. This would have sent the message that what someone was doing before what not important until the Try Guys arrived. But no, they entered the space with respect and they were also clearly invited in the space. Which brings me to…

Three

When participating in something that is not your culture… get invited. Do not just take because it’s cute, fun, interesting…. whatever. Get invited. By all means, read and learn, but if you want to participate, to make your knowledge active. Wait to be invited to do so.

Four

“Step. Stepping. Step Dance.” Learn the proper name of what you are participating in. This critical step is what so many people avoid because they can’t be bothered to learn. This is also another example of humbleness and respectfully engaging a new culture.

Five

“Doesn’t look like something I’d be very good at.”

He didn’t say, “I’m a White guy so of course I’d be bad at this.” Why is this important? Because that statement would imply that the Black people present are there for his entertainment. Self-depreciation doesn’t sound the same when interacting with the new culture while being White. When you are a white face in the POC space or a straight person in a gay space or man in a woman’s space, or a rich person in a working class space, jokes about your status will carry a weight of insult, injury, and reminded pain because you have been invited into special space and mocking your own privilege implicitly makes the people that you are with the ‘other’.

Six

The Try Guys don’t just learn a dance. They learn the history of the dance and why it is important to the fraternity, to the Black colleges, to Black people. When people appropriate a culture, they will use an element of the culture without even trying to understand its meaning and legacy. The Try Guys learn meaning while exploring… and that bring us to…

Seven

The Try Guys learn from Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. The oldest Black fraternity in the nation. A Black person familiar with stepping in America would recognize this reaching out to Alpha Phi Alpha as a legitimate way to learning about stepping without trying to mock it. It’s going to the ‘masters’ if you will, again in a state of humbleness. They didn’t go to step dance cardio class. They went to the source. Another sign of respect and research on their part.

Eight

“Seeing 3 White dudes and an Asian guy stepping with you guys in unison…” Own who you are in the space. Vitally important. This may seem contradictory to what a wrote before, but listen. All privilege is a responsibility, but most people don’t feel that responsibility until there are in a space were that privilege becomes apparent. When you have privilege, but come in a spirit of humbleness, you are saying, “I know I am (White, a man, straight) and I know that just by my presence, I may represent people and events that have hurt you in the past, but I am here in the spirit of love and to fully respect who you are as an individual human being.”

Nine

The Try Guys work hard to get it right and understand that by participating in the art form they are now representing the Alpha Phi Alpha and that is a big deal. They take on the responsibility of representing this culture, representing it well and not mocking/changing or remixing it for their own ends (and then renaming Body Beats to teach it as a class at LA Fitness). There are 3 White guys and one Asian guy performing an African American art form with understanding and respect while not claiming to do it better or make more palpable to a White audience nor do they claim to suddenly being “Black” themselves.

Ten

The video shows old pictures of Black Greek organizations further emphasize respect for the history, art form and the culture.

Eleven

The brother’s of the Fraternity are shown speaking for themselves without the Try Guys speaking for them which to take away their voice and agency.

Twelve

“I’m just one guy, but together, we’re a team.” Understanding the importance of a collective and developing the understand that the collective and the brotherhood of the collective is a vital part of the culture which is being explored. And again, respecting the importance of that community culture.

Thirteen

“I think our biggest priority is making the fraternity proud tonight” – It’s not about them. It’s about the culture and the frat. It’s not about the Try Guys doing something cute – that would again be othering and disrespectful.

Fourteen

When doing the performance that are not wearing any Alpha Phi Alpha logos. Which again, shows respect to their teachers, the organization and those would made it possible for them to be apart of this event. There are people would say without any gall, “I worked really hard on this for a week, my hands are red and my thighs hurt from hitting them so much, I deserve to wear what everyone else is wearing.” No. What the Try Guys did is wear similar outfits to ALLY themselves with the Alpha Phi Alpha, but they are not Alpha Phi Alpha. See how that works?

Fifteen

And with all the respect and love given, that respect and love was given back with the members of the Alpha Phi Alpha being impressed with the Try Guys and feeling that love. And respect, love, and admiration for all.

And that ladies and gentlemen, is how you engage in a culture different from your own without being accused of racism, disrespecting, othering or cultural appropriation. I hope you’ve appreciated this tutorial.

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Latisha Jones About Latisha Jones

18 Readers Commented

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  1. Joynas on May 28, 2016

    This is excellently written and was so fun to see live. Privilege to know you all; great job!

  2. thanks for this, just another step in my Journey of WOKE

  3. Snowball on May 29, 2016

    This is all quite meaningless.

  4. Aj on May 29, 2016

    Thoughts on a respectul approach to older forms, in my case country blues?

  5. jess on May 29, 2016

    This is beautiful. I am a white woman teaching dance at a university and I may assign this as homework in the fall! Thank you for your work.

  6. Von on May 29, 2016

    I shudder to think of the bland and (ironically) homogenous art that will be produced once politically correct Millennials become cultural gatekeepers. Under these silly rules, jazz, rock and roll, hip hop and a lot of post-modern visual arts wouldn’t exist.

    • susan_hayase on June 1, 2016

      That’s not true. In the history of African American music, there are those who ripped off black artists and there are those who learned in a attitude of respect and gave credit to those who generously gave of their time and artistic mastery. There’s a difference. Doing it with respect is better.

    • Steve Jones on January 27, 2017

      Oh shut up. You know that Millennials are up to 33 years old now, yes? No, didn’t think so, you don’t seem like someone who’d seek out information like that or you wouldn’t be here making snarky remarks about this article.

  7. Marvin MeBanne on May 30, 2016

    Very insightful, and well written. I only wish that some celebraties would read this article before throwing “black face” in another video

  8. susan_hayase on June 1, 2016

    This is a really good article, very thoughtful, well-written, and a clear breakdown of the difference between appropriation and appreciation. Thank you!

  9. Geordie Korper on June 1, 2016

    I agree that the curiosity and humility shown by the Try Guys is admirable and the world would be a better place if more people approached things that way but I still deny your right to make rules about how the things I see or hear is allowed to influence my art.

  10. Debra Dylan on June 10, 2016

    Thank you for this article.

  11. ShaiFenwick on June 13, 2016

    Thank you for the succinct and effective analysis. I am a woman of diasporic east Indian heritage and I love teaching people about sari draping, and have had several folks question whether their participation is appropriation. This is a great resource for helping inform folks on how to interact with other cultural traditions respectfully.

  12. WellMeaningWhiteTeacher® on June 18, 2016

    I love this, thank you very much. I used a “flipped” approach to learn from your article – watched the video first and mentally listed the things I thought they did well, or that went well because of their intentions/attitude/video editing choices, then checked against your list. Anyone showing this to a class for any reason could get the learners to do something similar because I learned a lot!

  13. Kari on June 21, 2016

    Love this. Watched the video a week or two ago, and found it really informative and, well, cozy, since we as viewers were able to learn about an art form (in this case, a form of dance) without it coming off as plastic and fake. The history and letting the Fraternity students speak about it and the traditions involved really made for a better, more comprehensive video.

    This article is especially nice since, while it used the video as an example, the knowledge contained can be applied to other cultural interactions. I love to wear Kimono and other Wafuku (Japanese Clothing), but I’m not going out painted in Geisha Makeup since I’m not a Geisha, and can never be one (that lovely shit takes YEARS of training AND being accepted by a house). Appreciating another culture’s dress involves learning the dos and don’ts of the fashion and respecting that.

  14. JudgeSturdy on June 23, 2016

    Oh my god people. Lighten up. Have fun. Be respectful. Use some common sense.

    • JA on June 27, 2016

      Who are you even talking to? Who’s not doing these things?

  15. Now Im really curious to see if the Try Guys video where they learn about Irish Step Dance match any of these. (probably not as its history is not as well documented)

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