Obsessed: The Line Between Celebration & Appropriation
Devin Troy Strother
Black Gurrrl White Gurrrl "Black Guuuurrrrrlll vs. White Guuuurrrrlll, Fuck That Bitch!" 2012
Courtesy: Richard Heller Gallery
Karolina Maurer says she never really had one country to call her own. Born in Kyrgyzstan, a small country near Russia, the 24 year old’s family moved to Germany in the early 90s in hopes of a better life. She's lived in Cape Town, South Africa, Jamaica and New York, and today the fashion design graduate lives in the Netherlands. It’s from her work desk there that Karolina, who is white, tells me she’s always felt “a connection” to the black community. One of her first memories? Pining for a black doll. “I wanted to have it so badly. Everyone in my family assumed that I wanted the white doll, and my grandmother tried to persuade me to buy the white one,” she said. “It was NOT easy to keep this doll because everyone picked on it, and told me I was not normal.”
Her interest in the black community has not waned: Karolina often teases her straight hair into tight curls, mirroring an afro. She braids and twists her hair and tags her Instagram photos with #afro #blvck #hair and #hiphop. Her “connection” is also partly why the designer goes by the Instagram handle Blvck_Nvpoleon, an indirect homage to the black rebel fighter who attempted to keep the Germans from further colonizing South-West, Africa.
Unlike Rachel Dolezal, a white woman from Spokane, Washington who thrust herself into the media spotlight by adamantly suggesting she was black, Karolina is cognizant of her white skin color. “People might say that I try to be black,” she says. “But I am fully aware of the fact that I’m white and you just can’t change that.”
Karolina’s fascination with the black culture is arguably superficial; she loves black music; she sports black hairstyles; she selectively listens to hip hop and Jamaican dancehall. Rachel, on the other hand, has a deeper connection to the community; she has black family members; she’s worked on behalf of the black community; she is well-versed in black history. But despite their differing self-identifications, there is something similar about Karolina and Dolezal:Both are black girl obsessed
But in the eyes of the black community, neither woman is getting a pass. Karolina recounts the moment she began receiving hateful comments about her hairstyles: “I was sitting right here at my desk and a comment came through on Instagram,” she told me calmly. It read ‘Could you just not…?’” Before she could understand what she had done wrong, the berating continued. “Ten minutes later, I got 100 hateful comments like ‘fucking cunt, drag that bitch!’ and it wouldn't stop.”
The designer’s affinity for all things “black” had been written up somewhere on the Internet, and critics pushed more people over to Karolina’s Instagram page for a good reading. One comment suggested that the designer not post photos featuring cultural looks, especially if Karolina did not know black history. “I tried to understand why people got offended,” she told me.
When it comes to Dolezal, or Karolina, “it’s really about respect,” Fashion Bomb Daily's founder, Claire Sulmers told me via phone. “It's about giving credit, really. And, no, you don’t have to write "Shout out to my african sisters!” but knowing the reason why black women row their hair back vs. wearing an afro is important to the community.
Endia Beal, a black artist whose photo series “Can I Touch It” went viral last year, doubled down on the issue of respect, telling me “It’s fine to do black hairstyles but understand that the hairstyle that you’re wearing we had to fight to create or fight to be accepted as this is what god has given me… the afro has a political and militant history.”
Limada performs "Rules For A Black Woman" at Big City Stories
But how much respect is enough is rather subjective. There are some who took Dolezal to task for being disrespectful to the community for suggesting she was black. It didn't matter that through her work at the NAACP and as a professor of Africana studies she helped to uplift the black community, she deceived an entire sect of people by knowingly misidentifying herself. "I think that what was problematic was that [Rachel Dolezal] was lying...right down to having a fake black father. There's a difference between using bronzer and loving a culture and totally lying about your background," said Sulmers. And then to exacerbate the disrespect, the mother of two went on national television to define what blackness really is.
Karolina, without suggesting she was black, admitted to knowing little about black history but was still considered disrespectful by social media commentators, mostly black American women. They expressed frustrations about her having the leisure “of dipping in and out” of the culture -- black hair today, gone tomorrow. Yet another example of white privilege.
On social media and off, the topic of black appropriation has become hot-button especially among young people. Berlisha Morton, an Educational Studies professor at Colgate University, attributed the heated discussions recently around black hair and even Iggy Azalea to a collective epiphany among Generation Y. “I'm a child of the 90s. I grew up with OJ Simpson, the 92 riots, the Cosby show, Martin, the crack epidemic. We realized there was a difference in the world and that we had to talk about it,” she noted. “But then post 9-11, we entered into this space where ‘We were all American!’ Let’s focus on nationalism and being patriotic, we are here with Obama, we are post-racial.” But now, Morton says, with social media, “we’re witnessing this explosion of difference….Your generation is realizing OMG you lied to me, we are different and the generations who were deprived of this conversation are thirsty to talk about it.”
And so despite our best efforts as Americans to live in a post-racial society, the experience that comes with the color of our skin still defines many of us. On a recent Essence Live segment, Franchesca Ramsey the creator of the widely popular “Shit White Girls Say To Black Girls” and the new face of MTV’s Decoded, kept it candid: “For better or for worse Rachel Dolezal has only spent 8 years as a black woman and that doesn’t mean she is black because our experiences are not just our hairstyles and our clothing, it’s how the world sees us. And when [Dolezal] was a child, she was not seen as black. When she was a teenager, she was not seen as black...her parents aren’t black. So as much as she wants to be an ally, she should respect the fact that she will never be black.”
The “you wouldn’t understand” argument is one that seems to hit home for Karolina’s haters, too. Afros are black, bantu knots are black, hip-hop is black, fine, but blackness is not the sum of its parts. And to take on hashtags like #blvck atop sporting an afro is akin to tanning your skin and going on national television to profess that you are black. It’s a box Karolina and Dolezal simply cannot check, even if our society and media would rather do away with these boxes altogether.
Over the last month, Karolina’s rummaged through many of her Instagram comments, responding to those who bullied her, erasing comments from those who threatened her, and uploading photos celebrating black women. She continues to feel more familial with the black community than with “the Beckys”, a slang term for the privileged white community Karolina and her friends use. And she better understands why her affinity is so controversial, though she can’t help but acknowledge the way she feels inside. “I’ve done a lot more research and am a lot more careful about what I post,” she told me. That, I can respect.
PostedAug 31, 2015
ByChelsea Rojas / Edited by Sian-Pierre