Hunger Games star Amandla Stenberg explains the nuances of cultural appropriation



I’m not a fan of division by race or culture. For me, no matter who you are in America, whatever it is that you or your group do is part of the American culture.


It’s a complex issue, and one that can’t be brushed off as a sort of cultural isolationism. I think one of the principal barriers in understanding cultural appropriation is a lack of contextual awareness. People simply don’t always know where everything came from, and so it’s going to keep happening. But I think an important underlying point is that race is difficult in this country because we make it difficult. We make it difficult with incarceration, police shootings, and earlier: Fire-hoses and hangman’s nooses.

I think people wouldn’t care about White pop stars sporting ironic cornrows as much if Black people could move through the world with the same level of relative impunity and safety. I feel the way Azalea Banks articulated her problem with cultural appropriation is going to be interpreted as some bizarre form of hipsterism (we had cornrows before it was cool.) It’s envy, and envy at the disparities which are compounded when Black culture is not taken half as seriously by people in this country as it should be.


I don’t assume anything about the commenter, but this is a common position of privileged people. We are comfortable denying the value of alternate cultures (black or otherwise) and wishing they would “blend” because we’re entirely confident that the “blended” culture will include us completely. I can walk into the Fantasy/SF section of my library, pull five books down at random and find four white, straight, male protagonists. If every one of those books was about a Chinese woman’s struggles and dreams, I think I’ve be very interested in finding and preserving my own culture.


Amandla Stenberg*

Not Amandla “Stand”

I like that characterization. It’s basically cargo cult culture - emulation of significant/successful aspects of another culture without truly understanding the meaning behind them. Of course, the trouble with that is that it’s hard to tell at first glace whether some dude’s hanzi tattoos are there because he cares about Chinese culture or because he thinks they just look cool.

Fair enough, though I don’t really see why you’re stopping at national identity.


To be fair, it’s not like African Americans made those divisions in the first place. It’s those divisons, and the exploitation of black artists by the recording industry for years that helped to create the modern sense that it’s perfectly okay to decontextualize and appropriate black culture for profit. there is a far larger number of African Americans now benefiting from their art, but it’s been a long haul. History matters.

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That can be problematic, depending on how you approach it. Not all cultural heritage is open to everyone, and you don’t get to choose things from other peoples’ cultures and say they’re yours because you’re both American.

For instance: if you go around wearing sergeants’ stripes and saying “Semper Fi” and saluting people but were never in the military, that’s a problem, and no doubt some Marines would be willing to explain with their fists why their culture is not yours.

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Wonderful expostion by the young woman. Allow me to extend her arugment:

The Hot Babe of 1979

(Bo Derek in “10”)

1971: an explicit “white copy” of the Jackson Five. When the youngest Jackson, Michael becomes a solo act, Donny Osmond extended the imitation/flattery and also became a solo act.

(The Osmond Family)

And of course, the most important appropriator of African-American Culture in the 20th century:

(you need a caption for this one? really? )

To his credit, Elvis was always clear that his roots where in Gospel music and African-American music. His promoters… not so much.

The most recent Great Gatsby movie with Leonard DiCaprio worked hard to show how much of the “Roaring 20s” was appropriated from African-American culture.

Going back another 30 years, the largo of Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World (1893), informally known as “Going Home,” has been a fixture at white funerals for decades (and will hopefully be a fixture at mine). What most don’t realize was that Dvorak composed this because he wanted to write a “Negro spiritual” and spent a summer with African-American musicians.

Appropriation is what dominant cultures do. It’s kinds goes along with being dominant.

So it’s all the more important that it pointed out, like this video did.


This is extremely high quality work from a talented young actress, but the line shouldn’t be just when privileged “take” an aesthetic or value. When the privileged take aspects of a culture and use it for personal profit (stealing music and repackaging it as white, white washing movies to remove minorities from the culture, etc), when they use it to further stereotypes about the original culture (Halloween costumes, etc), or when they use it to manipulate an audience by offence or “deeper meanings” (Nazi Germany, gay hate, etc.). At the point something is misappropriated because it is a fashion trend or cool the original cultural context has been so washed from the iconography that the battle for that cultural identity has been lost.

In the case of corn rows, the idiots accusing the association with gang stereotypes are either so deeply set in their position it is lunacy (banning them from schools or workplaces) and the significance is so watered down and globalized that pop culture starts using it to express a retro trend.


Don’t forget Led Zepplin or other white cultures doing the same thing in the same timeframe. This wasn’t a whitewashing trend that was just related to a narrow genre famous for packaging a product and delivering it to white consumers, it was a completely universal assault on black culture with no regard to the source. That filter has lowered significantly, but this set up the artificial barrier letting the NWO fan of suburbia compartmentalize the music and culture from his actual opinion of the people it came from.


Sorry, I think this is all bullshit. This is a concern of the black community, cultural identification, rather than cultural appropriation.

You have black performers “appropriating” black culture then in a similar manner, Rihanna was born to a middle-class family in Barbados, Drake to middle class Canadian parents, Nicki Minaj from Trinidad Tobago. Hardly traditional hip-hop backgrounds, or of the “deep significance” of American black, urban culture. From marching band nerd of middle class parents in Virginia, to “Move That Dope (Nigga)” Pharrell Williams? Seriously? These artists, if they were white, would be considered “appropriating” hip-hop culture, but Ms. Stenberg only calls out white artists. Even a few of her own examples, Alicia Keys and Beyonce, have mixed racial heritage and were raised far from the thug life. They get a pass though as they identify or are identified as racially black. If you take her construct, white entertainers are appropriating black culture through braids, but black culture is not appropriating white culture with hair relaxers and straight-haired weaves/wigs? Am I the only person who sees the irony of Ms. Stenberg, who is biracial, proselytizing about the cultural appropriation of white performers wearing braids while she appears in the video with straightened hair? This is an actor in Hunger Games, not the breakout star of the latest Spike Lee movie.

It’s true as she says that it’s a fine line between appropriation and cultural cross-over. The point is that the road runs in both ways yet we’re only discussing one perspective as if there was a megalith, singular “black” cultural that is always being taken cultural advantage of by white people. If anything is racist, it’s that attitude and editorializing like Ms. Stendberg’s.


I’m my own opinion I see this “cultural appropriation” issue as basically a North American problem.

Let me explain before you crucifix me (cultural appropriation from the Persians): It’s the remix culture. The same remix culture we worship here at Boingboing. Cultures have being intermixing ideas for thousand of years, creating even better ideas, or ideas that look new and exciting. Roman empire sculptures can be dated by their hairdos. Half of the gods and goddesses of the world are just foreign gods rebranded. Clothing has changed cultural barriers so much my head hurts!

What I see is the problem is not the cultural appropriation itself, but the appropriation of one element while still condemning or marginalizing it on it´s own culture/ethnicity/social strata. That’s it. I’m ok with white people wearing golden grills, but not with white people who wear golden grills and yet are racist/classicist (assholes).

This may be an issue where cultural/racial stratification is significant (Like the USA) but not because of appropriation, but of the stratification itself. Black people has being show to be third class citizens, less than human, priority targets for the police forces of the US. THAT is the problem. Not cornrows on white women.

Appropriation is GOOD. Disdain is BAD.


Yes, I can’t help but see this as undermining the whole point of the globally connected world that we increasingly share.

Because surely, simply by being born, we are all the inheritors of the whole, vast gamut of human culture. All of it is ours to absorb, share, remix, reinterpret and enjoy in whatever way we see fit to do so as creative beings, and by what right does any self appointed cultural arbiter seek to deny us of that?

The world would be a much duller, more stagnant, and culturally impoverished if we were restricted to enjoying and experimenting with cultural traits from our own background. Who counts as Austrian enough for some Mozart, Cuban enough for some José Martí, Xhosa enough to read Long walk to Freedom Chinese enough for Journey to the West or American enough for boingboing’s own output of all kinds? We don’t need to imagine how such a world would look, we have an example- it’s called the past, and I’m glad we’re leaving it behind.


I’m more comfortable appreciating alternate cultures than denying their value.

Quite right. I suppose it’s because as Americans, our primary culture is pop culture but your point is well taken.

So you think we should bolster the divisions between peoples because the people effected did not create the divisions? I don’t follow that logic.

Purplecat gets it.

Maybe someone English can comment on this, but I know I’ve seen interviews with English artists who talk about the music. English and American cultures have diverged, and outwardly it seem like English culture doesn’t have the same stigma against black American music that we do. Maybe that’s wrong. While The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zep all benefitted from racism, I don’t think there was a conscious effort to screw black musicians out of recognition. In fact, people like Paul McCartney have taken pains to make sure people knew that, for example, “Twist and Shout” was written by the Isley Brothers.

I mean, I’ve seen accusations that The Blues Brothers was cultural appropriation, and I think Dan Akroyd would probably be horrified to know that some people accuse him of being racist.

And I know this last part is going to be controversial with this crowd, but America still has a huge problem with racism…and it’s not just backward conservative types in flyover country. Consider Noel Clarke.

When he was in Doctor Who, what was he? Mickey Smith. Rose’s “idiot” boyfriend gone freedom fighter.

When he was in Star Trek?

Thomas Harewood caused great offense. Here he was, a black man, or worse, someone I saw more than once being described as “obviously Middle Eastern”, blowing up Section 31! Why did they have to have a clearly quite obviously Middle Eastern as he’s quite brown, blow up Section 31?! Clearly racist!

Yes, indeed…quite racist; because quite honestly, and forgive me for getting it wrong: I thought he was English.

I’m saying that the reason why African Americans might be just a tiny bit defensive about mindless appropriation of their culture is that they have lived within a system that has systematically denied them basic rights and values, while others have financially benefited from that work. If you watch the video, she explains that. If we had moved past this, then this would be less of a problem. There are plenty of people who enjoy and support the black arts, work with black artists on an equal basis, or who respectfully engage with black culture as part of American culture in a way that isn’t appropriation who aren’t black. the very specific examples she cites aren’t those. Hell, even Macklemore recognized that there was something kind of screwed up about him winning a grammy and someone like Kendrick Lamar getting passed over:

Also, I really love her point about what if we loved black people as much as we love black culture.

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You should check out Brian Ward’s work. He talks about rock on the radio in the American south. He specifically says that the big thing that got the Beatles in trouble, the interview where they said they were bigger than Jesus, wasn’t actually about that, but about their comments about being against segregation. He also argues that black artists on the radio helped to contribute to a new shift in values among American youth, which made the more pro-intergration.

I can’t disagree with that because you are correct. We do still have a huge problem with race, and this video certainly addresses that…

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Please. Cornrow braids have been in and out of fashion for centuries and the earliest known sculpture featuring something like cornrows is from 25,000 years ago from an area in Austria. Bo Derek “appropriated” island cornrow braids and beads about as much as biracial, New Yorker Alicia Keys.

As well, the Osmond brothers and the Jackson 5 became popular almost at the same time. Blame the Motown sound for setting the style of the early 1970s but I think it’s unfair to claim the Osmonds copied the Jacksons when they had been a singing group for nearly a decade before the Jackson’s first major hit. Readers of Jet magazine, at 20 to 1, felt the same way, that the Osmonds were not a copycat group.

And “Going Home” was written in 1922 by Dvorak’s pupil with the theme from the New World Symphony. There was no specific spiritual that Dvorak used as the basis though he freely notes to base themes and melodies in the New World Symphony on spiritual songs.

Get your facts straight.

Oh yes, the whole “it happened thousands of years ago, so what happened a few years ago is unimportant”. Do you honestly think that the influence on Bo Derek was some statue and not black American culture?