Cultural Gentrification and You: Your Story, Your Style

“The point about pop culture is that so much of it is borrowed. There's very little that's brand new. Instead, creativity today is a kind of shopping process—picking up on and sampling things form the world around yo.png

Amber and I were having another one of our famous talks. We were discussing life and history as always but I was then quickly reminded of a recent style trend that dredged up every negative feeling I had about 2017: snowglobe nails. Now, if you are fortunate enough to not know what these are, I’ll take a moment and let you find out a little more about this “style” trend.

Now, this is extra. Really extra. Why do you need to turn your nail into a snowglobe? But it immediately reminded me of a trend when I was younger: back in the day of velociraptors and chunky blonde highlights. In my high school, black girls did extravagant nail designs all the time. But back in those days, the black women that did such elaborate nail art were considered to be ghetto or tacky. Now they’d be the stars of popular Instagram accounts and Youtube tutorials.

This is cultural appropriation and gentrification. It’s when things that were once maligned due to its attachment to minority groups without admitting to any of its history and sanitizing it for the sake of popularity.

We’re going to go over a few examples that particularly earn my ire.


Voguing

If you’ve watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, you have a base concept of what Voguing is. It’s a dance move that was popularized by Madonna in the 80s and is rooted in a the traditions of ballroom drag which was formulated and perfected by drag queens and gay men of color. Voguing is throwing shade with body movements but when Madonna popularized it at first she paid tribute to the LGBT community. She admitted that drag queens and queers of color did it better than her and featured them in her music videos and on her tours.

But as time progressed popular culture associated the act with Madonna more and more and less and less with the queer people of color that inspired and created the dance move. Voguing is an important part of the LGBT community and is a secret language to queer people all over the United States. And with Drag Race now in the popular lexicon, more and more people are aware of Voguing and are not aware of the fact that it is rooted in decades of ballroom drag. It was not something that started in the 1980s and it was not started by white pop stars. My breaking point was watching the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars and one of the guest judges (Vanessa Hudgens) had the audacity to say she was very into voguing now. Like it was a recent phenomena. Like it was something she just discovered. It exhausted me and I still roll my eyes at it every time I hear that comment.


Hair Trends

Now, I’m relaxed. That is an important aspect of black culture, I was told that my natural hair was not pretty and that I was not likely to be hired or desired if I retained my natural hair. But since forever, folks have felt it necessary to try out styles that were created by black people. Dreadlocks come to mind. Dreads are often times maligned when black people wear them for a myriad of culturally insensitive reasons. Dreadlocks are a hairstyle that formed with the Rastafarian culture and religion. They happen because of the kinky nature of black hair. So when a black man or woman has dreads, it’s often times political, spiritual and important. When a white woman or white man does it…well, let’s just say it leaves a lot to be desired. Again, the locks in dreadlocks are formed because black hair is naturally a little kinky, that sort of texture just doesn’t really exist for many others but that stereotyping does not exist for a white woman at Coachella in dreads. So while Zendaya wearing dreads gets a racist comment out of an E! News hostess, a white person in dreads is just eccentric and “worldly”.

The same can be said for many of the trends in hair braiding.

I got my hair braided a few times when I was younger and mostly for those times when I would be away from my usual hair stylist. Braids were a way to protect my roots from breakage. But when I had braids I was as far as the world saw any other black girl with box braids. I didn’t feel pretty with braids and I still look at those photos with any positivity. I can still remember the hours in the stylist’s chair and the pain associated with getting your hair done.

But when a Kardashian braids her hair, heaven helps us. Now, it isn’t appropriative because some form of braiding is almost as culturally universal as Bigfoot, but it is disappointing that something is typically seen as a negative for one race while it’s fresh, cool and edgy for another.

The last hair trend I’ll cover is weave, extensions and wigs. I’m a cosplayer and I spend a lot of time in wigs and I’m a very handsome blond.  But there’s a special relationship black women have with their hair and that means that many of my sisters in melanin have hair that they were not born with. And back when I was young in ye olden days, they were dissed for it. My great-grandmother was a snake of a woman but her wig collection was enviable. And as soon as I started collecting wigs, my aunts immediately made comparisons between my love of hair that was not mine and my great-grandmother, Ida. But let a celebrity throw on a neon wig and she’s a trendsetter.  

Long weave is a staple for many ethnic communities in the United States. They became an important way to express style for many black women and for some black men.

And that does not mean that all my brothers and sisters with hair not their own do it right. And many  of the criticisms of my think piece will be on “ratchet” and “ghetto” individuals. And while yes, there are plenty of folks who are not the pinnacles of fashion or design, the double standard is real and exhausting.


Being “Extra”

Now, in hindsight, I realize I’ve been extra my whole life. From the velvet jumpers to the always perfectly done hair, I’ve been extra since between it was a word used to describe people and not food. And back in my day, I realize now, that many of the girls and ladies I went to school with back during the days of raptors were extra as hell. Weaves that were several feet long, nails that sparkled like the hot white sun, velour tracksuits and purses that cost more than my rent payments. Today, that woman is extra. Years ago, that person was ghetto. And the big difference between what made a person “extra” versus “ghetto” was often tragically, race. Being extra is seen as a thing mostly now done by white people but comically, it’s something that many queer people and people of color have been doing easily for decades.


Speaking of queer people and drag queens, let’s take a small sidebar to talk about appropriation of language.

Queer people made up our own language decades ago. Shade, vogue, work, look, trade and more all mean something very different to the average gay man or drag queen. This language was created first and most importantly out of safety. Moons ago, being a gay man was not a fashionable thing to be and these codes and secret languages kept gay men and women safe from a hostile world. This secret language kept gay people alive and safe during the AIDS epidemic, during Stonewall and during the rough and tumble conservative eras in American History that you won’t learn about in history class. And as much as I love RuPaul’s Drag Race there’s been an entire generation and section of the populous that gets to “speak Drag Queen” without any of the background knowledge about it. And what’s even more frustrating is watching a woman at Walmart say “YAS, QUEEN. SLAY!” while also refusing to let LGBT people have the save civil liberties they deserve.

You don’t get to say “Yes, queen! Work!” and also think that gay people are still going to Hell because of religious dogma.  


Cultural gentrification and appropriation are one of the most exhausting aspects of the modern pop culture landscape. It’s right up there with microaggressions as far as things that just wear me down. Gentrification and appropriation suck the life and history out a thing that matters to a minority community, sanitizes it and re-sells it at a higher rate that often locks out the original owners of that media, act or pattern for mass consumption. But through education, careful research and analysis of media trends and a decent level of empathy: we can combat cultural gentrification together.

Cultural Gentrification and You

There's no such thing as being too Southern. Lewis Grizzard.png

It started with a simple enough inquiry about mason jars. A coworker asked me where to get a few so of course, being the Southern belle that I am, I asked what the use of the jars would be for. Her answer was frank. She wanted to make parfaits. Parfaits of all things. Think of the history of the mason jar. Once a proud Southern staple that held everything from flowers to nuts and bolts to necessary canned goods that could sustain  a family through the unpredictable winters. Now, they’re the subject of many a Pinterest board about all the fun, crafty things you can do with the versatile glass vessel. So with all that in mind, let’s talk about cultural gentrification, fads and all the tools a Southern lady has in her handbook that are now for some reason very in-style.

We’ve discussed cultural appropriation, dual-consciousness and Southern heritage become codified and popular all before so if you haven’t read those posts, now’s a good time.

I’ll wait.

All done?

Awesome, let’s get started.

So, of course, I had to talk about this matter with fellow Southern black woman and cultural anthropologist, Amber. We had a lengthy talk about how mason jars became suddenly so chic. I remember growing up with mason jars. We received canned goods from family members. We treasured gifts of apple butter, lemon curd, chow chow and bread and butter pickles. My grandfather canned foods. His family canned foods. I learned how to make jams and jellies and curds as I got older and wanted to keep the produce I was getting from the farmer’s market a little longer despite the fickle seasons of South Texas. It was just something good Southern folk did. (Not to say that Yankees didn’t ever can, pickle or preserve.)

Now suddenly, something that was a utility and was therefore kept cheap and easy to access because people used them for everything suddenly became rather expensive. And while I do love all the colors mason jars come in now, they’re far more costly than they ever were and are harder to find as people use them for country weddings, vision boards and to literally hold just parfaits. And I still remember many a Yankee friend question why we kept our flowers in empty pickle jars during my youth despite now these same Yankee friends asking “Where do you get Ball Mason Jars?” like Google doesn’t exist.

This was a conversation had at one of the halcyon symbols of gentrification to us as Southern black people: an overpriced barbecue restaurant. Now the cultural and social conditions that made BBQ a Southern staple could be its own post but I want to talk about a restaurant Amber and I went to: The Granary. It’s a nice place. It’s in the new booming area that is the Pearl Brewery and it has some decent barbecue. But good Lord, it’s expensive. 20 or so dollars for a plate with portions that were small for what a Southern lady expects out of a BBQ place. The sides were decent, too. The pickles were sweet (I like sweet dills, Amber does not). The bread was delicious since it was made with buttermilk. The sausage was good, the brisket was fine but the hitch was the collard greens. Oh the collard greens. Amber ordered them and immediately turned up a frown. She begged me to taste them and I did. They were sweet. Very sweet. Greens aren’t meant to be sweet.

We deduced that there had to be sugar and the sweet dill pickle brine in the vat of greens. Now, sugar is an additive in some recipes for collard greens to cut some of the bitterness (Amber says this is a sin but I know at least one family recipe calls for some sugar to make green palatable). And again, the food history of collard greens and other foods brought out of the terrible burden that was slavery but I digress. We came to the idea that the sugar was added to the greens at The Granary as if someone saw a recipe in an old Southern cook book and didn’t make any changes at all. We all know many Southern recipes may say add ⅛ cup of sugar but that doesn’t always actually mean ⅛ cup of sugar. Feel free to ask my friend Taylor about the pain of Southern recipes. I could never give him a solid measurement of how sugar was in my famous lemon meringue pie recipe because I never had a solid measurement. It always changed based on taste, how I felt and what the pie needed. Another great culinary example of this is “bone broth”. My new-age auntie explained to me that bone broth is just a rich stock made by exploting the gelatin and collagen in the bones of many animals while making stock or broth. To which I then quickly corrected her: “Oh, so the way our ancestors have been making broth for generations.” and she could only simply nod. The “faces” of the bone broth movement have been mostly Paleo Diet white women which is quiet ironic. It was their desire for clearer broths and stocks that lead to bones not being used in the stock-making process. Additionally, there was this fun little add-on to Google Chrome that changed any instance of “bone broth” to “hot ham water” since that’s what it was essentially. There was nothing different about it and as a cultural artifact, despite it’s now apparently health “benefits” it isn’t new and to charge several dollars for a jar just because it’s being rediscovered is disrespectful to the many home cooks who had to keep the bones in broth because that may be the only piece of meat for their family for weeks or even months.

Let’s get back to gentrification. Gentrification is about taking something that was typically accessible to the poor or culturally disenfranchised and making them pop culture and thus driving up the price of them. Suddenly those old tennent homes in the Bronx are oh so chic which is driving out the old rent-controlled tenants who have called those home for decades. Like me with my mason jars, now because they’re en vogue, it’s difficult to find cheap mason jars anymore for the rose jam I make in the summer. My other main concern with cultural gentrification and appropriation is the separation from the roots of these cultural staples.

I’m a proud Southern lady but I am also critically aware that being proud of being Southern is a complex legacy. There are plenty of Southern artifacts that cannot be rehabilitation. A sprawling plantation home was still once a plantation. The food many Southerners hold near and dear came from, started with and were perpetuated by disenfranchised people at minimum and at max were created out of the necessities and horrors of chattel slavery. They are distinct, valid and belong to another culture and the only difference between homage and ripping off is respect. I’m not angry at The Granary for overcharging on small portions of fairly decent barbecue. I know it was from a place of respect. The recipes came from a place of trying to honor the memories of the South.

It’s difficult to take back parts of Southern culture and remove them from the fact that they were often done out of necessity. Black women learned to sew because they had to because clothing was difficult to afford. White women learned canning and pickling to keep crops safe for uncertain times. Poor black folks created barbecue to use up less than ideal parts of animals because that’s what they were given. Taking those cultural artifacts, jacking up the price and making them fancy is literally losing the point. And when an outsider removes the cultural heritage and point of an artifact like using mason jars for just overnight chia seed pudding while not acknowledging the history, trials and struggles that came with those artifacts: again, the point is being lost.

So by now I’m sure you’re asking a few questions. Am I just a bitter Southern princess lamenting over the increased price of a mason jar and the rise of basic bitch Pinterest boards that promote literally gluing cotton balls to pinecones to bring “The South indoors”? Probably. But is there a larger conservation to be had about changing trends, appropriation and being aware of the cultural roots of many common artifacts? Yes, for sure.