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  • Writer's pictureRhoda Akua Ameyaa

Essay: White Face on Black Culture


Kim Kardashian attends the 2018 MTV Movie And TV Awards on June 16, 2018, in Santa Monica, Calif. (via https://www.nbcnews.com/)


You have probably heard of the term whitewashing and perhaps wondered if it is an actual term. Whitewashing isn’t a mere word that comes up in arguments: it is a powerful language of political discourse that captures an extent of something. Black culture has influenced many mainstream popular cultures that we enjoy including music, fashion, food, etc. It has been manipulated to suit the needs of people. It is particularly alarming how little to no credits are given to Black creators, artists, and trendsetters whose creativity moves the world these days. Just about a week ago, Black creators on Tik Tok started protesting after enduring the appropriation, co-optioning, and theft of their trends for too long. But the problem is not just that they are not given credits. The problem is that the faces known for these dances are white people who barely admit that the black creators created the trends they base their content on. People know the dances by white faces while the actual creators are shoved in the corner.


In this essay, I argue that White Face on Black Culture is context-sensitive. I present some forms in which White Faces have been on Black Culture regarding representation, ideology, and other situations. I conclude with the argument that at a point where people use “doing better” as excuses for their ignorance and prideful attitudes towards blackness, the world needs to do more than just calling people out.



What exactly do I mean when I say there are white faces on Black Culture? What I mean by this statement is relative and depends on the context of the argument as there are infinite ways this statement could be interpreted. There are so many ways that white people have represented blackness. It is quite an irony. When I first came to the United States, many white people assumed they know a lot about me from the mere fact that I am a Ghanaian and that they have read about Ghana probably from their middle school textbook. There were instances where some of them tried telling me I was wrong about a cultural concept and my account of my lived experiences. Imagine someone telling you that you are wrong about your life because what you say is not what they read in a book! That is exactly one point of the white face on the Black Culture narrative. The articles about Ghana, probably written by their fellow white person, are noted as the right information. Not even a person who has lived the experiences could convince them otherwise. They believed their 10th-grade geography teacher over me because they have associated the lesson from their white teacher with the truth. I am using my example to illustrate that White Face on Black Culture is about the visual aspect and abstract portions of life such as knowledge and experience.



White Instagram Influencer Emma Hallberg posing as a black woman. (via https://www.buzzfeednews.com/)


One of the ways White faces have dominated black culture is through the alienation of black excellence and initiative. Black ideas are disrespected far too often until they suddenly become popular. The world pretends it does not see Black creativity unless a white person creates something off of it. It is almost as if the world is defaulting to a point where anything that is not rooted in whiteness is not paid attention to unless whiteness is attached. In a conversation with Ana Dopico at the Perez Art Museum Miami, Teresita Fernández (who is not a Black person, but whose statement captures the thought I want to convey here) noted that “the more successful I became, the less I was perceived as a Latina or as a Cuban-American. It started to bother me because, inside, I knew that I was doing the work that I was making not despite who I am, but precisely because of who I am (Dávila, 138).” Her statement indicates that the world views creative excellence as something related to whiteness. Hence, as Black ingenuity rises to the top, the world restlessly wishes it is dominated by whiteness.


Something is unsettling about how the contemporary world uses whiteness to represent Black culture. A simple internet search of ” white women posing as Black” brought up many images and articles about people I never hear about. Most of these women appear Black on the surface until you read that they are, in fact, white. The assault of Black beauty in the name of representation reeks of the anti-blackness that was first expressed by slave masters who could not stand the characteristic physical features of Black people, such as their hair. In Shane White and Graham J. White’s Stylin’: African-American expressive culture from its beginnings to the zoot suit, there are recorded experiences of the frustrations, ridicule, and punishments enslaved Black people endured from their masters because they were upset with how they looked. One unnamed slaveowner said in the book, “Mistress Uster ask me what that was I had on my head, and I would tell her, ‘hair,’ and she said, ‘No, that Ain’t hair, that’s wool (White, White 1999).” The point is, Blackness has been ridiculed for a very long time, and to see that the culture of Blackness is represented in a way that looks synonymous with whiteness is mind baffling. Not only does representing Blackness with anything that is not Black wash off the historical imperative, but it also denies the reality that, for far too long, whiteness has always been seen as the standard.


Phenomenal Black women Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, and Florence Kasumba| Marvel Studios (via https://www.vox.com/)


Whitewashing black culture is not representation, especially since the so-called representation reinvents and asserts the world’s stereotypical views on what constitutes Blackness. To represent Blackness is to admit the ignorance of a system that has used Black culture as an analogical structure that uplifts whiteness. To represent Blackness is to dismantle the oppressive mindset that praises Black features on white bodies but shuts down the door on Black features on a Black body! To represent Blackness is to come as an ally but not as a savior because there is nothing to save other than the Black culture that has been scrutinized and hand-picked by people who use Blackness as their aesthetic.


One problem with the way Blackness is advocated for is the oppression Olympics that people play in understanding Blackness and the gaslightingof lived experiences of Black people. Instead of listening, people like to defend themselves with the knowledge of a culture they haven’t lived yet. People need to understand that if one is not a Black person, there is no way they will completely understand blackness. Living with Black people, having Black friends, loving Black culture, etc., does not exclude one from the work that needs to be done to decenter whiteness as the standard of living. Being a minority in whiteness does not mean one understands the struggle of Black people or that one cannot put their face on Black culture. Instead of rushing to cite one’s oppression, people need to know that their bad experiences are valid but do not absolve them of the responsibility to recognize the space they inhabit, the privileges they possess, and the work that needs to be done to dismantle the hierarchical structures mounted to override the existence of Blackness continuously. Western hegemonic constructions of race, beauty, hard work, success, and every aspect of life have affected almost everyone except the constructor of these terms.


Image showing a type of Black Hair ( via https://www.iowastatedaily.com/)


I find it quite ironic that instead of listening to what minorities say, whiteness finds itself questioning the relevance of Blackness. To participate in this form of thinking is to ignore the history behind Blackness and race. In a world where people continue to steal from Black culture, we need to do more than call people out. People do not live under stones, so they know what they do when they pick a Black feature that the media makes fun of and wear it on their skin (or anywhere for that matter), only to be applauded for it. With the mass media, books, campaigns, organizations, and other resources available to aid people’s education, it is not enough for culture fishers to say they are sorry and that they will learn. It is not enough to call people out. If one is ready to use Black culture as their aesthetic, then they probably know about the culture. To choose a specific part of the culture means one knows the options. How does one choose when they do not know what is on the table? This is why I believe apologizing shouldn’t be enough in these contemporary times! If one says they will educate themself, there should be a policy in place that sees to it that they do. There should be proof of people educating themselves and proof of the work they are putting in to be better so that others can learn that one cannot just wake up and decide which part of Black culture to rock. In contrast, people of the culture continue to be ridiculed in their daily lives!

Works Cited/Referenced:

  1. DÁVILA, A. (2020). Whitewashing at Work, and Some Ways Out. In Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics (pp. 138–167). Durham; London: Duke University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv14t48z5.10

  2. White, S., & White, G. J. (1999). Stylin’: African-American EXPRESSIVE culture from its beginnings to The zoot suit. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  3. Jackson, L. (2018, November 29). Women “blackfishing” on Instagram aren’t exactly trying to be Black. They’re doing something more insidious. Retrieved July 01, 2021, from https://slate.com/culture/2018/11/blackfishing-instagram-models-emma-hallberg-appropriation.html

  4. Helligar, J. (2020, September 16). 10 examples of Whitewashing you never thought about. Retrieved July 01, 2021, from https://www.rd.com/list/examples-of-whitewashing/






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