Recently, the popular Disney actress and singer Zendaya sat down with Nylon magazine and brought up the subject of cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation. She cautioned: “You have to be very careful. Some things are really sacred and important to other cultures, so you have to be aware, politically, about those things before you just adopt them. In order to appreciate something, you have to know about it and understand it.”
Reading her interview brought to mind the events of the infamous Oscars incident earlier this year, where Zendaya’s red carpet elegance was sullied when E!’s Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic ignorantly declared that the singer’s dreadlocks “probably smell like weed.” The outcry from Hollywood was abundant and publicly opened the discussion of double standards of beauty and racism within the fashion world, directly leading to actress Amandla Sternberg’s groundbreaking presentation “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows.” In it, The Hunger Games star—herself no stranger to racial double standards—showcased the irony of America’s love for Black Culture but not actual Black people, which made serious waves in social media.
But more importantly, Zendaya’s interview brought to mind my own negative experiences of racism, transference of racial stereotypes, and cultural appropriation within the frum community. Growing up as a Black Orthodox Jew in America has consistently thrown me into the path of blind and unchecked racism without my permission. Being a one-woman education machine never suited me as I found myself often repeating the same woes onto deaf ears. I place the frum community under the microscope with these issues not for “religious bashing” efforts. Rather, I’m making this connection because this is how I make sense of the community I was born into, the only community I have ever known.
Zendaya and Amandla Sternberg may be worlds apart, but we share a great deal in common. Some people I have met in my life are reckless with imitating aspects of other cultures; they seemingly could not care less as they selfishly exploit Black American culture for their own benefit. As a Black American Jew, I find this—at the very least—to be annoying.
In the frum community, cultural appropriation tends to appear when people want to act “cool” and “rebellious.” And whether they are heading into OTD land (off the derech) or are just pretending, the first thing they seek to imitate are aspects of “black” culture. They start listening to rap music; wearing their pants down low; adopting a fake ghetto-accent they probably heard from a stereotypical ghetto-black movie. Some also venture out to “date” non-Jewish black boys and girls to solidify their “rebellion.”
Single frum men, specifically, can be clueless morons. They come into adulthood thinking they can drop on me what they perceive to be great pick up lines such as: “Hey, I dated a black girl once. She wasn’t Jewish and you know we did lots of freaky stuff.” (Mind you, this was said to me during a Shabbat seudah. Needless to say, I was fuming and couldn’t wait to leave! I do not know what angered me more—the transference of the racist stereotype that all black women are sexually loose and like to be spoken to as such, or the audacity to wear a kippah and say such things to me with pride at a Shabbat meal of all places!)
But wait, there’s more. Back in college, a guy at a party I liked “complimented” me by saying, “Wow you have a really nice goy butt!” My crush instantly dissipated and I excused myself from the party. Yet whenever the occasional non-Black Jewish girl with a big butt chilled with me and my friends, she never received such a name for her ample derrière. She just had a “big booty.” That was all. Yet she would also refer to my endowments as a “goy butt” just the same.
I vividly remember sitting on park bench years back some with frum friends, including this stereotypical “white boy with a hoodie” who had his jeans hung low. While I was speaking to my friend, he interrupted me. ” Yo, you are the first Black girl I heard talk right,” he said. “Why do you talk like that?” As his friends nodded in agreement, I felt fiercely upset. And I felt cornered, too: To them, being black means talking “not right.” Couldn’t play into the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype, now could I?
Then there was the time when one of my non-black frum college friends braided her hair into cornrows. Everyone in our social circle said she looked “fierce” and “cool.” But when I braided my hair to preserve its health that same summer, my frum friends told me it looked “too black.” And I got a lot of attention from guys and spoken to like a slut. Apparently the more “black” I looked the easier I must have appeared. Apparently I didn’t have to be won over like any other Jewish girl.
Experiencing double standards of beauty and language when it comes to race, and watching members of my frum community appropriate black culture so as throw away their religious identity, brings deeper questions to the forefront: Why do these double standards exist within my Jewish community? Why do frum white Jews adopt black culture when they want to rebel against their religious upbringings? And what does that say about my existence?
Those that engage in this practice are telling me that involving themselves in what they perceive to be the representation of “Black Culture” is a complete departure from being a religious Jew, or Jewish at all for that matter. In essence they are saying that being “Black” is being “Not Jewish.”
This disturbing concept further reinforces the false ideology that being Black and Jewish is inconceivable and contradictory. If you want to rebel, rebel—don’t make your rebellion a “thing” by listening to rap music and acting “black” because it co-opts other black identities—namely Jewish people who also happen to be black. It goes without saying that not all black people are the same, talk the same, etc. However, I have come across many people who have yet to grasp this reality.
Zendaya politely asks for the same thing that I have been attempting to encourage within my own Jewish community when it comes to black culture. The key to eliminating cultural appropriation, disrespect, and racial frustrations, is choosing to become educated on the culture you are imitating. It is literally common courtesy.
I dream of a world where my kids will grow up and the need for a dialogue such as this will be laughable because this concept will have evolved from common courtesy to common sense.
Elisheva Ester Rishon is a Brooklyn-born, Brooklyn-bred, self-described J.A.A.P. (Jewish African American Princess).