A couple of months back, Michelle Joni Lapidos was the “WTF, white people?” winner of the internets when Post Bougie and Gawker caught wind of her blog, Before and Afro. For the fortunately unfamiliar, Miss Joni is an NYC-based white woman who, originally, purchased an afro wig for a costume party, and later had the epiphany (rather, a self-indulgent photo shoot in her apartment wearing the wig), that the ‘fro could be the catalyst for a new blog. Thus, Before and Afro was born to “help people all over the world look deeper within themselves so they can master their consciousness and fall madly in love with every detail of their lives.”
On wearing the afro: “it’s not about feeling black… what I actually feel like is ME, understood more clearly. It’s not an alter ego. It’s an amplified ego.” Simply, Lapidos wants to empower others to realize their true, authentic selves while wearing a synthetic wig.
After that initial exposure, many critics rightfully called the blogger out for her blatant and unchecked white privilege – not simply for walking around town wearing an afro, but also for attempting to pass off her mockery of Blackness (“Black” hand gestures and contorted lips) as a gateway to self-discovery. Per readers’ suggestions, Lapidos read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” among other texts, and initially thought an appropriate way to show contrition was to wear a blonde wig instead of a black one. Later, after more reading, supposed self-reflection, an NPR interview, and another hedonistic photo shoot that climaxed with her lying on the bathroom floor with her long dirty-blonde hair fanned out in limp defeat, Michelle Joni Lapidos was ready to let go of the wig.
Alas, like a enlightened phoenix rising from the ashes of white racial privilege and cultural appropriation, soaring through the clouds of post-racialism, JoJo found a way to have her “very own fro!!”
Before and Afro has to be one of the grossest examples of cultural appropriation and unchecked white privilege that I’ve ever seen…and I receive both the Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters catalogues in the mail at the same time every month.
Ultimately though, and almost to no fault of the blogger, Before and Afro reveals the fundamental disconnect between whiteness and all otherness.
Looking at race and racial hierarchy, historically, whiteness exists at the top while Blackness falls to the bottom. In reinforcing this binary and the trope that race is a Black and white issue, I am not diminishing or discounting other racial narratives or experiences of those who do not identify as Black or white. Instead, I have adopted famed Black theologian, James H. Cone’s philosophy that the dominant culture must renounce whiteness and adopt Blackness to receive redemption. He suggests that in order for oppression (as Blacks epitomize oppression) to cease, whites (as whites epitomize the oppressor), as a majority, must frame their minds within the spectrum of Black thought and experience. They must begin to shape their lenses from the perspective of the oppressed, rather than oppressor. Cone looks at the atrocities of American Indians, Black-Americans, “the persecution of Jews, the oppression of Mexican-Americans, and every other conceivable inhumanity done in the name of God and country—these brutalities can be analyzed in terms of the white American inability to recognize humanity in persons of color.”
Part of what allows for that continued racial disconnect is consumerism presented to us through mass marketing and mass production. People are no longer people with unique identities, experiences, triumphs and defeats formed by history, family, and location. Instead, the fundamentals of capitalism force us to be seen as products – packaged, sold, and bought. What results from that social system is race (and often gender and class) as performance, escapism, and ill-conceived imitation. Without sacrifice, politicization, or commitment, we can just buy a wig and suddenly feel the empowering spirit of Blackness or more specifically, Black womanhood. And because capitalism doesn’t push us to be responsible or hold ourselves accountable, we can feel victimized and attacked when representatives from the appropriated/mocked culture do not share our enthusiasm.
Consumerist multiculturalism allows us to sample bulgogi at Whole Foods, don Lululemon and aum without speaking to its origins, eat a falafel sandwich at Subway, or “discover Morocco” with West Elm under the assumption that that’s all it takes to be an engaged world citizen. With capitalism and privilege, there are no lessons of community care, community solidarity, or even community understanding.
Capitalism, which enables the consumerist society we experience in the United States, and racial and class privilege tell many white folks not only do they have the right to engage that way, but people of color or socially marginalized groups should not question it. If we do, we are met with “I had no idea!” and if we push the issue, that supposed unknowingness turns into a defensive, “it’s not my/our fault! I don’t think we should blame people simply because they have money. That’s not me at all!” despite signs showing the contrary. We saw these narratives arise from the political right during the 2012 election cycle of “they hate our wealth” and Romney supporters waving “We Built It” signs at the RNC. It takes only a passing thought of indigenous Americans and African and Black American slaves to highlight the absurdity of such a statement. These delusions are the necessary antidotes for one’s internal peace and mental stability when faced with the reality of what is lost when hiding behind the protected status and convenience of whiteness.
Purchasing products that have some sort of racial and cultural significance that is not your own – whether it be a fro, a dashiki, sexy Geisha lingerie, or a vague Navajo print – does not magically elevate consciousness. It’s playing make-believe.
Citizenship to a larger, soul-sustaining community cannot be bought or performed, and thus we must move beyond individualistic, self-interested consumerism that says otherwise. It takes a complete overhaul of how we think about and care for race and racialized people. By relieving oneself from the superficial, short-term comfort of these cultural and racial masquerades, one can begin to imagine, accept, and understand Black folks and other people of color beyond an afro.