"When blackness is appropriated to the exclusion of others, identity becomes political." - E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness, p. 3
On September 25, 2019, fourteen-year-old Jalaiah Harmon posted a video on Instagram and Funimate showcasing her and a friend doing the original Renegade dance she created to the then hit song Lottery, by rap artist K Camp. The following month, a TikTok user posted a video of himself doing the Renegade dance without giving credit to Jalaiah. Somehow, widely popular fifteen-year-old TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio, along with other top influencers on the platform, became familiar with the dance and posted videos of themselves doing variations of the Renegade dance on TikTok, without crediting Jalaiah as well. The Renegade dance went viral both online and offline. Many people started crediting Charli as the creator, dubbing her the CEO of Renegade.
This case study presents an opportunity to (re)consider how digital spaces are constantly rewriting how online users absorb media (Jenkins & Deuze, 2008) and cultural artifacts. Henry Jenkins (2006) has written about the ways that new media changes our relationships and experiences, particularly with culture. Social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok, are not designed to encourage users to give credit or attribution to original creators of content or cultural artifacts, yet these platforms have given rise to social media influencers and microcelebrities who commodify everyday practices and culture and engage in cultural appropriation.
Online cultural appropriation, left unchecked, results in the same iterations of marginality online as offline. Thus, we need to re-address the displacement of black marginalization into online spaces (Gray, 2012; Nakamura, 2002) as it relates to online cultural appropriation on social media platforms. While platforms create new opportunities for visibility and even making a living, such as going viral and becoming an influencer, they also reinscribe hegemonic social structures. Since white people tend to get more likes and shares, and thus visibility, on social media platforms, they have a greater chance of going viral, becoming influencers, and being signed to talent and management agencies.
We also need to consider who is responsible for online cultural appropriation. As Gillespie (2018) has noted, "Given the true atrocities that regularly appear on social media platforms, the question of whether to intervene is, for most, settled. But figuring out where and why to intervene means wading into some thorny questions" (p. 10). Some of these questions include: What responsibility do social media platforms have to help limit the occurrence and spread of cultural appropriation on their platforms? Where does the responsibility for crediting lie? With users or platforms or both? Digital environments, specifically social media platforms, provide opportunities to credit people (i.e., tagging people on posts) that are not always taken advantage of by online users. While cultural appropriation is not a new phenomenon, we need to return to a reconsideration of cultural appropriation in the digital age to understand the implications of online cultural appropriation, especially as it relates to already marginalized groups.
Gillespie, T. (2018). Custodians of the internet: Platforms, content moderation, and the hidden decisions that shape social media. Yale University Press.
Gray, K. (2012). Intersecting oppressions and online communities: Examining the experiences of women of color in Xbox Live. Information, Communication, & Society, 15(3), 411-428.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York University Press.
Jenkins, H. & Deuze, M. (2008). Convergence culture [Editorial]. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 14(1), 5-12.
Johnson, E. P. (2003). Appropriating blackness: Performance and the politics of authenticity. Duke University Press.
Nakamura, L. (2002). Cybertypes: Race, ethnicity and identity on the internet. Routledge.