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Friday, October 24, 2014

Column: Black culture and Christopher Columbus syndrome

You can’t discover something that’s already there.

Martenzie Johnson

April 25, 2014

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

Last month, during the Academy Awards, comedian Ellen DeGeneres took a selfie. Not a “first, let me take a selfie” type of selfie; no, DeGeneres took what has become known as a group selfie.

The host and a collection of Hollywood stars posed for a Samsung ad picture that was then sent out through DeGeneres’ Twitter account. It quickly became the most retweeted tweet in Twitter history.

Since March, scores of Twitter and Instagram users have taken group selfies, even President Obama and the Boston Red Sox. What was once considered a personal photo, hence the name, has become a collaborative event.

Media outlets, like The Atlantic, have dedicated page space to this “new” phenomenon, reaching out to linguists and sociologists to try and explain why humans take pictures of themselves and others.

Based on one group selfie, it became the trend to not only take your own “groupie,” but to explain what groupies mean to our culture.

This is where the media gets complicated.

On Tuesday, Vox.com published an article on what “basic bitch” means. The Vox writer, due to the increased use of the phrase in pop culture, felt it her duty to explain to America what “basic bitch” means and why it is used. Toward the bottom of the article, the writer briefly explains that hip-hop has been using the term for years and the term has shot up in Google searches just last year.

We’ve seen this before.

After Mercer upset Duke in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament last month, Mercer guard Kevin Canevari, who is white, celebrated by doing the “Nae Nae” dance. By the end of the day, the New York Times had published a formal think piece on the rise of the “Nae Nae.” Then stuff like this happens.

Last year, Miley Cyrus took the world by storm with her twerking. Anyone who ever has watched a hip-hop video or “Twerk Team” YouTube clip was well aware of twerking before Cyrus came along. But, the former Disney star made the dance style mainstream, and Americans couldn’t go a day without hearing about Cyrus’ booty shaking. Jezebel knocked Cyrus down a few pegs for cultural appropriation in June 2012, but, to this day, Cyrus is still the queen of twerk.

The term “ratchet” has origins in the South and has been used in Black communities for some time now. If you follow enough black women on Twitter or Instagram, you will see that term leisurely thrown around. New York Magazine came across the term last year and interviewed a Ph.D. recipient to explain what the idea of “ratchet” means. Now, there is a @MizzouRatchet Twitter page. Due to the profile picture on the page and the suggestive content, I can only assume that a white female student created this page.

.#BlackTwitter has been discussed and analyzed to the point of oversaturation, all in the name of defining this “unique” faction of Twitter.

The problem with these explanations of black and/or hip-hop culture is this notion of “Christopher Columbus Syndrome.”

Filmmaker Spike Lee spoke about this concept in February when discussing the gentrification of Brooklyn. Lee said, “You can’t discover this, we’ve been here” after talking about affluent New Yorkers pushing the poor out of their neighborhoods.

This is what mainstream media does with black culture. There’s the moment of discovery even when the discovered has been around the whole time. Whether it’s doing the “Nae Nae” or twerking or calling someone “basic,” these practices have been a part of black culture long before a white person became aware of them. Think Dave Chappelle and the word “skeet.”

This isn’t to say that only black people can do these things. It’s about the narrow-mindedness in making these phenomena the “it” things only after someone more mainstream (i.e. white) appropriates them.

The author of the Times’ “Nae Nae” piece even said that black athletes like John Wall and Dwight Howard had used the dance well before Canevari, yet Canevari was the one to make the dance worthy of Times coverage.

Just as how Christopher Columbus discovered a world that was already inhabited, media outlets publish discovery pieces on dances, terms, clothing and other products of different cultures that have been around for a long time.

When it comes to products of black culture like #BlackTwitter or “ratchet,” these types of discovery articles continue the trend of presenting black people as the “other” in society that constantly needs to be watched, analyzed and explained.

Even when it comes their dancing.

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