Appreciation without appropriation: the internal conflict of consuming Black media as a white person

By Vivi Smilgius

One of my most vivid memories from late-middle and early high school is riding the bus, headphones in, listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and thinking, “God, this is good.”

Allow me to reiterate: one of my most vivid memories from my early teenage years is riding the bus to my predominantly white school in northwest Indiana, listening to Kendrick Lamar rap about murders he witnessed at my age growing up in Compton.

Did I lose you? It’s OK if I did.

I’m a white person of Lithuanian descent, and prior to turning 13, of The Black Eyed Peas was the extent of my interaction with hip-hop. My father introduced me to some of the ‘70s and ‘80s most popular Black artists and groups like Earth, Wind, and Fire, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and The Fugees. But my dad didn’t listen to much rap or hip-hop beyond those decades, so by transitive property, neither did I. Rap was simply never a genre I explored, until one day, I did.

I have no idea what initially drew me to Lamar’s music. At the time I first listened to “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” I had barely developed my own taste— and what little I had developed wasn’t very good. (To be fair, 2012-2015 was a questionable time for music.) But I fell in love with Lamar’s work and began exploring rap and hip-hop as genres.

Part of my fascination with “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was Lamar’s ability to create something so beautiful, cohesive, and artistic out of events that were far from beauty, cohesion, or art. I remember listening to the album over and over again, following the storyline and its seamless flow from track to track. 

While the themes of peer pressure and a conflicted adolescence woven throughout the album are presented in scenarios different from those I encountered, I recognized a shared experience. The line between love and lust that Lamar walks throughout his 2017 album “DAMN.” is one I, too, have walked— in a different way. The political commentary on his 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” resonated with me, too. For me, listening to Black joy and Black pain through music is different and harder-hitting than reading about it in the news.

Lamar’s solo projects were just the beginning. Throughout the rest of middle and high school, I explored everyone featured on his albums. I delved into Top Dawg Entertainment’s projects— including the masterpiece that is SZA’s Ctrl— and I saw Black Panther in theaters three times. Black Panther and its soundtrack, another Kendrick Lamar masterpiece featuring other Black artists like SZA, Anderson .Paak, and Swae Lee, rose quickly in my ranks to all-time-favorite status for both music and movies.

With a 90 percent Black cast, Black Panther was the first time I saw Black beauty presented on screen in such depth. It made me aware of the fact that most of the movies I’d seen— and most of the visual media I consumed— were filled with white characters portraying white struggles. I realized I was missing out on a world of different experiences (albeit, some of them fictional) and perspectives by limiting my media consumption to experiences that solely reflected my own.

I grew to identify with Black media, despite the many differences between the Black experience and my own. It became a way for me to interact with a culture that wasn’t mine and sympathize with a life I’ll never know. With this exciting opportunity for exploration came questions and conflict. How could I appreciate a world so different from my own without internalizing— or worse, appropriating— it?

I saw TikToks condemning white people’s use of African American Vernacular English when singing along to Black music and realized I often used it when singing along to City Girls and Nicki Minaj. I thought of the way I rapped along to J. Cole and Tyler, the Creator, and realized that, in singing along, I’d adopted a voice that wasn’t mine. I questioned the ways I danced to Black music, wondered about the origin of beauty trends I liked, and analyzed the way I spoke around my Black friends versus my white friends. 

For the first time, I noticed not only the impact of Black media and the influence of Black beauty on my life, but the outcome of those influences and impacts— a person confused about the difference between celebration and appropriation. I had the internal conversation plenty of white people have or need to have: “I’m not racist… Right?”

I like to think I’m appreciating Black art for what it is, but I also question why I recognize it as Black. Would it be erasive to call it art, to drop the Black altogether, to quit specifying? To me, it’s important to recognize Black art as Black art, because it’s gone unrecognized for so long. But, I can also see how recognizing Black art, Asian art, and the art of other historically marginalized groups as the art of the marginalized could peg white art as the default. 

Part of me also feels ridiculous for even having this conversation. As a white person who gets to decide how I interact with Black media and Black culture, who am I to feel weighed down by my morality? Who am I to complain about not understanding how to interact with Black media when Black people themselves face much more serious challenges?

I no longer ask these questions out of fear. Instead, I ask them out of curiosity. If, as a writer, I’m telling stories that aren’t mine, I want to know. If, as a viewer or listener, I’m consuming media in an exploitative way, I want to know. I’ve learned that acknowledging a problem— especially a systemic one— is the only way to fix it, and living in fear of being corrected is no way to live at all.