What Do Phrases Like ‘Cultural Appropriation’ and ‘Virtue Signaling’ Mean?

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Close your eyes, and imagine that you are black, that your parents are black, that you grew up in a black household in a black neighborhood, and attended a black school. Would you have the same room? The same home? The same clothes? Would you have the same reading list, watch the same shows, listen to the same songs, eat the same food? Would you have the same friends, the same job, the same hopes and dreams? The answer to most of those questions would most likely be “no”. But, the thought experiment does provide a jumping off point for introspection, especially if you’re beginning the uncomfortable journey of taking a look at your own inherent biases.

Decades ago, educator and anti-racism activist Jane Elliott said to a room full of college students, “I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated the way this society in general treats our black citizens, to please stand.” The room goes silent. Not a single person stands. 

You cannot dispute the fact that being black in America, in Europe, or in the Middle East, carries with it inherent disadvantages – brought about racism. In light of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, conversations about race and racism are at an all-time high. For many of us, it can be the first time hearing terminology like “allyship” and “virtue signaling”, and it may also be the first time you are really considering the underlying systemic racism that is built into the infrastructure of societies, governments, and industries around the world.

To help you better understand the movement and its terminology, Savoir Flair has compiled a list of helpful definitions so that you can be a more informed participant in the conversation.

Allyship

An ally is someone who is on your side, and who fights (either physically in the case of military allies or metaphorically as in the case of social allies) alongside you for either your cause or a shared cause. Allyship is the conscious practice of being an ally to historically marginalized racial groups or individuals. Allyship also implies real actions taken to support, uplift, and amplify non-majority voices. A clear example of allyship is when actor Jessica Chastain demanded (and succeeded in getting) equal pay for her co-star in The Help, Octavia Spencer. If you are in a position of power or privilege, the act of allyship can be instrumental in ensuring that your friends and colleagues receive equal treatment, pay, benefits, and success. 

BIPOC

Person of Color (PoC) is a catchall term used to describe non-white individuals. However, BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous People of Color, is a more specific categorization, and is meant to draw attention to the fact that black and indigenous people face the worst consequences of colonialism, white supremacy, and racism.

Call-Out Culture

Call-out culture refers to confrontations on social media where an individual is called out by followers for illicit and unsavory behavior. Call-out culture has been instrumental in bringing to light the failures of leadership at public institutions, the abusive behavior of leadership, and the hypocrisy of certain individuals. Call-out culture is at an all-time high, where people are being exposed for acts of racism and predatory behavior that they have gotten away with because they hold power. Two of the main watchdogs of call-out culture in fashion and beauty are @diet_prada and @esteelaundry, respectively.

Cancel Culture

Cancel culture refers to social media outrage over the poor choices and bad behaviors of (usually) high-profile individuals. Calling on the individual to be #canceled as a consequence of their actions, cancel culture is a means of enacting a social boycott where the public is asked to refuse support of the individual. That could mean not going to see their movies, not buying their products, and not publishing their work. Cancel culture is a highly reactionary movement, but what it eliminates in the process of cancelation is any nuance or teachable moments. 

However, there are many examples of where cancelation is absolutely warranted. The best criteria for legitimate cancelation is where the individual does something so repellant or evil, and they are so unapologetic for it, that they deserve to be shunned at large by society. Sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Jeffrey Epstein, for example, deserve to be canceled (and imprisoned for life, if you ask us).

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation can be a tough concept to describe, as there have been legitimate instances where something looks like cultural appropriation – i.e., “taking objects, practices, and bodies out of their cultural context and exhibiting or performing them without consideration of the privilege such a removal or display entails” – was an instance of sincere cultural appreciation.

However, our many years of research and discussion on this subject has brought us to a more precise definition. Cultural appropriation is when an individual, group, or company profits on the culture of another. A prime example of cultural appropriation is the Kardashian family, who have enhanced their physical appearance to resemble the stereotypical body type and appearance of black women, profiting off of that appearance by the sale of products, while enjoying the privilege of being able to ignore the harm and bigotry that many black women have faced for possessing those same features.

In the workplace, a black woman might be fired for wearing her hair in traditional braids, but the Kardashians might use this same look to sell a product or make money off of appearing that way in their reality show. In the end, they get to “look black” and make money off of “looking black” while never experiencing the trauma and pain of what being black in America truly is.

Kim Kardashian braids
Photo: Courtesy of @kimkardashian

Performative Activism/Allyship

By now you have likely seen posts of people posing for photos while holding up drills to pretend like they’re repairing damaged storefronts or holding up Black Lives Matter posters while wearing gowns for a photo op in the middle of a protest. These are examples of performative allyship/activism. Similar to virtue signaling, you are centering yourself in the conversation, making your activism or allyship a performance for clout, clicks, and engagement, rather than out of true conviction and an earnest desire to help.

Virtue Signaling

Most people want others to know they’re “one of the good ones”, and achieve this by posting messages of support to social media. However, when not coupled with tangible, concrete action, it comes across as an empty gesture, thereby signaling your virtue without having any virtuous action to back it up. It also centers you in the conversation, and swings the spotlight onto how great you are, rather than keeping the movement, the protesters, and the people who are doing the hard work, in the center of the conversation.

Social media can be a tool to enact real change, like matching donations, promoting organizations that need help, and boosting the platforms of important political candidates. You can use the tool for good without making the post all about how great you are for doing so.

White Fragility

In her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, sociologist Robin DiAngelo defines the term as “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.” Because white people are not used to these conversations, The New Yorker illustrates DiAngelo’s definition by saying, “our largely segregated society is set up to insulate whites from racial discourse.” Instead of becoming defensive when having difficult conversations about race, experts suggest that you should let your guard down and absorb the teachable moment. In being quiet, listening, and reflecting on your own complicity, you are setting yourself up to become a true ally.

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