Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Tale of Two Cultures

-by Whitney Childs

In "Yorkville Crossing: White teens, hip hop and African American English", Cecilia Cutler makes reference to an argument by Tricia Rose in which she states that "whites are 'fascinated by [black culture's] differences, drawn in by mainstream social constructions [of black culture]...as a forbidden narrative, [and] a symbol of rebellion" (Cutler 428). Whites participate in African American youth culture through fashion, music, and especially language, and these are often drawn from stereotyped ideas of African American culture, particularly in reference to gangs, violence, or identities expressed in the hip hop community.

Hill describes how Mike was introduced to other linguistic forms during his time spent out on the street and in nightclubs, she then makes a comparison to one of Mike's friends who lived in a poorer neighborhood and 'was in a much better position than Mike to acquire AAVE directly" (Cutler 434). I thought this was an incredibly interesting point because it suggests that a claim to language or culture has to do not with race or ethnicity, but with authenticity. Cutler then goes onto describe how hip hop has allowed non-African Americans access and freedom to have a "commodified, ephemeral black experience" (Cutler 435). Comparing these two statements side by side, I was confused as to who Cutler believes should have access to any given culture, such as hip hop culture. What defines authenticity? For me this also brought up the idea of how much environment has to do wiht the formation of identity, especially in cases where there are two or more identities coming together within the same space. These questions led me to this video clip:


"Save the Last Dance" is generally considered a cliche American teen film, but I think it highlights many of the things that we have been discussing in class and the stereotypes that Cutler sees being glamorized in the media. Sarah begins the movie living in the suburbs, as a typical white American teenager. When the clip shifts to her entering the new school, the music immediately switches to a harder, hip-hop song, and images of 'city life' are displayed. The main character is portrayed as dorky in comparison to her more 'hip' peers - standing in the lunch room, in her glasses, surrounded by classmates who dress better and spend their time dancing on top of tables.

Language wise, we see the main character assimilating herself and being assimilated into AAVE. Upon remarking on her friend's 'cool' outfit, her friend informs her that she should replace 'cool' with 'slammin'. And thus begins her transition into hip-hop culture and AAVE. Later in the clip, when discussing going to a club, Sarah takes her first step on her own, telling her peer (and future love interest), "I'll dance in circles, probably around you." Her delivery of the line and the attitude behind it is in stark contrast to her earlier, shy, reserved personality.

The rest of the clip is rampant with stereotypical 'urban culture' images, reinforcing this image of rebellion that Cutler described. There's a very 'wrong side of town' aspect to the movie, as you see instances of violence, gang members, high school students going to nightclubs and dancing much more provocatively than the ballet that Sarah performs in the beginning of the clip. This transition is not just a step from 'white' to 'black', but from rural to urban as well. There are associations that are made regarding the city and all that comes with it - areas that are of lower economic status and all that comes with that connection. Sarah finds herself appropriating not only the language of the environment she finds herself in, but with the fashion and with dancing styles as well.

To demonstrate another example, here's another corny teenage movie clip:


"Step Up" differs in the fact that both of the main characters are white - one is another example of this nerdy, uptight white girl who is shown how to loosen up with her exploration into hip-hop culture. Her guide in this movie, however, is another white person who has grown up living in an urban environment and is completely assimilated into urban street culture - he is a foster child, has been in trouble with the law and only ends up at the prestigious private school attended by the female lead character because it part of his court-ordered punishment. As the movie continues, there is a storyline associated with gang violence as well. Not only does the female lead become more associated with hip-hop culture, but also the male lead gets drawn into the more prestigious, formal private school, becoming more versed on technical dancing rather than freestyle and on stage performance rather than street dancing.

Is this assimilation authentic? Sarah from "Save the Last Dance" is in a different situation than that of Mike, who actively sought to embody the characteristics of people he had seen on the street and the identity that he associated them with, but the movie also demonstrates the conflict that she faces being a white girl in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The movie ends with her incorporating hip-hop style into her dancing, suggesting an idealistic blend of the two cultures which she finds herself in. What would Cutler think of this ending? Is it possible to claim aspects of several cultures to form your own identity, or will you never be considered natural? I would be inclined to argue that authenticity is based on the audience that receives you and their opinion on who can lay claims to certain languages or aspects of of culture.

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