Black History Month: Cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation
You may have seen Adele’s recent Instagram post in celebration of Notting Hill Carnival. In the photograph Adele was wearing a Jamaican flag bikini top, a feather headdress and her hair in Bantu knots. The post had almost 5.5 million likes but also sparked debate about Cultural Appropriation versus Cultural Appreciation.
Central to the arguments of those critical of Adele is the historical and cultural sensitivity of textured or afro hair. In the context of unconscious (and conscious) bias and institutional racism Black hair is often discriminated against (just refer to the numerous examples of Black pupils being wrongfully suspended because of their natural hair). Yet there are examples of non-Black celebrities being celebrated as cool or edgy for wearing their hair in traditionally Black styles. Those defending Adele referenced her London roots and history as an ally to the Black community as evidence that Adele has an appreciation of the historical and cultural context.
This conversation is not a new one however for many the waters are muddy when it comes to differentiating between celebrating or hijacking culture. It is not for me (as someone with white British origins) to say where Adele’s post falls in this debate but what we can all do and benefit from is learning about the issues involved so we can have a more educated approach to a nuanced topic.
What is Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural Appropriation is defined as:
‘the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.’
There are various examples of Cultural Appropriation, broadly these fall into the following categories:
- using sacred symbols for non-spiritual reasons, for example wearing a Native American headdress at a festival or a Gucci fashion show where models walked the catwalk in turbans;
- borrowing ideas or elements of culture without an acknowledgement of its origins, for example wearing a culturally significant hairstyle, or photographing a cultural ritual or event just for internet ‘likes’
- perpetuating stereotypes, for example a themed party based on a cultural stereotype.
Using elements of another culture without an understanding or appreciation of its meaning can be harmful, it can reinforce toxic stereotypes and increase divisions.
What is Cultural Appreciation?
Cultural Appreciation on the other hand is based on honouring and respecting another culture. It involves active learning, listening and a broadening of knowledge and understanding. A key element of Cultural Appreciation is inclusion, are you including or actively engaging with those who form part of that culture?
Importantly Cultural Appreciation requires an acknowledgment of cultural significance. In an academic context you could not plagiarise another individual’s work and in the same way you should not imitate elements of other cultures for your own personal interest.
One of the benefits of modern society is that we are increasingly able to experience and engage in cultures which are different to our own. Exploring and taking part in other cultures is a great way of celebrating them, but not when done in caricature or where the purpose is to exploit that culture for your own use. Now more than ever there needs to be an emphasis on recognising and understanding people’s cultural backgrounds and differences so that these can be fully appreciated and celebrated.
Based on the clues below, are you able to guess who the two individuals are?
- She was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1915.
- She moved to the UK in 1955 following exile for Communist beliefs.
- She founded Britain’s first major black newspaper, West Indian Gazette in 1958, which became a key contributor to the rise of political consciousness within the Black British community.
- Following the Notting Hill race riots she organised the first London Carribean festival which took place in 1959 at St Pancras Town Hall and was nationally televised by the BBC.
- She and the West Indian Gazette subsequently organised five other Caribbean festivals, these events are seen as precursors of the Notting Hill Carnival.
- She was born in Clapham, London in 1962.
- She is a well known writer, having written more than 50 books and a number of stage plays and TV scripts.
- In 2008 she was made an OBE.
- In 2013 she became the first black Children’s Laureate.
- One of her most critically and popularly acclaimed works was the Noughts and Crosses series which uses the setting of a fictional dystopia to explore racism.