Singer Adele set tongues wagging with a photo she shared recently – wearing a Jamaican flag bikini and a Bantu knots hairstyle – prompting commenters to ask the question once more, what constitutes cultural appropriation?
For background, Adele posted the photo to mark what would normally be the Notting Hill Carnival in London; a celebration of the UK’s Caribbean and Black communities.
(The Carnival was held virtually this year, due to the obvious.)
The Carnival is a contentious event in itself.
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Adele, who is Caucasian, has been accused of culture appropriation and more, for sporting the traditional black hairstyle.
Bantu knots, along with cornrows, dreadlocks and other hairstyles, are traditionally worn by black people – when non-black people wear them, it’s a slap in the face, because black people still face discrimination for wearing their hair in a natural style.
We still live in a world where Black corn rolls, twists, braids, locs, and other cultural hairstyles are being outlawed and considered "unprofessional."
So no, Black people could never culturally appropriate from white people in this way.
It's called western imperialism.
— Ernest Owens (@MrErnestOwens) August 31, 2020
Others say the pop star was spot-on with capturing the theme of the Carnival.
Poppycock! This humbug totally misses the spirit of Notting Hill Carnival and the tradition of “ dress up” or “ masquerade” Adele was born and raised in Tottenham she gets it more than most. Thank you Adele. Forget the Haters. https://t.co/sabpPPRtID
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) August 31, 2020
Was she in the right, or the wrong?
It’s a debate that Marie Hadley still can’t find a concise answer to, despite researching the topic for more than a decade.
Dr Hadley, from the Newcastle Law School, wrote her thesis on the subject –The Politics of Cultural Appropriation Claims and Law Reform – and is passionate about law reform to prevent cultural appropriation when it comes to Maori and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.
She answered some commonly asked questions for The New Daily, about cultural appropriation.
When we talk about cultural appropriation, what’s a simple way to define it?
In contemporary society, “cultural appropriation” refers to the unauthorised taking of cultural property from a culture that is not one’s own. “Cultural appropriation” can refer to anything from the physical theft of cultural objects, to the copying of art styles, fashion, or musical expressions of other cultures, or even to seeking inspiration from another culture’s spiritual beliefs or practices or self-identification with other cultures.
It’s not my place to judge whether Adele’s Bantu knots are cultural appropriation or not. I’ll defer to African American activists on this issue. All I want to say is that instead of cancel culture we need to have more conversations and chances to improve and learn in good faith.
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) August 30, 2020
In countries with a colonial history or history of racial inequality, “cultural appropriation” is a pejorative term that is used to signal that exploitation has occurred.
Alleging that something is cultural appropriation is an objection to the power dynamic that sit behind the appropriative act. That is, the inequalities that exist between different groups in society, and often, the historical oppression of black, Indigenous and people of colour.
Cultural appropriation is about both theft and power.
When did the tide start to turn on cultural appropriation? When did it become part of the public conscious?
Cultural appropriation is not a new phenomenon, but I have seen a shift in [its] discourse over the past 10 years. Allegations of cultural appropriation are more frequently reported in the news and have greater traction in bringing about change (the recent renaming of certain food brands and sport team names is an example).
Cultural appropriation does not mean “people not of a culture participating in that culture”
It means “people not of a culture taking aspects of a culture and using it not as is used within its cultural context and/or offending people of that culture”.
— Ozzy Etomi (@ozzyetomi) August 31, 2020
There appears to be a much greater willingness to discuss the political (and legal) issues around cultural appropriation than in the past, and these discussions are having some positive effects in securing respect for the people whose cultural and intellectual property is taken (although there is still a long way to go).
Why is it important that we talk about cultural appropriation as a society?
It is important to talk about cultural appropriation as a society because cultural appropriation is not just about taking or imitating aspects of another culture – it is about the legacies of slavery, genocide, colonialism, and disenfranchisement.
Cultural appropriation causes cultural harm, and it also reflects the harms of the past.
Honestly this is exhausting, I'm a South African from the Zulu Bantu tribe specifically and i didn't take offence to Adele wearing Bantu Knots , it's not cultural appropriation and i doubt there was any malice intended by doing bantu knots
— @Jola (@Jola55124499) August 31, 2020
How should we show respect to other cultures?
How can we show respect to those peoples whose cultures we love to don as a costume?
Don’t assume that your self-identification is welcome. Appreciation of other cultures can be harmful, even if you don’t mean to harm anyone by your fashion choices or other actions.
Non-Black people need to stop wearing historically black hairstyles for fun. Simply out of respect for the fact that we still to this day are mocked-shamed-targeted and killed for wearing those styles.
— The Vixen (@TheVixensworld) August 31, 2020
Doing some research into these issues is also helpful: Be informed about your local history, seek out conversations with others, and be open to different viewpoints.
And finally, think about how you might change the story of historical and continuing injustice. How might you ethically support the people whose culture you appreciate?