Don’t Worry, We’re All Guilty of Cultural Appropriation.

Zipporah Gene wrote a pithy and reasoned argument about cultural appropriation.  The gist of the article was the Back Americans are unknowingly appropriating African culture the same way White Americans are.

Cultural symbols have meanings and by ignoring them, Black Americans are guilty of the same crimes White Americans are accused of. To her credit Gene avoids all ire and outrage associated with the term and simply states that it is taking place, specifically at AFROPUNK Music Festival.

“…I would just like you all to realize the hypocrisy of seeing someone wearing a Fulani septum ring, rocking adjellaba, painted with Yoruba-like tribal marks, all the while claiming that this is meant to be respectful. It’s a hodgepodge, a juxtaposition, a right mess of regional, ethnic and cultural customs and it screams ignorance and cultural insensitivity.”

Nowhere in Zipporah Gene’s article does she state Black Americans should stop using symbols or wearing patterns that originated in Africa. Her point is, without learning the meanings a person could be committing a jarring cultural affront, viewed as disrespectful or just seem silly, lazy or bizarre to people from that culture.

In Cathy Young’s Washington Post article on the same topic, she tracks the origin of cultural appropriation to the fairly recent past of only about four decades.

“The concept of cultural appropriation emerged in academia in the late 1970s and 1980s as part of the scholarly critique of colonialism. By the mid-1990s, it had gained a solid place in academic discourse, particularly in the field of sociology.”

It was taken from a very specific historical context and has been expanded it to include any action deemed to be insensitive. Most notably, Miley Cyrus twerking, White girls wearing Native American headdresses and now Black activists wearing African prints.

The key is intent. Black Americans get a pass because their intention is to reconnect with their ancestry and heritage. It doesn’t matter how wrong the get it, they are guiltless. The assumption is that since Black Americans descended from Africa, they’ve inherited the culture and cannot be guilty of appropriation because of hundreds of years of separation from their cultures.

Black American culture can be just as foreign to someone in Congo as any Western Culture. Black Americans benefit from cultures many Africans never contact, because America is a recipient of more cultural benefits. Today, Black Americans have more to do with Western culture than African culture. If the “hodgepodge” is intentional then it’s as offensive to some, as the headdresses at Coachella.

A constant discussion among sports fans is who qualifies as a “true” fan. Teams like Manchester United reach millions, most of whom have never set foot in Old Tratford, let alone England. The dilution of the fan base was called into question in November of 2000 by captain Roy Keane, after a difficult win in the Champions League. He outlines the distinction between what he called “hardcore” fans and those that lack an understanding of the of the game.

“Our fans away from home are as good as any, but some of them come here and you have to wonder do they understand the game of football?…I don’t think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell football, never mind understand it”

For Black Americans, shouldn’t a person claiming to reconnect with their heritage seek to understand it? If Iggy Azelea is guilty of appropriation why are the attendees of Afropunk blameless? Aren’t they diluting the meaning when they don’t bother to find out the importance of a symbol they’ve adopted?

If it is petty for an African to criticize the expression of Black Americans then it’s a petty argument when made in any context. No where does it say that you have to pay homage to history before you adopt something you like. We are drawn to fashion, style, music and art because they inspire us. There are no rules. We are afforded that choice and should express it freely. If you like a shirt, wear it. There is no other mandate.

Black Americans have every right to learn more about their heritage and with it find a deeper sense of self. However if they are exempt from criticism when they get it wrong, the same privileges should be extended to everyone else.

The feelings surrounding misrepresentation and stereotyping are justified but do not merit censorship. Policing cultural exchange based on peoples feelings and sensitivities is undesirable and probably impossible. Today, the tools are in place to learn more about the wider cultures and peoples that surround and influence us. We shouldn’t place tariffs on expression when we stand to gain so much more by leaving those avenues open.

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2 comments

  1. Jessica · September 15, 2015

    Zipporah’s diatriabe is the equivalent of black Americans criticizing Africans for: making African American music, imitating what they believe to be African American dialects, and using African American products in ways that are not true or relevant to the African American experience. The many varieties of African American music (blues, jazz, hip-hop, rap, RnB, etc.), for example, were borne out of our experiences working and being abused on American plantations between the 1500s and 1800s, the Jim Crow laws of the 1800s and late 1900s, modern institutionalized racism, and, generally, being a minority in a powerful country in which members of the majority population treat you unequally. Our culture is borne out of experiences about which many Africans have absolutely no clue – a fact to which Zipporah readily admitted. Should Africans first educate themselves on the nuances of African American history, as well as the intricacies of current struggles within the African American community, before they attempt to reproduce any aspect of our culture? Indeed, there are many more examples of Africans imitating African American culture than vice versa. Should we now consider that “appropriation” of African American culture by Africans?

    Secondly, to use the term “appropriation” implies that African Americans have something to gain by imitating African cultures. What do African Americans have to gain? If anything, there is something to be lost. We live in a country – like all other predominantly white countries in the Western Hemisphere – that views Africa through a paternalistic, white supremacist lens. Many, if not most Americans, view Africa and Africans as inferior; stereotypical images of destitute people in need of charity and general turmoil is the predominant image we have of Africans. We live in a country that has, for hundreds of years, forced African Americans to tone down African characteristics in order to be considered acceptable and to be successful in society. Shouldn’t it make Zipporah happy to see that, despite all of America’s attempts, the African Americans she criticizes have resisted that way of thinking and are actually proud of their African heritage, even if those demonstrations of pride aren’t always artfully done (though the same can be said for Africans imitating African American culture)?

    It also confounds me that she saw fit to target only African Americans, yet she resides in Britain, where most black people are of Caribbean descent and many are guilty of the same acts for which she is criticizing only African Americans. The entire post reeks of something much worse than she is willing to admit to, but which most people who have read it can easily perceive.

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    • Kwamya10 · September 17, 2015

      Jessica,
      Thank you for your reply.

      Black Americans certainly have something to gain from assuming African symbols. Whether they legitimately become acquainted with their heritage and create a stronger identity and sense of self. Or just assume African mantles and gain legitimacy in their circles. Or finally they just gain something that makes them happy.

      Individuals don’t work with such broad goals as appropriation. By definition it takes a whole group to take over another before it can be classified as appropriation. What I suggest is that all these examples are of cultural insensitivity and everyone is using the word wrong.

      My defense of Gen is that she is consistent in her use and highlighting that the exact same actions by a white community would cause an uproar. Slavery doesn’t exempt Blacks from criticism and it should be heard with an open mind.

      Like

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