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.