Cultural Appropriation: A Conversation

Spoiler alert: there are no easy answers here, no check list of what is or isn’t acceptable though we do provide some guidance at the end of this article. Reading this might give you more questions than answers, we hope you will find it interesting.  

This post is an edited record of an hour-long conversation between (right) Janett Walker, CEO of Anti Racist Cumbria and (left) Dr Karen Lockney who has been volunteering with the group since June this year, and would still consider herself as a relative beginner on her anti-racist journey. We often talk at Anti Racist Cumbria about acknowledging that a commitment to active anti racism will sometimes involve tricky conversations. This conversation wasn’t a difficult one in the sense of being a striking difference of opinion or a heated debate (though we have had those on other days and aren’t afraid of them), but it was difficult in that the subject matter is so complex and nuanced in some senses as you will see….. 

 

Karen: So there has been a lot in the media recently about cultural appropriation – what it is, when it crosses the line, who is ‘guilty’ of taking it too far, opinions and judgements flying around social media. The term ”Blackfishing” and what that means and then “appropriation”. Are they different or are they one and the same? I would say people enjoy wearing occasional items of clothing or jewellery that might say have an African or Japanese or other cultural design. Separating things out and weighing it all up feels like quite a challenge. I have done a lot of reading and thinking since becoming involved with Anti Racist Cumbria, so I feel a little bit further on in my thinking than I would have been a year ago, but the more I learn, the more complex and interwoven I think things are. 

Janett: for me the issue of appropriation has merged into the ‘Blackfishing’ issue recently in a way that isn’t very helpful in terms of getting to the heart of things. I think there is a spectrum with some aspects of ‘appropriation’ at one end and other aspects of appropriation, which could be termed ‘blackfishing’ at the other. Because they have all become ‘one and the same’ I agree, it is hard for people to get their heads around it. On the one hand White people might go on holiday and whilst there get their hair braided; someone might go into a shop in the UK and like the pattern on, like you’ve said, an African print hair band. That sort of thing feels more like a celebration of cultures, it’s nice to see others recognising and loving what different cultures bring to the world – food, music and yes clothing. But it is very different from someone getting their lips continually injected and tanning their skin to the point that they could pass as mixed heritage. If we’re going to get anywhere with this, it’s got to be about balancing out those extremes. 

Karen: so what I understand is a fundamental issue, the thing that most readily comes up if you do a bit of Googling about cultural appropriation is the idea White people can get praise and kudos from adopting a ‘look’ or part of a look that isn’t OK when Black or Brown people have done it, which people might have been on the receiving end of discrimination over such as with hair styles for example which has received media attention recently – a Black child might get excluded from school for particular hair style, but a White celebrity adopts that look and it’s suddenly fashion.

Janett: yes, that is problematic and something we see happening all the time, in particular with hairstyles. For example my own locs have been called unprofessional and in school Black children are told their hair is too big, or that protective styles aren’t appropriate and yet…David Beckham and corn rows anyone?

David Beckham in 2003

They were voted ‘most iconic hairstyle’ in football history whilst Abel Xavier’s braids were voted one of the worst. You sent me some images of Adele at carnival a couple of years ago, in preparation for this conversation where she is wearing an outfit that she got a lot of backlash for, and being accused of cultural appropriation. Now in Adele’s case it gets more complex and it’s about going past the screaming headlines. So, one of my closest friends is a White woman. She pretty much lived with us for a time as a kid and spent so much time in our house she was like part of the family, so she would come to Leeds carnival with us.  We would all dress up in similar ways, enjoying the ‘jump up’ of carnival and it was just part of what we did and what she knew. From what I’ve read about Adele, she’s from a similar background, growing up in south London.  The culture around carnival and friends she’d always have gone with isn’t ‘other’ to Adele, and she probably joined in, in much the same way my mate did. To her, dressing as she did and putting her hair in bantu knots was probably what she did from time. It wasn’t just something she did ‘that carnival’. The same is less true of say, David Beckham, who when he had his cornrows, was more an outright appropriation of a look he maybe kind of liked but didn’t seem to fully understand, it just felt it was another look being paraded without meaning or respect – that’s appropriation. David has since said he ‘regrets’ it and this is the issue; David and Adele have power and influence and can have a huge impact on millions of people. They can speak up and speak out and that’s really important. 

Adele at Notting Hill Carnival

Karen: Ok, I can see that, but of course social media isn’t set up for those nuances, for an examination of that background, we see an image, instant judgements are made, comments are typed, before you know it there’s a wholesale outcry. It’s either right or it’s wrong, and people transfer those judgements to what they may or may not do themselves, but the situations aren’t necessarily transferable. That kind of brings us to the ‘Blackfishing’ issue which has most recently hit the headlines with Jesy Nelson from Little Mix – this is such a striking image of her with Nicki Minaj, the pair of them looking virtually interchangeable with such a full on look. I struggle with these judgements of Jesy Nelson a bit as I know she has been public about her very fragile mental health to do with serious issues about her appearance. I felt so sorry when I watched her documentary about her struggles, a few years ago, she seemed so lost in terms of her view of herself, so I see this latest image change as part of that continuum, though I can see a different level of offence is caused to others in this case. I also wonder what Nicki Minaj is doing letting her go down this path. 

Janett: Ok, so yes, it does bring us onto Blackfishing. I don’t know much about Jesy Nelson but that image is frankly terrifying and completely offensive. I am not going to lie. The entertainment industry has a lot to answer for here and both Jesy and Nicki are pawns in that, but I also think we have to be careful here; it’s interesting that you went to the ‘why is Nicki letting her do that question – after you’d literally said all things about Jesy’s mental health. Is that not the same for Nicki too?  Too many times the onus is put back on Black people, here a Black woman to shoulder the responsibility, I think that’s not the right path to go down and it’s about deflecting and trying to re-direct the blame. It feels as though people can make excuses for Jesy, but not for Nicki. 

Jesy Nelson and Niki Minaj in her 2021 music video

Karen: OK, I hadn’t thought of it like that, but yes, I can see that, I don’t know much about Nicki Minaj, but I can see that yes, why should it be her responsibility, it’s not up to her what someone else does. Actually, they are both probably manipulated by the industry to some extent. This is where intersectionality comes in, isn’t it, they are both being encouraged to use a highly sexualised image to sell their records, to get headlines and so this is a gendered argument as well. 

Janett: yes, Jesy will be told to ‘do this, say that’, everyone will be telling her she looks amazing, it’s probably really  hard for her to resist that, even if she is not 100% comfortable with it. But I think the point is that she does have a platform though, a huge following, a lot of her fans are impressionable young girls, there are things she can do now to channel the reaction to her “new look” into something positive for her fans and instead I am not hearing that.  Ultimately people need to do their homework, even if they are part of the massive celebrity machine. We need an apology not a defence. 

Karen: I can see that, and I think that is vital to make these conversations happen and to mean something. I think about my teenage daughter consuming these celebrity images, and doing that in Cumbria where there is much less mixing of different youth cultures than there might be in other parts of the UK – so the current fashion for big lips (using cosmetic fillers), for big bums, false tan etc. – that is all being sold and consumed on any high street, and yet the origins of those looks are not thought about, they become lost and just commercialised, they aren’t consumed in any meaningful context.  

Janett: Absolutely agree. That is all cultural appropriation and sadly these people don’t even know which cultures they are appropriating it from. Someone asked me just the other day if these are my own lips! I said, ‘These are my lips, I didn’t buy these lips!’ The person asking me did not realise that the idea of lip fillers stem from wanting lips that Black people have. It’s the same for bums – I have always had this bum. Kim Kardashian filled her bum. Suddenly a ‘big bum’ is acceptable on White women. On Black woman it is ‘ugly’. Yet bums, lips, skin colour can now just be bought like a new dress. To me there can be no doubt that is not only cultural appropriation but also a complete lack of understanding as to why that is offensive. People want to look ‘attractive’ or ‘beautiful’ and are led to believe that having these things will make that happen – is that a good thing? After all they are saying they want to look like people who look like me at the end of the day! But that’s not ok when they want to look like me but don’t like the look on me. 

Karen: we really have to watch out for all that for this younger generation who are being bombarded with these images like no generation ever before. I worry about that, but it also seems more removed from my own world where I know I am not going to dress up like Jesy Nelson, but I do think about other aspects of this, maybe smaller scale . For example, a couple of years ago I bought an African print skirt. I really like print, I’m interested in different prints and I like this skirt a lot, but now I’m questioning it a bit. I mean I styled it up my way, I think last time I wore it with a striped shirt and boots, it’s not a full on look, it’s a print as part of an outfit, but I am thinking about that skirt now, I feel less sure about it. I’m not looking for your permission to wear it or not, I’m just thinking out loud about my skirt in the context of this conversation! 

Janett: well one of the things to think about there is where you bought the skirt. I don’t know where you got it, but you showed me a link to a fashion label specialising in African print dresses sold at John Lewis [Kemi Telford], I see that is owned by a Nigerian woman, she speaks about the tradition, about sourcing her fabrics responsibly and having sustainable relationships with suppliers. For me there is something really important about us doing our homework. 

Karen: No, it wasn’t from there, it was online, handmade though reasonably priced, from a Black woman who makes items as a hobby, a small scale business. Actually a couple of years ago now I decided to only buy second hand/ preloved clothes, partly because of the environmental impact of fast fashion, but also because of the exploitation of workers in other countries, most of whom are Black and Brown. I mean 1,134 people at least died in the Rana Plaza fire in Bangladesh in 2013 for a start, the working conditions aren’t good and children are employed, sometimes under the radar. So I do really try to be a conscious consumer, and I do always try to think about who is making the profit. I’m beginning to see once again it comes down to consumerism, commercialisation and globalisation the same as we were talking about with Jesy Nelson. If you follow that to its logical conclusion, you can think about colonialism. It’s easy to get fixated on the image of one item or one person, but the issues go way beyond that, and following the money is quite a good way to think about this. Who is profiting and from what? And that’s before we even think of the media spinning these stories and making a profit from that also. 

Similarly, I recently bought a kimono style jacket in a charity shop, it is so lovely, but I got to thinking about that as well. I Googled and learnt a lot of Japanese American women speak out against cultural appropriation of items like kimonos when they have experienced racism when dressed that way. I read it is less problematic for women in Japan, who have been able to express themselves more freely, and they are often more comfortable with White women wearing kimonos or other items as a respectful celebration of culture. Some people I read spoke about the danger of ‘stay in your lane’ dressing, and we don’t want that either. 

Stella McCartney’s Ankara collection

Janett: Ok, so you didn’t buy your African skirt from the Black woman in John Lewis but you did buy it from another Black woman. I think if I saw you in your skirt, I would compliment you on it and ask where you got it from. You would be able to tell me and then I would probably ask you to send me the link and you can see where I am going with this and how things can grow and develop. It’s not about discouraging you or ‘shaming’ you for wearing that skirt. Do you see what I mean? Many of us love fashion! And surely fashion is all about borrowing and styling from different traditions and times, mixing and matching and reinventing; that’s what’s great about fashion, but it has to be done with a respect for those traditions and cultures. So Stella McCartney did an African line [the designer’s spring summer 2018 collection] a couple of years back. Her clothes sell for hundreds and hundreds of pounds – did she also bring Black talent to the table, did she give Black designers opportunities, did she bring people with her? No she didn’t. [Criticism at the time was that the designer referred to the collection as being ‘a joyful exploration of British style’, and that there was only one Black model in the runway show.] Did she apologise or show any willingness to learn? Did she do her homework before, and if not, was she willing to do it afterwards? Those are the questions we need answering. Has she actually learned from what she did. For me that’s cultural appropriation – taking the best of what a culture has to offer and passing it off as your own. Not acceptable. Look at the influence someone like her has on women in particular. Don’t steal shit.

 

Karen: I started off this conversation knowing it was quite complex but actually talking about it has only made me realise how much more nuanced it is than I first thought, and I think we’ve probably only touched the surface. I am about to do more reading about consumerism and colonialism and the world of fast fashion [Aja Barber’s ‘Consumed’] which is a whole other conversation on its own, as is the wider issue of colonialism and the links to cultural appropriation and what is ‘policed’ in terms of clothing and fashion. For me, the fact the bottom line seems to be the pound sign, is why I want to investigate this more. Others might view it differently, but that’s what allows me to see we can trace this debate not back to yesterday’s celebrity news, but to colonialism, and how that still plays out today. 

I’m thinking though on the level of what we’ve discussed in over an hour today, is that there are no easy answers, we can’t write a check list of what can or can’t be worn, or when or where it’s OK or not OK to have braided hair, or where it is or isn’t OK to buy an African print skirt. It’s about who you are, who is around you, where you’ve bought or acquired your item and why, what your own heritage and culture is, the extent to which you understand and properly deep down respect that of others. None of that will do you any good if someone takes your photo and sticks it on social media, then people will just judge what is in front of them, probably harshly – but in the real world in our dealings and interactions with others and how we are true to ourselves, that goes a long way to giving a sense of authenticity to our appearance and how we project ourselves onto the world, and how that is received by others who may be impacted by our choices. 

Janett: yes, this is just the start of a conversation, we want people to think about these things, talk with others. Every day is a school day. The important messages here are to THINK about these things. Appropriation goes back a long long way. We can cite many times when it has happened. What we can’t cite as easily in the past is the challenges to doing it, why it’s wrong – voices rising up against it so that it can be fully understood. All those nuances. The history of it. And that’s what is now starting to happen. People are questioning it? Wanting to understand it? That’s a good thing. Like you say, there’s not an easy list of ‘right answers’ we can give here. The subject is complex. What we need is for people to go beyond the headline and understand what lies beneath so that informed discussions can happen and informed decisions can be taken. It’s not simply a case of right or wrong. It’s about doing our homework so we are educated in all the ways in which racism can present itself, including cultural appropriation and blackfishing as part of that. 

THINGS TO CONSIDER: 

  • If you choose to wear items from other cultures do your research, understand its history and give credit to it!
  • It’s advisable to stay away from items that have significant religious or ceremonial meaning.
  • Think about where and when you’re wearing things, context matters
  • Blackface isn’t ok. Dressing as Mr T for a fancy dress party? Don’t Black up.
  • Consider the wider implications of fashion – culturally, production, waste, materials.
  • Try to buy from appropriate cultural sources