Adele Adkins is one of Britain’s most accomplished musicians, boasting an Instagram following of 39 million. One of her recent posts to the popular social media site displays an image of herself in which she wears a Jamaican flag bikini top and has her hair tied in traditional African Bantu knots. When white people use parts of cultures other than their own as trendy alternatives and are praised for doing so, it highlights the racial inequality still rife within society, considering many Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups are routinely discriminated against for participating in their cultures and heritages. The photo was widely denounced, with Adele’s outfit choice seen as a glaring example of cultural appropriation. However, she is not the only high profile individual who has been accused of appropriation, an issue that is widely misunderstood and sidelined.
When white people use parts of cultures other than their own as trendy alternatives and are praised for doing so, it highlights the racial inequality still rife within society, considering many Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups are routinely discriminated against for participating in their cultures and heritages.
Culprits such as the Kardashian-Jenner family, particularly Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, have faced rightful criticism over donning dreadlocks and box braids despite being white women. Nikita Dragun, YouTuber and model of Vietnamese and Mexican descent, has been accused of appropriating Black culture by wearing box braids, a durag and darkening her skin. American pop star Ariana Grande has been accused on multiple occasions of cultural appropriation, including using Japanese culture and the kanji language as an aesthetic. She even got a tattoo in kanji which was spelt incorrectly, suggesting that not much thought or research went into it. Grande defended the accusations by stating she ‘loves and appreciates’ Japanese culture, victimising herself as she faced backlash by promising not to learn the language anymore. The irony of Grande resorting to white feminism rather than listening to the valid concerns highlights why appropriation matters, as Grande and those like her are able to draw on their white privilege if called out on appropriation by playing the victim.
Cultural appropriation is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as: “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” In recent times, the insidious ability to profit off appropriation is yet another harmful way in which communities experience appropriation. Social media is awash with influencers who make lucrative careers out of their aesthetics, with some white influencers accused of ‘Black fishing’- appearing much darker than their natural colour and often with hair styles or fashion aesthetics rooted in Black or other non-white cultures. The appropriation of ancient spirituality and native communities such as Native American can be seen across Instagram and has led to a shortage of natural white sage- a type of incense used in Native rituals and ceremonies for spiritual cleansing. Dakota/Lakota writer Ruth Hopkins criticises the act as appropriative and ignorant, stating: “it’s exploitative and amounts to silencing Native voices and erasing our cultural heritage.”
The continued appropriation of minority cultures is dangerous as it centres white individuals at the forefront of a new ‘trend’, erasing the history and culture of others in ways that are often ignorant and disrespectful. As Halloween draws closer, an annual argument will undoubtedly make its way onto social media, regarding culturally appropriated outfits that make ‘costumes’ out of other people’s cultures. ‘G*psy’ costumes become available for purchase with zero regard for the Roma and Traveller communities who have struggled with prejudice and oppression for centuries. The rallying cry of ‘my culture is not a costume’ calls for an end to such ignorant behaviour that disregards and disrespects many marginalised communities, including the often appropriated Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) by non-Mexican individuals. By painting sugar skulls for social media likes, without knowledge of the significance of this day which involves the celebration of one’s ancestors, it is clear how cultural appropriation takes something sacred and strips it of its origin, meaning and value.
Can there be cultural appreciation that is not appropriate and what does this look like? While the Notting Hill Carnival seeks to celebrate Caribbean culture, Bantu knots are a protective African hair style, highlighting how vital it is to fully know the history behind the culture you are engaging in. Taking aspects of a culture that is not your own for profit or attention- and that marginalised communities such as migrants and those without citizenship have been targeted for- such as traditional African or black hairstyles, reinforces the unequal power dynamics that are skewed in favour of white and non-oppressed communities. As the Black Lives Matter movement and the pursuit of racial equality continues, it is imperative that the voices of people who see their culture appropriated are heard and listened to, rather than dismissed. Cultural appreciation is learning about a culture earnestly rather than for Instagram likes or profit. Appreciation means educating oneself and participating in a cultural activity with others who belong to that culture; participating with sensitivity and a willingness to be educated.
Cultural appreciation is learning about a culture earnestly rather than for Instagram likes or profit.
Cultural appropriation matters because it highlights the exploitation of marginalised communities for the frivolous benefit of privileged communities, allowing people with privilege to play dress up with people’s identities and histories for momentary financial or cultural gain. Appropriation can reinforce or ignore prejudice when we all have a duty to be anti-racist. Adele may have spent her Notting Hill Carnival with black Caribbean friends following in-depth discussion and education regarding their culture and traditions, but the millions she posted her photo to have no way of knowing the context; they simply see a white woman in a Jamaican-flag bikini and Bantu knots. Anti-racism means engaging in these discussions, confronting and deconstructing white privilege without defensiveness and listening to and involving marginalised voices.