And Why Black People Fiercely Protect It
Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture adopts less dominant cultural tropes. That is the set up. Dominant groups adopting from less dominant groups, for personal gain with a complete disregard of the origins.
History has shown that appropriation is a product of imperialism and over time, globalisation. It is an inherent part of omnipresent white privilege through museums, food, music, dress and so much more in the everyday that people take for granted. Without understanding the root of culture, identity gets lost and the sacredness of skill, knowledge, art and beauty becomes diluted. In the case of Black culture, it has been ripped apart but has somehow managed to survive despite strong efforts to destroy it. It has been delicately preserved and passed down from generation to generation. That is its priceless value. It is so strongly linked to the identity of a people whose identity the West has sought to erase. It is precious and therefore, we can at least pardon the outrage surrounding Adele’s carnival tribute.
Adele seems to be an ally. She grew up in Tottenham according to close personal friend David Lammy (see David Lammy’s tweets for your own amusement) and has been around Caribbean culture her whole life he says. She also loves Beyonce, but then again who doesn’t. Therefore, by this logic, many believe she has inherited the right to don a Jamaican flag printed bikini top and Bantu knots. Through her Instagram post, she showed her appreciation for the culture according to her fans. I get it. She loves Carnival and Jamaican culture but I do take umbrage with one aspect. The consequence of her actions is that the more ignorant and less culturally aware of us may view this as a pass to continue whitewashing Black culture because Adele did it. That is the tricky part. How do you explain to the white guy who uses the N-word because his Black mate says it, or try to deconstruct the inexplicable behaviour of Tom Hank’s son when they can easily throw Adele in your face? It’s problematic and perhaps the solution will only present itself once we’re on equal footing. That is why some opt for a one size fits all approach when it comes to being famous and adopting other cultural styles, you just don’t do it. Though it doesn’t sound very progressive, that’s because as a society we aren’t quite there yet.
Already, media outlets are leading with this story and debating the issue of cultural appropriation when there is no debate. Adele wore this for carnival, she did not wear it to go to Sainsbury’s. There was a moment and a place and context is the key difference. We’ve all seen hundreds of white girls in Notting Hill doing the same thing at Carnival for years and it’s acceptable because you’re expected to wear a costume within reason and ‘blackface’ will get you knocked out. The sticking point is that Adele is a white celebrity. Her celebrity status puts her in the upper echelons of dominant culture too. She is the dominant culture whether she accepts it or not. That is how she is viewed with or without her consent, the same way Black people being viewed as thugs and demons without their consent. She has a responsibility to understand her role and use it benevolently, unlike some presidents who won’t be named. This is the way the world works now, and we have all been forced to look through this racial lens because things are not ok. We are living in a climate where Black hate and fear is stoked constantly, and Black people want to fiercely protect a culture that cannot be shot at, knelt on or beaten to death. Culture is the last bastion of hope in the fight against the oppression of Black people. Adele’s photo came a little bit unexpected because we have become conditioned to see images of Black people being killed for being Black, and images of white people being celebrated for using Black culture. Adele’s picture was a trigger on all these emotions especially in the wake of yet another Black man being shot #JacobBlake. It is just another reminder that overall, the world is not in a place where celebrating each others cultures will generally be taken for what it is. There is a cloud of doubt that hovers over Black people making us rightfully unsettled by white people’s actions. Some were pleased with Adele’s appreciation perhaps because it was a ray of light that we can all get along. But when Black people speak out on appropriation, it merely speaks to the unfairness of society and how Black people are overlooked when their culture is celebrated by others but their cultural group is not. Therefore, it should not be dismissed so lightly. It goes back to a slavery mentality whereby white people can own Black labour and entertainment, viewing them as a resource but never recognising the Black individual.
People have talked about how we shouldn’t police culture because it is fluid and ever-changing but there is a difference between policing and protecting, and there can be some pride and empowerment in the latter. However, it seems there is a general feeling amongst white people that Black culture should be shared and that everyone can take from it and that is my biggest gripe. You have to recognise the origins. If you can’t appreciate the origins you have no respect and if you have no respect you are appropriating. When you look at the French, they are fiercely protective of their language and their cooking culture. You could never tell a French man that the British make the best croissants or you’ll risk getting hit over the head with a baguette. But that’s allowed right? The French are renowned for their pride aren’t they? But when it comes to Black people, we aren’t even allowed to be protective of our culture or call it out when it is appropriated, whereas by western standards, a little bit of outrage is considered an act of patriotism. That is an imbalance that I don’t believe is right and equal. It highlights the power structures at play and deters Black people from speaking out. So what if people called out Adele for appropriation when she was appreciating allegedly? Who was to know she grew up in Tottenham? With her platform, isn’t it her duty to either make that information available or face scrutiny and let’s be honest, she knew it was going to get a reaction hence she posted it. And that is where people fall into the appropriation trap that will always seek to amplify the dominant culture’s position. Surely Adele has seen other celebrities dragged for this behaviour so why would she think she was exempt? Is there an element of white priviledge or at the very least narcism? I don’t want to say that there isn’t either. It would have been nice for her to show her appreciation in another way because honestly, the Bantu knots did not suit her and from the expression on her face she didn’t seem too sure about them either.
I believe that Black people have reached a point where they want to see other Black people being celebrated for Black culture and no longer have patience for scarecrows. We are no longer able to settle for this. In conclusion, if Adele was proud enough to wear the outfit, she should be proud enough to weather the backlash that comes with it. Just like every phenomenally Black and proud person does on a daily basis, because when the Twitter storm has passed and it’s time to call it a day, Adele’s blonde locks will unravel from her Bantu knots and hit her pillow gently, but our thick black hair will remain coiled on our heads.