Words by Lebo Motswatswa

The zeitgeist of the decade has been open dialogue and critical discourse around issues of identity and representation. Pressing societal matters that were hitherto sparsely addressed are now being problematized, deconstructed and debunked for the sake of understanding, of seeing, of acknowledging and of healing. 

Cultural appropriation is one of the most layered of the many pertinent global conversations taking place currently. It is an issue fraught with many complexities. It renders many a confronted individual uncomfortable, and it invariably solicits defensive statements such as “so, I can’t do anything anymore?” 

In order for us to have a constructive discussion, a definition is required. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain elements of one culture by another. It is not the mere adoption of cultural iconographies that makes appropriation problematic, it is the fact that the adoption of these elements is most often non-consensual, unacknowledged and inappropriate. Furthermore, cultural appropriation is problematic because while elements of a certain culture are embraced, the people to whom the culture belongs are often ignored, silenced and marginalised.

In order for us to have a constructive discussion, a definition is required. Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain elements of one culture by another. It is not the mere adoption of cultural iconographies that makes appropriation problematic, it is the fact that the adoption of these elements is most often non-consensual, unacknowledged and inappropriate. 



The zeitgeist of the decade has been open dialogue and critical discourse


Black Culture Is Not A Buffet

Academic Dr. Shameem Black notes that “the real split is between how enthusiastically a cultural product or process from a part of the world is received and how enthusiastically the people from that region are received.” Black existence is not a buffet. You can’t just come in and take what you deem favourable and reject what you feel is irrelevant – and this is at the centre of the ire of people of colour when it comes to consuming certain elements of our culture. Most of the time, white people are silent on issues that affect the livelihoods of people of colour. Take for instance the predominant responses to the Black Lives Matter movement; it was met with much resistance from people who rebutted it by proclaiming, “no, all lives matter.”

The constant and almost relentless trivialising of the realities of people of colour is exhausting and disheartening. So when white people rock braids and dreadlocks or wear daishikis and kaftans because they feel that it is trendy, it is an affront to the quotidian experiences of black people wherein we constantly have to negotiate our identity in a world that has demonised certain aspects of our being, and has denigrated the expression of our blackness.

When we style our hair in braids or wear our natural hair, we are told that it is not appropriate for professional settings; this is tantamount to telling us that WE are not appropriate for professional settings. In fact, if you google ‘unprofessional hairstyles’, the majority of the images displayed on the results page are of black women with their natural hair worn in various styles.  This convenient consumption of favourable aspects of marginalised cultures is a key signifier of the sense of entitlement that is afforded by white privilege – that belief that you can do whatever you want without considering the ramifications and implications of your actions. As Ana Thomas puts it, white entitlement and privilege says, “yes, I like that. I will have that. Regardless of its origins and struggles that might come with it. I don’ t know why you do that nor will I take the time to learn, but I like it. Gimme that.” 


Everybody wants to be black until it's time to be black


Black Culture Is Not A Costume

The egregiousness of cultural appropriation is most ferociously displayed at Halloween and dress up parties. It is at these gatherings that we see individuals dressed up in attire that is mostly associated with marginalised cultures. The Native American headdress is a popular “costume”, particularly in the USA. Cultural items are not costumes that can be used to assume a character. 

By wearing other cultures as costumes, you are diluting, sullying and desecrating symbols that have deep religious and historical significance. When people of colour decry cultural appropriation, it isn’t because we are trying to restrict or police individuals’ agency, we are simply speaking up against the bastardisation of important cultural symbols and practices. To continue to put on cultural dress as though it were a costume is racist and it is culturally insensitive. And yes, in most cases, people aren’t trying to be malicious and distasteful, but intentions are inconsequential if the act itself is offensive. What is important is that you listen. Listen when people tell you that what you are doing is offensive and problematic. You don’t get to decide what is offensive to others and what isn’t. To avoid being offensive, before you adopt a certain cultural practice or certain items, ask yourself the following questions: “Why am I wearing this? Do I know the history and significance of this thing?” If in your moment of reflection you conclude that your action will probably be offensive, don’t do it. When it comes to cultural appropriation, respect and sensitivity are key.

This cultural insensitivity has been seen in so many instances in Africa. There are two cases in particular that beckon to be mentioned herein: Die Antwoord and Kasi Mlungu. 

In 2016, Die Antwoord, a controversial South African musical duo, released an album artwork that was offensive, disrespectful and repugnant. In the artwork, Ninja, one of the band members, is seen wearing a traditional Xhosa blanket that is worn by initiates or abakhwetha, and a traditional Basotho hat called Mokorotlo. This is an example of blatant cultural misappropriation and cultural insensitivity. The band used cultural symbols as props in their attempts at creative expression. The ignorance is shocking. To dishonour the sacrosanctity of cultural symbols that are an integral part of a people’s identity is appalling and unsettling, to say the least. Another example of astounding cultural misappropriation is the notorious Kasi Mlungu, whose real name is Anita Ronge. Anita has created a whole brand centred on black identity and culture. She has usurped “modish” and “favourable” elements of blackness and has amalgamated them to create her ever so problematic Kasi Mlungu persona. What makes this brand even more ludicrous and asinine is the fact that she feels attacked when she is told that she is not black enough. But, she is not black at all! And herein lies the big problem, out of a sea of many problems: for Anita, blackness is attire. She knows little about the lived experiences of black people, so to just decide on a whim that she wants to be black, but without the experiences, is disrespectful and insensitive. It is worth repeating: Blackness is not a buffet. 


Image source: Twitter


There have been many times in the discussion around cultural appropriation where people have stated that people of colour also appropriate western culture. This is an imprudent remark. Western culture was forced upon people of colour through colonisation and imperialism. Assimilation has become a strategy for survival. We do what we can to fit into a society that is anti-black. do – this is not appropriation, it is survival.


Black existence is not a buffet


Cultural Appropriation WithIN POC Communities

Cultural appropriation or misappropriation is not only related to issues of power and hegemony, or whiteness versus blackness; at its very core, as has already been foregrounded, it is about cultural sensitivity and respect for the sacrosanctity of cultural symbolism. So, it can exist even within POC communities. 

In 2017, writer Zipporah Gene published a polemic in which she pilloried the inappropriate use of African garments and tribal marks at festivals such as Afropunk. “If you’re not from an African tribe, please leave off wearing the tribal marks. Otherwise, you’re participating in the very thing you vehemently speak out against,’ wrote Zipporah. 


As people of colour, we need to be mindful of how we engage with elements of one another’s cultures. As we seek to find a connection, let us not practise the very things against which we struggle daily. Let us not perpetuate our own disenfranchisement.  As stated by writer Ana Thomas, “it takes bravery, pain, and endurance to maintain our cultures in spaces that are often unwelcoming to us.” While it is great to celebrate and appreciate other cultures, we need to always be respectful and educate ourselves, lest we be offensive by treating each other’s cultural elements with flippancy and disregard. 

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