Last weekend, my Twitter feed was bustling with conversation surrounding the interactions between Black Americans and Africans in the United States. The conversation was inevitable considering the the people I follow, but the content of this conversation proved to be distinct from the previous ones that I have observed surrounding this topic. They seemed more empathetic and more unifying as I read and retweeted through the various gems of truth dropped in the goldmine my feed had become. Something must have incited this, I thought to myself. But I did not know what that was.The very next day, I came across this article called Black America, Please Stop Appropriating African Clothing and Tribal Marks (Yes That Means Everyone At Afropunk Too) and my mind quickly made the connection. This was the article that made the talk on my timeline come to life. And as I read, it became clear to me why this article had garnered so much attention. Zipporah Gene, the author, answered this question that she used as the foundation of her article:
Can Black people culturally appropriate one other?
Or in this specific case, can Black Americans appropriate African cultures? As I read her piece and began to think, I realized that there are certain conditions that have to be met in order for Black Americans to successfully appropriate African Cultures.
1. Black Americans must have no substantial ties to Africa.
The alternative label for “Black American” is African American. That’s quite a substantial tie to Africa if you ask me.
2. People who observe Black Americans wearing clothing from Africa must be omniscient.
But they aren’t. None of us are. Assuming that Black Americans are wearing certain outfits, accessories, or body paints because of their trendiness dismisses those who wear them as a means of expressing their African identity. Zipporah rightfully observed in her article that high fashion and mainstream fashion industries are incorporating African prints into their clothing. However, there are plenty of Black Americans who wear African clothing and accessories in order to pay respects to their roots. Afropunk exists as a space to celebrate unapologetic blackness so finding people using African elements in their outfits in this setting makes complete sense.
3. Black Americans must fully benefit from American privilege.
This is something that I have wrestled with in my mind as an African-born person who has spent most of her life in North America. More than one non-American black person from Africa, the Caribbean, Afro-Latin America, the UK, and other places throughout the Diaspora have noticed how the Black American narratives tends to dominate the global black narrative. I saw the hypervisibility of Black America as indicative of their privilege. But then Nnenna, an intelligent Nigerian American that I follow on Twitter, posited a question that made me change my perspective:
@kcheersbye how does visibility = privilege if there is no tangible benefit from the visibility . I would argue visibility is harmful
— Chisaraokwu (@theAfroLegalise) July 8, 2015
The truth is that this hypervisibility that Black Americans have puts them in a position to be easy targets for violence and injustice. It is an all too common thing here in The States. Sure, their hypervisibility in the Diaspora can be attributed to their Americanness. But since that Americanness is being lived through black bodies in the context of this country’s history, a history that fails to afford them the idealistic freedom America continues to sell, American privilege does not fully manifest itself among Black American people.
4. Black Americans wearing African clothing must be the same as white people wearing African clothing.
In Zipporah’s article she equates the two. And sure, if Black Americans wearing African clothing was the same as white people wearing African clothing, then it would be a case of cultural appropriation committed by black people. However, she fails to realize that power dynamics in both scenarios are astronomically different.
In the event that a white person was not invited by an African to wear a certain cultural piece, for them to wear an African piece simply because it’s cute/trendy/cool/etc. would be an act of cultural appropriation. Why? Because actions do not happen in a vacuum; historically, Europeans have colonized African countries which have contributed to many of the issues that are still present within the continent. Despite the serious problems that are of concern for the plethora of cultures represented on that large continent, there is an air of celebration and jubilation that rings throughout Africa. And its vibrancy can be seen in the eye-catching colors that resonate within the African paints and fabrics.
Given this historical context, for a white person to wear African clothing for its aesthetic without regard for the meaning and contexts in which those pieces are traditionally worn is problematic. Africans deal with the stereotypes, the degradation, the issues with living in and/or being from Africa, and other struggles that come with living in a world where whiteness is the ideal. For white people and the mainstream, predominately white fashion world to wear and capitalize on African dress turns African cultures (and other cultures that have been appropriated) into a buffet where mainstream fashion and white people can pick and choose what is “acceptable” instead of enjoying and respecting the fashion pieces within the context they originally came from. Those cultural pieces are presented to the public as “new fashion discoveries” in the eyes of mainstream fashion when those cultural pieces have literally existed for centuries. It takes them zero effort to find a cultural piece that they think is cool. And to receive attention and credit for it while those who birthed the cultural piece are not credited or compensated is very wrong.
All of that being said, a Black American wearing African clothing is a completely different dynamic. This is an individual whose heritage began from that continent but because of slavery, their lineage spans not only Africa but the United States. That is outside of their control and Black Americans have every right to feel connected back to the continent and express that connection through the way they wish to dress.
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Out of the four conditions that have been listed in this post, none of them have been met so there you have it: Black Americans cannot appropriate African cultures. On the other hand, I have experienced being disrespected by Black Americans because I am African. I have also been disrespectful towards Black Americans as a kid because I felt hurt. I also have been disrespected by Africans because of my complex cultural identity. The truth is there is a lot of hurt that has been flung throughout the Diaspora. There are many African, Caribbean, and Afro-Latin people who feel that their voice is not as loud as Black Americans when it comes to issues affecting the global black community and they find a huge issue with that. There are Black Americans who have experienced being othered by Africans who distance themselves away from Black Americans. These are painful scenes that show the residue colonialism has left behind in the Diaspora. These are somber reminders that healing needed in the Black Diaspora, a very necessary healing from the condition that has been perfectly described as post-colonial traumatic stress disorder.
To my fellow brothers and sisters in the African Diaspora, in what ways can we heal and move forward together as a more solid unit? One tiny contribution to this endeavor is by seeing visuals that celebrate African fashion and fashion inspired by Africa in the Diaspora alongside each other. I created the “Fashion of my People” pin board that highlights West African and West African-inspired fashion and you are more than welcome to check it out!
To everyone, what are your thoughts on cultural appropriation as mentioned here or in other scenarios you have seen?