In Order for Black Americans to Appropriate African Cultures…

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.

Black Americans 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:

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.

Black Americans appropriate African cultures

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?

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  • You are so right that the lines in cultural appropriation can get blurry at times like you mentioned. Another example that comes to mind is if a person who is white is born and/or brought up in a country that is mostly people of color. I argue that in a case like that, it isn’t cultural appropriation. I’m sure others would disagree. Thanks for commenting, Brita!

  • Right? Never saw it that way either. And no worries! Thank YOU for reading and commenting, Tamara!

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  • Thanks and You’re welcome!

  • No problem! Love your blog 🙂

  • I think it’s very hard to, especially when looking at someone else and you don’t know their story, make decisions that they are guilty of blatant cultural appropriation. Some cases certainly seem a whole lot more obvious than others. I have been, in the comment section of my blog, accused of cultural appropriation when I posted a photo of me wearing a sari. That accusation hurt, obviously, but it did cause me to research the subject more…and left me feeling that my conscience is clear regarding my sari/salwar khameez/qi pao wearing. I know some might still feel legitimately angry at me for doing so, because it’s true, I am white. I wouldn’t blame people for thinking ill of me, though I don’t think ill of myself. I’ll never blend in in Malaysia, even if I live the rest of my life here, even if my entire family lives here. But I do speak Chinese. I have lived half my life in tight community with this place. Nearly every piece in my wardrobe that has Indian or Chinese roots was given to me by close friends in this community. I care more about their feelings than the feelings of people I don’t know and who don’t know me. Plus, I wear my baggy salwar khameez tunics not because they’re trendy, but when I’m feeling self-conscious in the form-fitting t-shirts of Western wear. 😉 I wear my saris for weddings or holidays or when my friends call me up and say lets all wear coordinated saris. I also wear henna designs and bindis for those special occasions–although henna is more common. It’s the girl thing to do. In the US it might be sitting around painting each other’s nails. Here, sometimes it’s nails, but sometimes it’s sitting around tattooing each other with henna.
    It’s a complicated issue, I know. But to someone who feels they have no culture, not really, it’s a very good feeling to be ‘welcomed’ by the culture that feels like home. It’s interesting. The people who know me are the ones who give me their clothes for birthdays and holidays (I have amassed an enviable sari collection, largely due to my auntie who thinks every woman needs a large collection of saris), and the people on the internet are the ones who are offended.