A Long-Standing Debate: Cultural Appropriation Versus Cultural Appreciation

When singer-songwriter Adele posted an Instagram photo to mark this year’s cancelled Notting Hill Carnival, the world of social media was thrown into a state of frenzy. Yet this did not stem from an outpouring of adulation for the singer herself, nor from a swell of sadness regarding the carnival’s cancellation. It arose from a wave of controversy surrounding her choice of outfit.

In the photo, Adele is clad in a Jamaica flag bikini top with her hair in traditional African bantu knots, an ensemble no doubt stemming from the centrality of Jamaican culture within one of the capital’s most celebrated events.

To many, it formed a blatant example of cultural appropriation, with the photo displaying nothing more than a wealthy white British person ‘picking and choosing’ which elements of Jamaican culture they wish to participate in. The Bantu knots have proved a particular source of ire, with commentators pointing to their origins as a protective style for afro-textured hair, rather than as a fashion choice.

Yet to others, this criticism is entirely uncalled for. Members of parliament and the public alike have rushed to Adele’s defence, arguing that because she was raised in multicultural districts of London, she was merely respecting and appreciating the diversity she has been immersed in since birth. According to these defendants, the outfit was not in poor taste, and anyone labelling it as such is both cynical and misguided.

In short, the Instagram post has triggered a new chapter in the long-standing ‘cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation’ debate. But in light of this intense disagreement, it is important to ask: what truly distinguishes one from the other?

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is a difficult concept to pin down. In essence, it refers to when a person from one culture- usually a majority culture- uses elements of a different culture- usually a minority culture- without demonstrating that they understand their significance.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as the following:

‘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’.

This is arguably the most widespread and stripped-back understanding of the concept. But for many, ‘cultural appropriation’ also involves the notion of taking elements of another culture with the intention of profiting or benefiting from them in some way. This is encapsulated in the words of comedian and YouTube personality Francesca Ramsey, who states that:

‘Cultural Appropriation is like taking a test and getting an “A.” And then someone else copies off your test and gets an “A” plus extra credit.’

A pertinent example occurred when Ikea included ‘jerk chicken with rice and peas’ on their menu. But instead of using long grain rice and kidney beans- as is the norm in Jamaican cuisine- they prepared the dish with plain white rice and garden peas. After encountering widespread criticism, they removed the dish from their menu and issued an apology.

Not only did Ikea display a striking lack of knowledge regarding Jamaican cuisine, their flawed adoption of the dish undoubtedly had the end goal of increasing sales. As a result, the incident illustrates both of the above definitions of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is hugely important due to its history. It is inextricably entwined with the exploitation ‘that has always existed’ and exists to this day, and has paved the way for people to be rewarded for the heritage and labour of oppressed and marginalised communities. At a time when great strides are being taken in pursuit of a more just and equal society, it is hugely important for an open and honest discussion regarding its impact to take place.

How does cultural appreciation differ?

Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, refers to when a person demonstrates a genuine attempt to learn more about a different culture, and in doing so, interacts with the culture in a respectful and considerate manner. By making an uncontrived and authentic attempt to learn, a person will inevitably avoid taking part of a culture without understanding its significance.

For instance, if the British spouse of an Indian person began wearing traditional Indian clothing, but before doing so, spent a considerable amount of time learning about Indian culture, this would form an example of appreciation, not appropriation.

Where does Adele’s Instagram photo sit?

Taking the above definitions into account, it becomes hugely difficult to decide which side of the line Adele’s outfit falls on. Is she guilty of cultural appropriation, or was she simply honouring and appreciating a culture that has been a major part of her life?

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, certainly concurs with the latter. Shortly after the Instagram post went live, he tweeted the following:

‘Poppycock! This humbug totally misses the spirit of Notting Hill Carnival and the tradition of “ dress up” or “masquerade” Adele was born and raised in Tottenham she gets it more than most. Thank you Adele. Forget the Haters.’

Within this terse condemnation of Adele’s critics, Lammy suggests that the singer’s Tottenham upbringing makes her totally within her rights to adorn herself with the flag of Jamaica and wear her hair in Bantu knots. Why? Because the area’s cultural diversity means that she understands the significance of what she is doing, and is therefore appreciating Jamaican culture, not appropriating it.

Lammy also points to the tradition of ‘dress up’ within the Notting Hill Carnival, arguing that because borrowing from other cultures is a key facet of the carnival spirit, Adele’s outfit choice is totally acceptable, and does not carry the sinister qualities that it would in other contexts.

However, there is an issue here. Writing in The Tab, Tahira Rogers highlights that ‘Bantu knots are not associated with Caribbean carnival at all’, and as touched upon, are commonly used as a protective style for afro-textured hair. With this in mind, Lammy’s argument may not hold the weight it initially appears to hold.

Rogers also points out that the use of Bantu knots on straight hair can in fact be damaging, which further suggests a lack of understanding on Adele’s part, and suggests that her primary focus was making a fashion statement rather than honouring Jamaican culture. Does this negate Lammy’s arguments to the extent where Adele is undeniably guilty of appropriation? It is difficult to say. But what is undeniably apparent is the importance of understanding and learning about other cultures, rather than seizing elements of them for personal gain.

Cameron Boyle is a writer and correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal aid to forcibly displaced persons.

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