Freelance journalist Zipporah Gene makes a bold claim in a recent opinion piece. Gene expresses her frustration with African Americans for “cultural appropriation” of African aesthetics.
“I understand that, for the most part, many of my own Black American friends are well meaning when they talk about African fashion, but the end result is still the same:
You take a cultural dress, mark or trait, with all its religious and historical connotations, dilute it, and bring it out for occasions when you want to look ‘trendy’.”
Gene goes on to label these African-Americans hypocrites for calling out white people hopping on the “black is cool” train but then hopping on the next train smoking with a red, black and green flag waving on it.
It is possible for any person of any culture to be guilty of cultural appropriation. There are plenty of people of all races and ethnicities who get tattoos in languages they don’t know and others who adorn themselves with religious imagery they understand nothing of other than that they like the shapes of the symbols.
Surely, some African-Americans have committed these cultural atrocities when it comes to Motherland aesthetics. I’ve come across many a “fake deep” dude in a dashiki who couldn’t tell you a single true thing about an African culture. But to say that African-Americans in general are culturally appropriating hypocrites is overly cynical and untrue.
It’s not possible to culturally appropriate your own culture, which is the case when it comes to African-Americans who identify with the numerous cultures that make up the African diaspora. White supremacy has had hundreds of years in the United States to do an insidiously excellent job of separating black people in this country from their African roots in every way.
To shame or fault African-Americans for seeking to reclaim and exalt that very same culture is missing the mark. Be upset with Miley Cyrus and her sad twerking attempts and calling Snoop “Mammy” in a tone deaf back and forth at the most recent MTV VMAs. Be mad at blonde-haired Australian rapper Iggy Azaelea and her acquired Southern black accent. Be mad at Marie Claire and Vogue for their respective stories on the “new trends” of cornrows and big butts, which only became hot once white women had them, despite black women rocking cornrows and big butts since time immemorial.
Be mad at all of that, but don’t stamp the cultural appropriation label on the African-American AfroPunk Festival attendees wearing flowing African wax print maxi skirts (Which are actually of Dutch origin but definitely an on-trend look that is capitalized on and inspired by African merchants and designers). That alone shows the complexity of cultural appropriation. Also, for first generation Americans, reaching back to Africa or the Caribbean for style cues is only a plane ride away to their parents’ places of birth, not a deep dive into Google or fashion mags.
Another protected person from that dreaded label that should be reserved for Miley, Iggy and their ilk? Me. I have a Sankofa tattoo on the small of my back. I’ve visited Ghana and had a great time there, but I have no familial connection to that land, as far as I know. I was born and raised in the almighty Detroit, Michigan, and my DNA test says Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea are where my roots lie. But I learned about the Adinkra symbols, felt connected to the Sankofa in particular and was moved to get inked. That’s not appropriating. That’s loving up on the African diaspora and appreciating the rich cultures that inform who I am. Ashé.
So yes, Gene has a point about African-Americans being capable of cultural appropriation, but this particular argument ain’t it.