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Whose Culture Is It Anyway?

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

British singer Adele is from London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Londoners are constantly exposed to a broad range of cultures and all aspects that relate to the many cultures there, e.g., foods, music, languages, and dress. The Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of West Indian cultures, has been important to her for years. Due to coronavirus, it was cancelled this year.

In honoring her now-cancelled NHC, Adele posted a pic wearing Bantu hair knots on Instagram. Social media blew up. Some people applauded her post, seeing her braided hair and yellow feathers as honoring a culture into which she was not born, while others were critical. The latter saw her act as offensive, capitalizing on other people’s culture to benefit herself.

Was it cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation? How closely related are they? And what sort of line is it that separates them?

The current climate in many Western countries is making cultural appreciation harder. Heightened sensitivity to all things racial has also nurtured a widespread willingness to accuse those who might align with cultures other-than-their-own of cultural appropriation.

The notion that the adoption of cultural markers of a culture different from the culture we are born into exceeds “appreciation” and becomes “appropriation” is intriguing as much as it is troubling.

But who is leveling those charges? It appears to be a matter of point of view.

Being a product of three blended cultures myself, I find this issue well worth exploring. In large measure, those who charge others with cultural appropriation see themselves as being in a position of less power, affluence, and influence than those who are perceived to “appropriate” their culture. The cultural appropriator is seen as a capitalizing on another’s culture without having to suffer the perceived downsides to that culture.

Specifically, it appears that accusations of cultural appropriation tend to come from people of color, especially Black people - with the explicit message that non-Black people, particularly White people, seem free pick and choose cultural aspects that appeal to them (e.g., appearance, hairstyle) without having to deal with the latent and not-so-latent racism that Blacks (and other people of color) are forced to face each and every day.

The Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation question is indeed multifaceted and tricky. It sets up a plethora of questions, all of which demand honest and open dialogue. Warning: “honest and open dialogue” requires a crucial blend humility and active listening. Without both, don’t bother entering into the conversation.

A very partial list of questions includes:

  • To be charged with cultural appropriation, do you have to be rich and famous?

  • Does the appropriated culture have to be a disadvantaged culture?

  • What happens when a disadvantaged person appropriates a culture from a perceived advantaged culture?

  • Who determines whether a person can adopt a culture other than the culture they were born into?

  • What about those who are born into families of mixed or blended cultures?

  • Are we permitted to explore other cultures which we may like so much we adopt as our own?

  • What are the expectations for a person who, through life experience, feels more comfortable in a culture other than the one they were born into?

  • If their comfort indicates their oneness with that culture, do they deserve to be marginalized just because they don’t “look” like the stereotypical image the accuser has in their mind?

  • What about those who are more culturally in tune with a culture they adopt than those who were actually born into that culture?

  • What are the “requirements” for a person to become a member of a culture?

See what I mean? The answers are neither short nor easy. The list could go on for pages.

Here are three scenarios of people adopting cultural markers other than the cultures into which they were born. You will be asked to decide:

A. No, it is cultural appropriation

B. Yes, it is cultural appreciation

C. It’s complicated - we need to discuss this

Scenario #1

A person born and raised in North America is a proponent of honoring all cultures equally. This person also travels widely and finds Nigerian culture extremely appealing. Because this person organizes a Nigerian cultural event in Omaha, Nebraska. At the event, a group of Nigerian nationals present this person with a traditional Nigerian clothing.

Question: Should the North American wear the traditional Nigerian clothing?

A. No, it is cultural appropriation

B. Yes, it is cultural appreciation

C. It’s complicated - we need to discuss this

Scenario #2

A man born in Guatemala has legal permission to live and work in the U.S. His job working at a private Golf and Country Club has exposed him to many people who are citizens of the U.S. The Guatemalan man buys some Ralph Lauren Polo clothing at Marshalls since he likes the way it looks. He chooses a RLP polo shirt and khaki RLP shorts with a pattern of anchor motifs.

Question: Should the Guatemalan man wear the Ralph Lauren Polo clothing?

A. No, it is cultural appropriation

B. Yes, it is cultural appreciation

C. It’s complicated - we need to discuss this

Scenario 3

A woman born in Texas is self-described as Black/African-American. Her parents taught her that people of all cultures and colors can be friends. She has developed a taste for Country music, especially that of Brad Paisley. Her closest friends include White, Black, and Hispanic people. On Saturday, she is the driver for herself and three of those friends. In her car, on her way to pick up the first friend, Sirius is playing a Paisley song.

Question: Should the Black Texan woman keep playing the Paisley song?

A. No, it is cultural appropriation

B. Yes, it is cultural appreciation

C. It’s complicated - we need to discuss this

Most people who actually read the three scenarios will decide that “C” is the most appropriate answer. The determination of cultural appreciation vs. cultural appropriation is complex and multifaceted. The conversation, if taken on earnestly and honestly, requires all parties to expose their presuppositions and unconscious tendency to profile others.

It may be neither appreciation nor appropriation, but something else. It may be cultural blending. Who decided we are stuck with the culture we are born into, anyway?

If Adele were born and raised in the West Indies, would that then entitle her to wear Bantu hair knots and yellow feathers? Or, because her skin color, would she be nonetheless chided by someone whose stereotype of a particular culture is challenged?

We have to reach out to talk to know to understand.

Otherwise, we’re just unfairly judging others because of our own limited cultural paradigm.

©️Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.

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