Adele and Cultural Appropriation.
I’m guessing you’ve seen this image already and may well have read some of the discourse about the backlash and support the singer Adele has had for wearing her hair in Bantu knots – a traditional African hairstyle that has passed to Afro-Caribbeans, in an act of “cultural appropriation”, along with a Jamaican flag bikini top in her recent Instagram post.
I’ve got to be honest, and I realise this may not be a popular opinion, but I’m not a fan of accusing people of cultural appropriation.
Maybe I simply don’t understand it properly – as I mentioned in a previous blog post about #BlackLivesMatter, I’m mixed-race black Caribbean and white English, but I don’t feel particularly “black” and don’t identify massively strongly with my “black side”.
This may all be a bit discordant, given that I’m currently creating a graphic novel about a black slave reclaiming his freedom and fighting for black rights but that’s how I feel.
Possibly, this puts me in the category of “priveleged”. I haven’t experienced (or at least haven’t noticed) much in the way of discrimination against me. I haven’t felt these struggles. I speak from a place of comfort regarding these issues.
I also accept that I’m writing this as a man and that with this case of this hairstyle, some of the issues may be more female-centric which may hinder my understanding too.
I’m fully willing to accept that I may be missing the thing about Adele’s hair and cultural appropriation in general that makes it problematic, and I’m very willing to discuss it and open to having my mind changed.
Fundamentally, though, I feel that a certain race or ethnicity cannot “own” things such as hairstyles and that to shame people for wearing their hair in a way usually identified with a certain group is wrong.
The world is shrinking, figuratively, and has been for millennia. Places are becoming more multicultural. As travel becomes cheaper, safer, and more available, people have been more free to move around the globe – either temporarily or permanently. With that comes the experiencing of others’ cultures and traditions. It is normal and natural that people see aspects of another culture that appeals to them and adopt it into their own lives.
There are myriad examples of foods, clothings, instruments and music, words, styles, trends, building practices, teaching methods, and so on that have spread across the world from their origins.
The other day, I went to a Peruvian restaurant for food. I’ve just cooked myself a meal based on an Indian recipe using things such as rice, turmeric, and cumin. I had an orange as a snack afterwards. Oranges hardly grow in this country!
Now I’m not naive enough to not realise that there is a history of British imperialism that has, at least in part, led to me being able to do these things, but it’s there and it has happened. I live a five-minute walk from an area of Birmingham called Balsall Heath. It has a large, but not exclusively, Pakistani and Pakistani-descended population with stores and restaurants that cater to and reflect that population. There are countless Pakistani restaurants, saree shops, sweet shops and so on. It’s rumoured the famous balti style of cooking was actually invented around here in what is known as “The Balti Triangle”. I’ve heard that people travel from literally all over the country to experience The Balti Triangle.
My nearest restaurant is a Pakistani restaurant. If I, and others with no claim to Pakistani heritage, were forbidden from partaking in those shops, foods, and anything else defined as culturally Pakistani, this area of Birmingham would essentially be an Pakistani ghetto as opposed to an integrated part of the city where my friends and I can sit down in a restaurant to enjoy a balti next to a group of Pakistani friends and a Somalian family, and support the local businesses there.
Surely this integration is to be celebrated?
Along with pretty much all of my family on her side, my mum is white and English. My dad, along with most of my family on his side, is black. He was born here in England but his parents and a lot of his and my relatives were born in the Caribbean. Some now live here, some now live there, some now live in other countries such as Australia and Germany.
My mum started incorporating some Caribbean styles, spices, ingredients, and dishes she’d never used before into her cooking because she knew my dad grew up eating food like that and enjoyed it. My mum enjoyed the food too. Surely that’s not wrong? Or should she stay in her lane? Would it be wrong of her to use her new knowledge to cook that for a white English friend of hers? If her friend enjoyed the food and asked for the recipe, should my mum be forbidden to share it on the grounds of cultural appropriation? Is she even an appropriate gatekeeper? Or is it fine for her to learn and incorporate elements of the culture of what is, through marriage, her own family?
And so with hairstyles. Hair is hair. Some hair is more accepting of certain hairstyles than others. Afro hair forms dreadlocks much more easily than straight hair, but that doesn’t mean that straight hair can’t form dreadlocks. There’s a lot of basic hairstyles that hair can be made into, but it isn’t infinite. There’s a certain number of things that hair can do. People always have and always will play and experiment with their hair and find new ways of wearing it. Why shouldn’t someone wear their hair in a certain way they’ve found, just because, essentially, someone else did it first? As we are with food, why shouldn’t we allow our hair to be inspired by cultures other than our own? The culture it was inspired by still retains it – nothing is lost, but something is shared and new fusions are created. I think that is wonderful!
The issue of the originators of things like Bantu knots being effectively “erased” is real. Bantu knots have been repackaged over the years as “twisted mini-buns” and various people from Björk to the Kardashians have been credited with inventing it or starting the new trend when it has clearly been around a lot longer and originated in Africa. I believe that this is a more true sense of “cultural appropriation” than merely wearing the hairstyle. That said, I don’t feel people need necessarily know the history of everything they do or wear. If they do then great, but sometimes it’s just something they’ve done because they like it and I think that’s fine, as long as they’re not falsely identifying an originator.
There’s a large Caribbean and Caribbean-descended community in England and has been for generations now. I’m part of it. This community is and should be welcomed and celebrated here. But I think an essential part of that integration is the flow of ideas and practices both ways. As communities settle into a country that they did not originate from, they adapt to their new home and adopt practices that they find there that work for them. As they form relationships with those communities they are living alongside and as part of, cultural ideas should cross flow both ways. As a white person might say to their white friend upon seeing them with a new hairstyle, “I really like how you have your hair that way! I want to try that with mine”, why shouldn’t they say the same to their black friends?
Adele grew up in Tottenham in which, at the last census, over a quarter of the population is black. She grew up seeing these styles and quite possibly had close friends who were rocking them. Is her being influenced by their style not a sign of healthy integration and cultural sharing?
Now I am aware that there is resentment from some people in black communities that there has been discrimination against them for things like wearing certain hairstyles and outrage that these hairstyles are now being worn proudly by non-black people who have never had to face the same discrimination. What I don’t see is why the response is to work to try to shame non-blacks for wearing those hairstyles, rather than continue to work to dismantle the pre-existing discrimination. Is these hairstyles becoming popular with non-blacks not working to make the hairstyles more acceptable in general?
Is it problematic that black people having these hairstyles wasn’t enough alone to dismantle the discrimination? Yes.
But surely, again, the problem is not with the people wearing these hairstyles, but with the discriminatory systems themselves.
Those systems are beginning to change. For example, at the start of this year, California passed a law banning discrimination based on natural hair in workplaces and schools. Progress like this is beginning to dismantle a Eurocentric view of professionalism and professional appearance and that’s great!
I’ll make a passing reference to the fact that black people, women in particular, have been known to relax their hair into more “white” styles, rather than natural afro hairstyles (Think Diana Ross or Beyoncé for high-profile examples). There are those that point to this as black people appropriating white culture. I think this is actually a straw man argument. The most I’ll say about that at this point is consider why, as a minority facing discrimination in the ways I’ve mentioned above, they may be doing this.
While there’s a discussion to be had there and I don’t think black people or other people of colour are automatically exempt from cultural criticisms levelled at non-POCs, firstly – as I’ve said, I don’t hold with the argument of cultural appropriation in general, but also, to accuse these black people of appropriation seems to me to be “punching downwards” from a position of a degree of cultural dominance.
Am I Cultural Appropriation?
I spent the years between ages of 11 and 22 (the mid ’90s to the mid ’00s) wearing dreadlocks. My hair forms them quite readily. They grew long and were down past my bum by the time I cut them off. I was proud of them.
My grandparents on my dad’s side are black and from the Caribbean. Does that entitle me to wear dreadlocks? My mum and her parents are white and from the West Midlands. Does that preclude me from wearing dreadlocks? Was I appropriating a culture when I did that? Do I have enough claim to the culture to not be committing cultural appropriation but rather just being part of the culture? I’m only half-black. Am I too white to wear dreads? These questions never crossed my mind at the time. I wanted long hair and the easiest and most maintainable way for me to do that was by locksing my hair. I’d seen others with dreadlocks and I liked the look of it, so I wore dreadlocks. I think that’s as it should be.
I didn’t notice much discrimination on the basis of them. (Whether it wasn’t there or whether I just didn’t notice it remains unclear)
This is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, but the one thing that sticks in my mind is that on my first day back at school with my locks, the teacher who was my head of year called me into his office and berated me for about 15 minutes for wearing such an “outrageous” hairstyle. Had I been a little more savvy at the age of 11, I would have nailed him to the wall when he asked me why I’d done it, saying “and don’t give me any of that ethnic crap,” but I didn’t. I truly wish on behalf of 11-year-old me that I had, but I was just smug that I was secure in the knowledge that the Headmaster had already spoken to me about my hair and okayed it.
Now, should I have had to have my hair okayed by the Headmaster?
Should my head of year have chewed me out for wearing my hair in a natural style like dreadlocks?
Am I still angry about it?
Much moreso than I was at the time, actually.
Does the fact it happened make me angry that white people wear dreadlocks?
Not in the slightest.
My problem is with those that discriminate on the basis of a black hairstyle, not those non-black people that have seen it, liked it, and given it a go themselves.
Adele wore Bantu knots as a gesture in place of attending the Covid-cancelled Notting Hill Carnival – a carnival celebrating Caribbean culture. If the point of the carnival is an open-to-all celebration of the Caribbean community in the heart of London, why shouldn’t Adele get involved? Why shouldn’t people of all ethnicities in Notting Hill get involved? Why shouldn’t people of all ethnicities travel to celebrate it? And why shouldn’t they celebrate things like the wonderful and diverse hairstyles that the Caribbean community have brought to England (that they first brought to the Caribbean from Africa) by wearing those hairstyles?
What do you think about Adele’s Bantu knots and cultural appropriation in general? Please do let me know in the comments but please do keep it civil.
EDIT: I had a few more thoughts about this and my own privilege a few days after writing it, and after a few conversations about it.
Read my follow up post here.
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