When Talking About Cultural Appropriation Is My Privilege A Problem?

A Word Cloud of Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been thinking a lot about the issues in my blog post from a few days ago about the consideration that Adele was guilty of cultural appropriation with her outfit for what would have been the Notting Hill Carnival, including wearing Bantu knots in her hair. I was of the opinion she’d done nothing wrong here, and touched on my feelings that to call such things cultural appropriation may not be right.

Adele in her Notting Hill Carnival outfit, with a Jamaican flag bikini, Bantu knots in her hair, and a feathery accessory
Adele’s outift.

I also said that I was open to discussing it and open to having my mind changed but I’ve found myself surprisingly resistant to having my mind changed despite having heard various different viewpoints as a response to my post, some very clearly telling my they thought what Adele did wasn’t appropriate and that this appropriating of hairstyles isn’t right. I realise that I may have come across as (or even been) belligerent and argumentative rather than discussional as I intended to be, and unsympathetic, and privileged. That’s not to say I haven’t listened – but I haven’t necessarily agreed.

I’ve been wondering: am I problematic?

As a POC who doesn’t tend to define my identity through the lens of race, colour, or cultural heritage, and as a middle class, educated, employed, able-bodied, pretty heterosexual, cis male, integrated Brit who hasn’t noticeably experienced any racism that has affected my life in a significantly negative way, I could be considered privileged. I could be considered more privileged than some other POCs who may be more marginalised, and who have had far different experiences to me where racism has directly affected their life in harmful ways, possibly leading directly to a position of less privilege, and that has shaped their thoughts on cultural appropriation to be very different and much angrier than mine.

Am I part of the problem of privilege?

The author - Is he an example of problematic privilege?
Am I privilege? Am I the problem?

I’m not unsympathetic to those who feel that cultural appropriation is a problem that needs to be called out along with those who are committing it.

I do understand the huge insult and injustice inherent in a dominant or more powerful cultural group deciding “it’s ok for us now to wear a hairstyle that your group has been persecuted for in the past because now we want to and we’ve “okayed” it”.

In the past, that one group decided what was an acceptable way for another group to present themselves, and denigrated them and attempted to make the lives of individuals in that group more difficult for not conforming to that. Then they decided they themselves would not conform to the standards they’d historically set but because they had said so, it’s ok. I understand that this is unfair.

I think it should ALWAYS have been ok for ANYONE to wear those hairstyles without persecution. The harm was that it wasn’t and POCs caught the bad side of that. However, that past harm cannot be changed or undone. All we can change is what happens now. And I think that now that we have the opportunity to make it ok for ANYONE to wear those hairstyles without persecution, we should. The redress to the past harm is correcting it now.
Making it not ok for a different cultural group to wear it without persecution feels like a step sideways rather than forward to me.

I feel that things like decrying someone for wearing a certain hairstyle is taking an opportunity to create more divisions rather than framing it as an opportunity to create more unity and I don’t like it. (I know – “poor little me not liking it in the face of all those people who have much more of an axe to grind here”, but I am discussing my reaction to it.)

Spilt black and white paints not mixing
I think the issue of if and how and what cultures should mix and share is a complicated one and certainly needs room for shades of grey.

The idea that someone can tell someone else what they can and can’t do with their own hair and regulating their own bodily autonomy in that way, for whatever reason, feels fundamentally wrong to me. It feels like another case of one group deciding what is an acceptable way for another group to present themselves, and denigrating them and attempting to make their lives more difficult for not conforming to that. While the power dynamics at play might be very different – this is not a more powerful group punching down, but a less powerful group punching up – the idea that it is still one group is telling another how to be doesn’t feel good to me.

Similarly, but not exactly equivocal, I don’t feel women should be told they can’t wear typically masculine clothes or hairstyles, nor that men should be told they can’t wear typically feminine clothes, hairstyles, or makeup, regardless of the historical and current power dynamics at play.

It seems that why I’m finding it so hard to agree that Adele did something wrong here and that white people shouldn’t wear black hairstyles is because this feels to me like people continuing to make a decision to regulate other people’s bodily autonomy and that is where the resistance in me is coming from.

A white mannequin hand pointing at a black figure

In the very simplest of terms, I want people to stop policing the bodily autonomy of others.

I’ve only just really clarified this as the crux of the issue for myself.

I do still worry that maybe I am being problematic here and am simply doubling-down on it by posting this follow-up. Are my reasons for feeling the way I do indicative of problematic privilege? Please do let me know what you think.

I am still open to discussing this and listening to the views of others, but I thought maybe it would be helpful to know where I’m actually coming from on this; helpful for any of you who may want to engage me about this, but also for myself.

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