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Thursday, 13 October 2016

Let’s talk cultural appropriation

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her books took me by storm about a month ago. After only reading the first pages of her latest book, Americanah, I already knew I wanted to read all of her books, which I have done. Ms Adichie is a Nigerian writer, who tells stories of her countrymen both in Nigeria and abroad. Her writing is beautiful and sharp, her storytelling is breathtaking and engrossing. So, through the pages of her books I discovered Nigeria, a distant land to me. A place, which to my shame, I knew barely anything about. So I started reading more about Nigeria, discovering stories of this amazing place, I’ve never been to.

While reading the books, I could not stop googling the names of places, clothes, dishes, plants, historical figures and events unknown to me. And, obviously, Nigerian fashion did not leave me indifferent. How could I not fall in love with their spectacular fabrics, gorgeous geles (headwraps) and traditional clothes! At some stage, I even decided to learn how to tie a gele and go out wearing it, until my flatmate told me it would be cultural appropriation.

Quoting Wikipedia, “cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture”. I have heard a lot about cultural appropriation, mainly when I was in the US, but personally never had any issues with it. In my everyday life, I do wear some garments, which could be considered culturally “inappropriate”, but I’ve never got negative feedback or comments on it.


Of course, there is a thin line between cultural appropriation and cultural assimilation. Fine, I get it if certain sacred elements of one culture, such as Polynesian tattoos on children’s costumes, or Native American headpieces during music festivals, are used without any respect or understanding, are called cultural appropriation. On the other hand, I personally don’t see a big problem in wearing other culture’s fashion or symbols, when one understands their meaning and does it with appreciation. I may be wrong, but here’s what I think. We live in the world with fewer frontiers than, say, 100 years ago. We travel more, it’s not uncommon to work or be friends with foreigners. Ultimately, there is the Internet! All said, to me, cultural appropriation is an inevitable yet amazing phenomenon!

We eat sushi in Reykjavik and pizza in Cape Town. So, why can’t the same rules, which apply to food, spread to fashion too?

I find the definition of cultural appropriation so spacious and vague! I am sure many of you have something similar to the Asaka kimono or a top similar to the Indian kurta. Don’t you also appreciate the beauty of the sari, ao dai or flamenco outfit and would consider wearing any of them, if an occasion presented itself? Do I really offend Chinese people by wearing a qipao, or Brazilians by putting on a pair of Bahia sandals, or appropriate Nigerian culture by tying on a gele because I find it beautiful? Will Irish people get culturally offended if Peruvians wear Aran cable-knit sweaters, because each pattern symbolizes something to the Irish culture? What I am pretty sure of is that many Irish people would not even be able to tell what each of the symbols on their Aran sweaters mean. And this is the case with other cultures too! How many of us know and understand the symbols of our own cultures?

In the end, what is culture? As my new favourite Chimamanda Adichie says in her TedTalk on feminism, although in a slightly different context, “.. it is the preservation and continuity of a people... Culture does not make people, people make culture.” How much from other cultures have we absorbed during centuries, which has become our own and makes us feel at home!

Well, my answer is probably very shallow, but, believe me, I’ve given it quite a bit of a thought. I would really like to know what do you think about cultural appropriation, particularly in fashion, especially if you consider that your culture has been appropriated.