Racism and “Cultural Appropriation”

I only encountered the bizarre new concept of “cultural appropriation” within the past 2-3 years. I remember the moment well: a black Facebook friend posted a picture of some white, middle-aged women dressed in traditional African clothing. It was a sweet photo, so I was taken aback by the commentary that accompanied it: apparently, here was an example of white supremacy, once again stealing from Africa. The women were guilty of “cultural appropriation”, apparently. And that’s bad.

Here was a new and puzzling idea. The left of old was insistent that Africa was victim to the exact opposite problem: something we referred to as “cultural imperialism”. We thought that culture could be imposed by those with the money and the guns. It was a superficially obvious idea: but we failed to understand what culture is, or how it works.

There are genuine moments when a culture has been forced onto an African population: the South African attempt to teach children in Afrikaans was one example. This policy prompted an uprising by school students who demanded to be taught in English, and led to the Soweto uprising, and the famous 1976 massacre of school students. The imposition of Islam in the Sahel by the Arabian empire was, one suspects, not done entirely peacefully.

Suppressing culture for the sake of it is simply expensive and pointless. This doesn’t stop politicians, police and control-freaks from repeatedly trying.

An attempt to suppress black American music
An attempt to suppress black American music

Culture doesn’t flow by force, nor does it necessarily follow the money. The story of black American music is the ultimate proof of that. Even in pre-civil rights segregated America, black music found widespread popularity. Recording fuelled the rise of jazz, swing and rock & roll. The racist white establishment attempted to suppress this, but were unable: when something is good, people will find a way to get it; this is as true of “dangerous music” as it is of illegal drugs. For sure, it was easy (prior the civil rights era) to suppress black artists, by refusing to record them, banning them from radio and from live performances. But this couldn’t prevent white artists – Al Jolson, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly – from helping to popularise black music.

The dominance of black music, dress and language over white culture was undeniable. The African diaspora filled vacuums in Western culture: music, rhythm, dance, spoken word, new styles of humour. African culture also brought a more straightforward approach to discussion of sex; this fact alone might explain much of the resistance to black culture from conservatives.

Culture is neither imperialised nor appropriated: it flows where it is welcome, usually because it fills an existing gap. It is the self-appointed job of conservatives, racists and small-minded bullies to prevent the flow of ideas, but they will inevitably fail, in the long run.

The significance of “cultural appropriation” is that it marks the shift of racism and conservatism from the right to the left of the political spectrum. Rather than exhort people not to buy “NEGRO RECORDS”, the neo-bullies tell people that black culture is for black people, and must not be appropriated.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen black racists and their confused white “liberal” cheerleaders use cultural appropriation as evidence of how racially oppressed they are. Apparently, wearing African clothes, listening to hip-hop or making soul music is today’s evidence of just how much white people still hate black people. Which is weird, when you think about it.

This idea is the work of a racist minority, and certainly doesn’t reflect the views of most black people. In fact, many older black art-forms still only exist because they’ve been adopted by white people. The dub reggae scene – which I’ve frequented for many years – was once mostly black, and now mostly white. The same applies to many other music scenes, from soul to traditional African music. With the exception of current Nigerian pop superstars like Wizkid, who can fill large London venues with young, black Brits, African music is largely ignored by black people in the UK. Senegalese friends of mine are currently touring Europe, playing to appreciative white audiences. Without this appropriation of (i.e. love for) their culture, these African musicians would never get to leave Africa.

Most Africans love to see whites wearing their clothing, and would be bemused to learn that some angry black people in America and Britain see this is a symbol of racism. Furthermore, there is no such thing as “African clothing”. If I wear Nigerian clothes in Senegal (as I’ve once done), the locals don’t see the clothing as theirs, but as foreign.

One can also note that Africans and western blacks themselves have happily appropriated foreign culture. Today’s most enthusiastic flag-wavers for Christianity are found among Africans and the African diaspora. Although konscious black Christians will angrily point out that Ethiopia was an early Christian society, Christianity (and its European-made book) was brought to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa far more recently by Europeans, not Ethiopians, beginning with the Portuguese explorers of the west coast. Islam, likewise, came overland from Arabia. Just as African rhythm and spoken word filled a void in the West, so Islam and Christianity provided what sub-Saharan Africa had never before encountered: complex, stable religions, with their own books.

Sections of today’s left are continuing the work of the white supremacist right of last century.  They try to define rules that only apply to certain racial groups. Blacks can “appropriate”, whites cannot. Black culture must be left alone, white culture can go where it chooses.

The difference between the person who rails about “cultural appropriation”, and the person that organised a boycott of “negro records” is wafer-thin. The language has changed beyond recognition, but the ugly, bullying, divisive intent is the same.