By Rutendo Wazara
I’ll begin with my own experience. When I was about 8 years old, my family moved to Lagos, Nigeria. Although it was the third country I had moved to, Nigeria was the first place where I experienced a steep learning curve in cultural exchange, bordering on culture shock,-and I loved it!
I was at an international school and one of my favourite traditions was the school’s annual Nigeria Day. In addition to our own Nigerian history, Nigeria Day was a full day that honoured and celebrated our host nation and its people. Students of all races and nationalities were encouraged to wear attire made from traditional Nigerian fabrics, get their hair braided (even the white girls!), and to be fully engaged. We were educated on the complexity and diversity of Nigeria, making both local staff and students proud of where they came from, and making the rest of us honoured to live in there.
Which brings me to today and the current buzz term and head of the zeitgeist totem pole, ‘cultural appropriation’. A term now used regularly by everyone from the genuinely patriotic, to those who are simply doing a little cultural gate-keeping, and, depending on who you talk to, a little online knee-jerking too.
Cultural exchange – the transference of ideas, values, traditions and belief systems between two or more separate cultures, plus the fact that human beings are naturally curious and largely evolve by learning from others in social settings, and some suggest that out of all existing species, humans are the only species to master mimicry perfectly.
It got me thinking about when and where cultural exchanges first took place, possibly dated as far back as the Silk Road era. After all it was a route that enabled cultures and traditions – not to mention goods – to flow back and forth between the East and West. But just as the Romans got a feel for Chinese silk, I also think of how many people become influenced by cultural aesthetics that are not their own, it is a natural to find a style beautiful, and wish to wear it.
Since the nineties it has not been unusual for non -Indian singers and trend makers to wear bindis and today, the trend for plaits, cornrows and ‘boxing braids’ have created a lot of content for many a conversation around racial politics.
I first heard of cultural appropriation from Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg when she posted her school project video, ‘Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows’ on You Tube, it amassed two million hits to date.
Sadly any intelligent conversation about this was reduced to (yawn), yet another ‘women against each other’ scenario (“Amandla vs Kendall”).
Another example of the mainstream’s view on ‘who wears braids’ (cornrows or the boxer braid variety) would be how some people see them as “ghetto” or someone negatively being described as having “typical black” behaviour, totally eclipsing the fact that braiding was once a symbol of wealth and status akin to a gentleman wearing a top hat in the Victorian era.
It is also a wonderfully traditional form of social bonding.
Aside from Ghanain-born, London-raised Edward Enninful of W Magazine, Teen Vogue (who had Willow Smith on the cover in non-fashion, everyday braids), Duro Olowu and more recently designer Zac Posen, the fashion industry has too often been insensitive to this, often colluding with the interpretation (or should that be debasing?) of braids into a ‘ghetto aesthetic’.
It is also worth pointing out that braided hairstyles have appeared in different cultures throughout history – ancient Egypt and Greece, Medieval Europe, Native American nations as well as African tribes so surely it is fair to say that braids are not just a “black” thing.
So then why are black girls throwing shade – to use a term that many keyboard warriors will understand – on white girls getting their hair plaited up? It makes me revisit my fellow white pupils decked head-to-toe in African clothing and braids and it not feeling anything but positive.
And what do we say to white people who don’t understand why black women have been copying their hairstyles for decades? I guess more simply put, Wikipedia says: “Cultural appropriation is adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture without invitation or permission of use. Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights.”
Many Western fashion houses have become global brands that encourage all peoples to embrace their style culture. And whilst these brands have become house hold names all over the globe, the styles that are appropriated from minority cultures neither receive permission to be used and because fashion thrives on osmosis, taking influence from wide, random sources, the cultures themselves never seem to benefit.
It’s a broader issue than inappropriate cultural appropriation, I think it is also to do with a mis-representation as well as an under-representation of woman of colour in the fashion world.
As a black woman flipping through the pages of a fashion magazine I just don’t see many woman who look like me so when I see something that I do, like braiding my hair, being interpreted as ‘ghetto’ – think tall, thin white girl in an Adidas tracksuit complete with cornrows- it makes me angry.
You can’t pick and choose elements of a person’s culture and turn it into a flash-in-the-pan trend to be featured in Vogue. It’s okay for a white model in a magazine but in another context, not for my sister and her friends who got turned away from-yes, a Hip-Hop/R+B club in Mayfair, London (one of the most multicultural places in the world) for looking “too black” by a (Brazilian!) door-woman recently. They were all wearing braids.
The flippancy of fashion regarding other cultures runs deeper still with the over-simplification of terms like ‘ethnic’, ‘safari’ and ‘tribal’ which are used as blanket terms to denote anything as ‘non-white’ whilst simultaneously having strong undertones of savagery.
Sweeping generalisations such as these dismiss the rationale behind legitimate and thought out reasons for using certain colours, patterns and textures within a particular environment. It also amplifies the notion that wearing something like a headscarf with a Nigerian print is a fashion statement, am I partaking in the ‘tribal’ trend? No, I am simply appreciating the craftsmanship of my heritage, in other words I am just wearing a headscarf, not making a political statement and not in costume.
In a recent interview with the comedienne Chelsea Handler, the Chair of American Indian Studies, Joely Proudfit commented on how Native Americans are viewed in modern society today:
“If we don’t fit the stereotype we are non-existent… keeping us as those stereotypical cartoon figures is so damaging. If we are not seen as human beings, then what are we seen as?”
I am not here to list all the accounts of cultural appropriation in fashion and pop culture, instead, I want to challenge us to make a stance. As women, and as an ethnically diverse global community, we need to start standing up for the beauty and creativity our cultures hold. We should be at the forefront of globalisation and be spearheading how our cultures are represented.
Nnenna Stella who created The Wrap Life, a company that hand prints African headwraps and empowers women to wear them as daily fashion staples.
Hair stylist Vernon Francois who took inspiration from “sculptural hairdos from around the continent,” as well as the legendary musician Nina Simone for Lupita Nyong’o ‘s sky-high afro for this year’s Met Gala and not Audrey Hepburn as Vogue had claimed.
Nyong’o quickly Instagrammed a picture of herself on the night alongside an image of an African woman with a similar hairstyle “Hair inspiration. Check.” she corrected. One step closer.
Zac Posen‘s muse for his Autumn/Winter 2016 collection was the Ugandan Princess Elizabeth of Toro, which was reflected by 25 of the 33 models on his catwalk being black.
His hashtag was #BlackModelsMatter.
So if Coco Chanel can be credited for creating the epitome of French style and Stella McCartney and Burberry for being quintessentially British then it would be great for those of the African, Indian and Asian diaspora to be acknowledged with more credit in the fashion world too. Fashion is a shared space; inspiring, ever-adapting, and celebrates the best the world has to offer. I look forward to a time when this is truly, and fairly reflected.