Charlie Hebdo: Dating an African Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Racist

January 28, 2015 § 1 Comment

Of the various excuses that have been given for Charlie Hebdo’s racism, the one that really had me rolling my eyes was the suggestion that Charb, the editor, couldn’t have been racist because he was dating a woman of North African descent. And of course if the editor wasn’t racist, then Charlie couldn’t have been racist.

While this has to be the most tired excuse for Charlie Hebdo’s racism to date, the opportunistic citing of personal relations with black people as proof of anti-racism and openness to race is nothing new. In fact, claiming knowledge about and/or sympathy with Africans is one of the easiest ways to try to worm out of accusations of racial prejudice. The reasoning behind this excuse is that someone cannot be prejudiced if they have relations with Africans, due to the assumption that our personal associations magically free us from racist conditioning. The idea is that if the person had a real prejudice against the entire African people, then no African would be okay to date. Ultimately, the aim is to have us ignore any other evidence we have to assess the person’s attitude, by only taking into account the existence of personal relations with one single African.

interracial-love

There’s a persistently wrong idea that to be racist you must hate a particular racial group, commit hate crimes and use racial slurs. This derives from the existing stereotype of racists as only people with extremist ideas and actions, such as members of America’s Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazi movements of Europe. However, contrary to popular belief, hatred is not a requirement for racism; and neither are white masks, conical hats or swastika tattoos. There are varying degrees of racist bigotry, from passively racist, mostly in thought, to violent and confrontational. Harboring racist thoughts and attitudes, but not speaking or acting on them does not mean you’re not racist. It only means that you’re a closet bigot.

Racism was invented on the slave plantations of America – the very same slave plantations on which white slave owners acted on their sexual desire by raping the Africans they had enslaved. Therefore sexually desiring Africans doesn’t automatically make you non-racist. Just as it is common for some heterosexual men to remain misogynists after marrying the women they love; it is possible to be intimate with an African and still be racist.

Racism in Interracial Relationships

Just because you love/ like/ admire/ accept/ tolerate one African doesn’t mean you stop having preconceived biases against Africans as a group. As has been seen time and again, one can be a bigot and still wed/ date/ friend across the color line.

Take for instance the white husband whose basic lack of respect for Africans blinds him to the possibility that his African wife can make good decisions. Convinced it’s his duty to manage the affairs of not only Africans but women as well, he assumes the role of “protector” and subjects his wife to a double dose of paternalism: sexism and racism. Or the “colorblind” white wife unable to empathize with the plight of her black partner due to her insistence that racist oppression is but a forgotten past with no imprint on the present reality of black people.

There are also the white men who treat their committed relationship with African women as a taboo, secret or shame, unwilling to tell their family about their African girlfriend. No matter how well he treats her, if he cannot stand up to his family and speak up against racism, he is racist. Other white men who identify as only being attracted to African women and who are in a committed relationship with African women will continue sleeping around with other white women.

And then there are the white women with a tendency to date – more or less exclusively, African men, but who are quick to clutch their handbags and lock their car doors when a group of African men comes close. Having negative stereotypical views of African men as dangerous or feeling afraid or uncomfortable when you encounter them is a sign of racial prejudice.

We also have the white male fetishists who sexualize African women in a racially charged manner, bombarding them with offensive suggestions that Africans are wild, untamed, feral animals. Yet, these men refrain from using similar perverted pick-up lines when hitting on white women. Fetishization indicates an enhanced awareness of race – the main ingredient of racism, which makes it very different from truly celebrating someone’s ethnicity as it relates to their full humanity.

And then there are the white tourists who date Africans as part of their sexual safari tour of Africa, but would never consider fully loving or marrying one. This is an exploitative relationship which, in the absence of any real commitment on the part of the white partner, exists primarily for their personal needs.

Other types of interracial personal relationships also manifest the contradiction of racism. For instance the white grandparent to a biracial child who stereotypes Africans as “lazy”; the white mother who adopts an African child but continues to use the N-word; the white voluntourist who claims to have “African friends” who are really just acquaintances, neighbors or employees; and the white expatriate aid worker who is motivated to help precisely because they believe Africans are inferior to white people. Rather than genuine altruism, such “White Man’s Burden” assistance is merely a means of reinforcing white superiority.

Openness to interracial relationships is therefore no indicator of the absence of racist attitudes. If anything, many interracial relationships are proof that dating interracially doesn’t necessarily make one more racially sensitive or enlightened about racial equality.

With the excuse of “having a North African girlfriend” discounted, there is no evidence of Charb’s anti-racism. Instead, what we have are numerous dehumanizing cartoons portraying black people as monkeys, welfare queens and racist caricatures of Black Sambo, and filled with racial slurs such as the N-word – all of which were published during his tenure as Charlie Hebdo editor. That Charb’s relations with a woman of North African descent did not prevent him from publishing cartoons that were racist towards Africans as a group is solid proof that interracial romance is never an effective antidote to racism.

***

I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of white supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the white supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.

– Beverly Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race

Mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial and fantasy. For it is the ever present reality of racist domination, of white supremacy, that renders problematic the desire of white people to have contact with the Other.

bell hooks, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance

In an ideal world, being intimately involved with someone of a different ethnicity would help you gain insight into their life and culture, as well as appreciation and respect for their humanity in a way that would make racial prejudice or bigoted thoughts, feelings, words or actions an impossibility on your part. White partners would also gain understanding of how racist oppression continues to impact the lives of black people. And this understanding would motivate the white partner to commit to anti-racism work by using their white privilege to confront and dismantle racial oppression and promote racial equality in their private and public lives.

However, the world we live in is far from ideal. Instead, interracial unions are today not only used to excuse racism in individual white people, but to also push indifference towards racism in the entire white dominated modern world. Leading this crusade are supporters of colorblind ideologies who point to the rising number of interracial marriages as proof that race is no longer a determining factor in life’s outcomes.

However, while interracial unions are today generally accepted, they can hardly be taken as a mark of progress in terms of racial equality. Take South Africa for instance which, three decades after the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws forbidding marriages and criminalizing all sexual relations between whites and non-whites, was in 2014 named the “most unequal country in the world”. The fact that interracial couples are today free to wed without legal prosecution or cultural persecution must therefore not be used as an excuse to sweep the history and impact of racist oppression under the rug of “colorblindness.”

 

Africa is Not Charlie – Definitions of Racism

January 15, 2015 § 1 Comment

Under the guise of being an “equal opportunity offender” Charlie Hebdo‘s intolerance was not only directed towards Muslims, but also diverse groups of marginalized peoples including Africans. Charlie Hebdo mercilessly targeted black people with a selection of racist cartoons including those featured below. This is why I say Africa is not Charlie. Because Charlie was racist and racists do not make martyrs.

Of course, the “Je Suis Charlie” apologists for Charlie‘s racism are now trying to shift the blame onto those offended by asserting that it is in fact we who lack the intelligence to comprehend the complexities of French satire as manifested by Charlie‘s crass, vulgar and tasteless sense of humor. They want us to believe that Charlie was in the same league as the Onion and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. They are trying to tell us that we should instead be grateful to and stand in solidarity with Charlie because Charlie was “anti-racist”.

Yet “fighting racism by being racist” is an old, tired and rather disingenuous excuse for racism that has long been used to systematically silence black people who call out racism. Racism is racism and you do not get to be racist and thereafter insist on defining what is and isn’t racism for those you have offended. The idea that only white voices are allowed to define what is and isn’t racist is an exercise in white privilege that seeks to uphold white supremacy.

The wider implications around black people’s rights not to have their group depicted as a racist stereotype must also not be ignored. While Charlie‘s stereotypical racist depictions may have appeared normal during the French colonization of Africa, today they are at best infantile and at worst derogatory. They exemplify the essential problem with white anti-racism in general, and certainly the problem with anti-racism in France.

The most worrying aspect of the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign, for me, is how easily it ignores the link between dehumanization and mass killings. During the Nuremberg trials on the Jewish Holocaust, the publisher of a German Magazine was tried and executed for publishing anti-Semitic cartoons. In the Arusha tribunal on the Rwandan genocide a radio journalist was among those tried. Another radio journalist is currently on trial at the ICC for crimes against humanity relating to Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007/8. In all three cases, journalists were accused of spreading hate speech.

It is noteworthy that the people voicing the strongest support for Charlie do not belong to racist movements. They are not members of America’s Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazi groups of Europe. These are ordinary white people who ignore the link between dehumanization and killing in cold blood. It is the good white people who resort to emotional antics under the banner #JeSuisCharlie, when their right to define racism is challenged.

If there’s anything the events of the last week have taught us, it is that for all their virtuous proclamations of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the French people’s sense of morality is highly questionable.

Charlie-Hebdo-Welfare-Queen-Caricature

The school-girl victims of the Boko Haram kidnapping and sex slavery depicted as immigrants who deliberately get pregnant just to enjoy welfare benefits.

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France’s black Justice Minister and first black Presidential candidate Christiane Taubira portrayed as a monkey.

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The headline in English reads “The Pope in Paris: The French Are As Stupid As The Niggers.”

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Stereotypical and grossly exaggerated racist caricature of black people as very dark, with a broad nose, thick red lips and rolling bug eyes.

 "Tutsi Crush: The Rwandan Genocide Finally Adapted Into a Smartphone Game!"

“Tutsi Crush: The Rwandan Genocide Finally Adapted Into a Smartphone Game!”

Frantz Fanon at 90: His Relevance to the Pan-African Vision Today

January 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

On 8 January 2015, I attended a lecture to mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of pan-Africanist revolutionary and philosopher Frantz Fanon. The lecture titled: “Frantz Fanon at 90: His Relevance to the Pan-African Vision Today” was given by Professor Lewis Gordon, Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor at Rhodes University, South Africa, and Professor of Philosophy and African-American Studies, with affiliation in Judaic Studies, at the University of Connecticut, USA. Gordon is the author of many books, including the forthcoming title: What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought. The lecture was hosted by the Pan-African Baraza & ThoughtWorks at PAWA 254, Nairobi.

Frantz Fanon - Revolutionary, Philosopher, Pan-Africanist

Frantz Fanon – Revolutionary, Philosopher, Pan-Africanist

While the entire lecture was illuminating, the following concepts in particular stood out for me.

At an early age, Fanon became aware that the world we live in is one of white supremacy; a world in which white people are the standard for what is defined as “human”. It was when he volunteered to fight for “human dignity” in the Second World War that Fanon learnt that his blackness made him a non-human. He watched as black soldiers were sent to war in the hulls of ships, while white soldiers sailed on deck; and black female soldiers (yes, black women also volunteered to fight in the war) were made to sleep in the cabins of white officers. And when the Allies won, black soldiers were shocked to be called “niggers” in the villages they liberated in Europe. At the end of the War, black soldiers from the Diaspora were sent back to their countries in cargo ships, just as their ancestors who had been taken from Africa as slaves.

Observing all this, Fanon realized that the war for “human dignity” was in fact the White Man’s war. “Human dignity” meant “white dignity”. In other words, to be white is to be human and everyone else who does not fit the description of “white” is in fact not human. Black people are “non-human”. And in a white dominated world, non-humans represent violence. To be black is to be violent. Black people are violent simply for appearing in a white dominated world. The very existence of black people in a white dominated world is violent. Even worse for black women, to be black and a woman is to be “inviolable”, in that black women are empty slates on which anyone may place their force. Anything can be done to a black woman without it being registered as unethical!

Professor Lewis Gordon (Photo: PAWA 254)

Professor Lewis Gordon (Photo: PAWA 254)

Because black people are violent simply for appearing in a white dominated world, they have two options: to either disappear themselves or fight back against white supremacist violence. However, the option to fight back is curtailed by pacifist notions of “non-violence”. Yet non-violence overlooks, ignores and negates the fact that the appearance of black people in a white dominated world is violent and is therefore already met with violence.

Pacifist proponents of the “non-violence” doctrine often cite the Civil Rights movement in America and the Anti-Apartheid struggle of South Africa as proof of the effectiveness of “non-violence”. Yet in both these struggles, there was violence – only that those being killed were black. What “non-violence” therefore actually means is that violence only begins when you start killing white people. In the context of non-violence the deaths of black people do not count.

Non-violence is therefore not an option for black people. It never has been. Every instance of slavery involved black people using violence in their fight for freedom. We must therefore reject the “Emancipation” narrative that seeks to deny our agency by painting the picture that it was the good whites who decided it was time to abolish slavery and grant us freedom. We must counter this false narrative which is aimed at cultivating the idea that the oppressed must always “wait” – that black people must “wait” for the good white father to come around and declare us worthy of the same rights and privileges enjoyed by white people – once he’s ready.

It is important to be vigilant in calling out such narratives that aim at negating black agency. It is in this same spirit that the influential French philosopher Michel Foucault must be called out for appropriating Fanon’s ideas and not referencing Fanon. This is ideas appropriation which leads to whites being associated with ideas and blacks with “experience”. Black people then become dependent on whites for thought and ideas in a form of knowledge colonization.

Fanon lived his life as a black revolutionary hero who would not bow down to white supremacy at any cost. He was willing to risk losing a publishing deal as he would not work with a white man who would patronize his intelligence. And when he did get published, Fanon revolutionized revolutionary writing by producing works with poetry, humor, grit and even cuss words.

Pan-Africanists gathered to learn about the importance of Fanon to our struggle today

Pan-Africanists gathered to learn about the importance of Fanon to our struggle today (Photo: PAWA 254)

Had Fanon been here today, he would tell his fellow Pan-Africanists that:

  • “African independence” is an illusion. We were never freed from colonialism or white domination. All the colonizers did was to replace themselves with an African elite that is grateful for the crumbs tossed by their masters in Europe. Our African leadership today in fact constitutes agents of white supremacy whose legitimacy derives from having an “enemy”. However, because challenging the real enemy (white supremacy) would lose them their positions and perks, African leaders provide us with alternative “enemies” as scapegoats to blame for their incompetent leadership via xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc.
  • When you do nothing about violence in the name of “non violence”, you become an agent of violence and end up living in a state of perpetual infantilization. However, violence in and of itself is counterproductive. Along with violence, there must be a plan for what the future should look like. We must think differently and set new conditions for the future world we want to bring to birth.
  • Revolutionaries must understand that the communal struggle is bigger than the individual and accept that those who usher in freedom are rarely best suited to lead once freedom is attained. The true revolutionary is willing to fight for freedom even while knowing that they themselves may not taste the fruits thereof.
  • It’s perfectly fine and natural to get angry at injustice. Just as laughing means you get the joke, anger also means that you understand the pain behind the oppression. To add to this, convener Firoze Manji proposed that: “If you’re not angry, you haven’t been listening.”
  • Our task is never done. We are constantly struggling to make it better. Even when it’s ‘over’ – the struggle still continues!

Recommended reading by Prof. Gordon:

  1. Fanon’s resignation letter from a psychiatric facility in Algeria.
  2. Anténor Firmin – a Haitian anthropologist.
  3. What Are We Worth”, an essay by Anna Julia Cooper. Cooper was one of two female members of the Executive Committee of the First Pan-Africanists Conference held in London in 1900.

Incidentally, some of my favorite quotes by Fanon:

“The claim to a national culture in the past does not only rehabilitate that nation and serve as a justification for the hope of a future national culture. In the sphere of psycho-affective equilibrium it is responsible for an important change in the native. Perhaps we haven’t sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.”

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

“The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.”

“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”

“Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.”

“What matters is not to know the world but to change it.”

Update 14th January, 2015:

The video of the lecture is up! Watch it below.

The Problem with White People Who Dress “African”

January 6, 2015 § 17 Comments

When white people refuse to respect ownership and instead insist on using facets of a culture – such as clothing or jewelry, that does not belong to them for their financial or cultural benefit, this is tantamount to cultural appropriation. Often when this is pointed out, the common defense is that “everyone should wear whatever they want”. In other words: white people are free to wear any clothing or jewelry – including that of cultures that do not belong to them. This profound sense of entitlement felt towards other people’s cultures stems from the overall entitlement that white supremacy displays over African land, resources, etc. But should white people’s self expression come at the expense of our cultural survival?

Cultural Imperialism & Exploitation

White people who wear African clothing and jewelry often display a lack of cultural sensitivity, by completely ignoring and disregarding the significance, traditions, identities and social history behind the fabric or jewelry items. The use of designs with sacred and cultural significance, outside of their traditional meaning, historical intention and cultural context is not only disrespectful and offensive but is equivalent to the colonial occupation of African clothing and jewelry.

For instance, while it would be perfectly ok for white people to wear our clothing and jewelry at African cultural celebrations such as weddings, it wouldn’t be right to wear these every other day, while acting as if they now understand what it means to be African. No ethnic identity, including “Africanness”, can be socially constructed simply by wearing African fabric or jewelry.

The Maasai shuka is not actually "Maasai" but originally from Scotland

The Maasai shuka is not actually “Maasai” but originally from Scotland

In true “Out of Africa” fashion, many westerners who visit East Africa cannot resist the opportunity of gaining close proximity to and photo-ops with the Maasai. It is not uncommon for white people to adorn the Maasai shuka (blanket wrap) as proof of their “authentic” Maasai/ African experience. Yet there’s nothing authentic about the shuka which is in fact a tartan blanket originally introduced by the 19th century Scottish missionaries for the Maasai to cover up their “nakedness”. Being nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai never established a textile industry. Therefore this trend of wearing the Maasai shuka only benefits the business men who trade in knock offs of the original – not the Maasai.

Rarely do the fashion trends that reference African cultural practices, everyday lives, and bodies afford Africans new opportunities to actively and genuinely participate in the world. Rather, it is our rich aesthetic of boldly-printed fabric and colorful beaded jewelry that white people view as exotic, edgy, and desirable – not us. White people don’t seem to value African life but value African dress and jewelry items primarily due to their potential as avenues for profit.

Just as the colonialists who subordinated Africa, extracting everything of value from our people and territories, white people today treat African culture as a “natural resource” to extract inspiration from. By dehumanizing us as a “source of inspiration” – props to be used at their disposal, white people worsen our historical exclusion, negate our agency and further our marginalization. Implicit in this form of dehumanization is the idea that Africans don’t exist unless whites say we do – and, even then, we exist only as we are seen by whites.

Cultural Erasure & Stereotypes

The western fashion industry is notorious for rampant culture-sampling and poaching from marginalized peoples. High fashion cultural theft involves the use of non-western cultural references on the catwalk, often re-branding it as if it were their own. By robbing marginalized groups of the credit they deserve, the cultures that created a style or fashion end up being erased from the “mainstream” record.

White people often relegate Africans as props, to serve as the background in fantasy images of themselves

White people relegate Africans to the background to serve as props in fantasy images of themselves

When Urban Outfitters wrongly labeled a traditional dress worn in Ethiopia and Eritrea as a “Vintage Linen ’90 Dress”, Eritreans and Ethiopians were quick to call out this form of cultural erasure and appropriation in a petition arguing that:

“… The way the dress was labeled and presented assumes the dress is a western or American creation. … By incorrectly labeling our traditional clothing, you are in effect erasing our cultures and histories, exploiting our civilizations and artistry, and all for your own profit.”

High fashion designers are also notorious for taking markers from other people’s cultures and commodifying them by “fixing” or “improving” them, in order to make a profit. They then applaud each other for “reinventing” the cultural item in “clever” and “more elegant ways.” Although, in most cases – despite their “innovativeness”, western designers typically arrive late to African trends which have already been produced, consumed, traded, and sold for decades within the fashionable culture of African public life.

Moreover, white people’s insistence on “fixing” and “improving” on our cultural items is in fact merely affirming white cultural superiority, rather than genuinely and thoughtfully appreciating our culture. This isn’t very different from their predecessor European colonialists who sought to fix and improve on “inferior” African culture through colonial oppression and brutality under the “White Man’s Burden” banner.

Fixing or improving on our culture only serves to reinforce the negative stereotypes that imply that Africans lack in creativity and intelligence. Because pretty soon, a “fixed” or “improved” upon cultural item that originated in a marginalized group in Africa comes to be associated with dominant white culture, with white people in turn being deemed more edgy and innovative.

Power Imbalances & the “Colorblind” Myth

Typically, when white people defend acts of appropriation, they do so under the misconception that modern-day race relations exist on a level-playing field, as though racism no longer exists in our “post-racial”, “colorblind” world. Yet systematic racism does still exist – with white people holding power and privilege in a world in which Africans are systematically denied power and privilege. And as long as white people have power and privilege over African people, there can never be a truly equal and free flow of culture.

This power imbalance is evident in the attempt by Dutch Wax textile company Vlisco to sue a designer for using their patented “African print” (popularly referred to as ‘Ankara’ print in West Africa) designs – never mind that “their” designs had in fact initially been appropriated from designers in Indonesia’s wax industry. Also, from the mid-20th century, as part of an effort to make their design motifs more “authentic”, Vlisco began using indigenous African textiles to create similar motifs that would cater to the tastes of their new African customers. In other words, even while the western fashion industry profits from copying indigenous designs, they are quick to crack down on illegal copying.

An African woman wearing a dress made from Kente cloth, an authentic African fabric from Ghana

An African woman wears a dress made from Kente cloth, authentic African fabric from Ghana

For the longest time, white people have taken aspects of African culture, built businesses and careers around them, written papers about them, had royalties issued and tenures granted over African cultural items, while the people upon whom this is based are left behind in Africa with nothing. During colonialism, European textile corporations contributed to the death of traditional African ways of producing textiles and cultural designs, by flooding African markets with cheap imports. When white people are today allowed to exploit their power by profiting from the commercial use of the traditional cultural markers of African peoples, this deepens existing divides between the West and Africa, thereby preserving white dominance.

“Cultural Appreciation” & “Reverse Cultural Appropriation”

Both producers (high fashion and retail stores) and consumers (white hipsters) of culturally appropriated objects often present them as examples of their openness to diverse global sources of inspiration. As if it weren’t already bad enough that they treat Africans like a natural resource to extract value by drawing “inspiration” from our bodies, cultural practices, and cultural objects – they defend their actions by labeling them acts of “appreciating”, “admiring”, “celebrating”, even “loving” racial difference and diversity. In other words, Africans should take it as a compliment when white people wear our clothing and jewelry in the name of healthy cosmopolitanism. But this is hard to do seeing as cultural appropriation always falls short because it is imitation, fake, and the end result feels dismissive, insulting and is often poorly executed.

Other defenders of cultural appropriation point out that Africans similarly wear western business suits and collared shirts in a form of “reverse cultural appropriation”. Yet Africans cannot appropriate western dress because during colonialism, westerners decided that their culture was superior, respectable and their lifestyle the best way for Africans to live. It’s therefore rather lame to now turn around and accuse those who emulate western culture of appropriation.

Moreover, the Africans who do wear western clothing do so as a means of survival – not as an appreciation of racial diversity. Africans today have no choice but to take on “respectable” western dress culture in order to gain material and social benefits which they may lose out on if they don’t. On the other hand, because they are part of the dominant culture, when white people adopt the clothing of other cultures, this has nothing to do with survival. Its instead about white privilege.

Emaciated runway models showcase high fashion designer Moschino’s poorly executed “African” print collection

Emaciated runway models showcase high fashion designer Moschino’s poorly executed “African” print collection

For many Africans, western dress culture is an imposition unworthy of celebration, as it lacks any meaningful cultural significance. Characterized by a fashion industry that promotes materialism and individualism, and whose preferred mode of advertisement is the emaciated bodies of super models clad in unnatural fabric, western dress culture encourages consumerism and wastefulness with brand new clothing trashed simply for being “out of fashion”. Rather than abandoning their clothing to wear ours, shouldn’t white people be fixing and improving on the problems bedeviling their own dress culture?

White Privilege

Often when Africans wear their own cultural dress in the West, they are stigmatized as being unprofessional or treated with hostility. Even in Africa, Africans are met with suspicion, and sometimes violence simply for wearing clothes associated with Africans. When the 19th century European Christian missionaries abolished nudity and forced Africans to adopt conservative dress in a process of acculturation, they laid the foundation for the establishment of a conservative society and dress culture that still persists in most of Africa. Today, African men who strip African women naked for wearing miniskirts do so under the justification that African dress is more modest and decent. On the other hand, white girls enjoy the privilege of wearing miniskirts in Africa without the fear of being hassled!

Expressing “appreciation” for racial difference and diversity is therefore a privilege that only white people benefit from. Rather than being perceived as unprofessional, dangerous or suspect, white people wearing African attire are viewed as hip, worldly and fashion-forward. In satisfying their personal need for self-expression, white people who wear African print are insensitively waving around their white privilege; because for Africans who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we dress just to earn respect to stay safe and employed, our means of self-expression remain limited.

How deep is Your “Appreciation”?

If white people bothered to properly understand the meaning, context and intention of a particular cultural clothing or jewelry item, they wouldn’t touch anyone else’s culture and justify this as “appreciation”.

The only way white people can appreciate African culture is to first learn to listen to Africans. Learn to listen to Africans when they identify the very real problems they face, such as the continued looting of natural resources by western multinationals. Listen to Africans when they describe the best ways to confront their problems with white supremacy and racism. This is the only acceptable way of appreciating Africans and African culture.

Simply wearing our clothes will not promote healthy cosmopolitanism, nor serve as a celebration of racial diversity. One of the critical things required for true cosmopolitanism and honoring of racial difference is putting an end to racism. Cultural appropriation is a form of racism, and as long as racism exists, there can be no celebration of racial diversity.

There are many real and concrete steps white people can take to dismantle racism including recognizing their role in perpetuating racism, confronting their white privilege, and attacking the systems of oppression that give white people privilege in the first place.

None of these steps entail wearing the clothing or jewelry of African people.

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