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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§ 17 Responses to The Problem with White People Who Dress “African”

  • Hugo says:

    How long should a culture endorse certain behavioral patterns before they can claim them as their “property”? This is an unanswerable question, for cultural expression is dynamic, not static. I think the term “cultural appropriation” is fundamentally wrong, as it promotes seclusion of cultures from eachother, instead op openness and the possibility of renewal. Its a form of monopoly on forms of expression. Furthermore there you make lots of very polemic generalizations about the motivations and frames of mind that non-Africans wearing African clothing possess – ironically, in the face of the keyword “stereotypes” you added to your article. Is anyone wearing African dress automatically evil and colonial, or is there a multiplicity of reasons people could be looking outside the confines of their own culture (I should add I really don’t believe in someone’s “own” culture.)

    Some more questions concerning ‘cultural appropriation’:
    1. What are the areas within which people can express themselves without being hurtful/colonial/imperialistic to others? Can a german wear a russian hat? Are asians allowed to eat pasta? Can Africans practice ballet? Should I think in nations, continents, or other boundaries?

    2. Can people copycat from other cultures if they use the cultural artefact as originally intended?

    3. What do we do if the original meaning of a cultural pattern is lost, or when the founders are long lost (like with Christmas trees)?

    4. Is African use of traditionally Western musical rhythms wrong?

    To finish I would like to add that literally every form of expression that is available to a human being is the result of thousands of years of cultural accumulation. However, we can’t trace the origins of everything we do (because so much of it is unconscious).

    Your article in no way tries do away of contingent borders between people. It creates a feeling of “us” (Africans) against “them” (the Evil White Man) and tries in no way to solve the conflicts between people to spread love and universal peace. It is the exact racism it tries to argue against.

    • Makokha says:

      It’s unfortunate that even as I have pointed out how Africans suffer the effects of racism, white supremacy and domination, including violence, stigmatization and discrimination – the only thing that bothers you most about this piece is the issue of “self-expression” and how white people are being denied their “inalienable right” to do so using other people’s cultures. You have thus yourself confirmed the very stereotype of cultural appropriators and the selfish motivations that drives them.

      Moreover, this article can’t be racist because it has been penned by an African. Africans cannot be racist – only white people can. Educate yourself.

  • Hugo says:

    Could you elaborate on why black people can’t be racist? I would say that anyone who judges someone only by the color of their skin is a racist, so this includes white people, black people and any type of color. Moreover, it’s not clear how you react to my critique of you overgeneralizing, and too the definitional issues of what exactly is cultural appropriation. I want to be clear in that I don’t want to give ANYONE privileged access to any form of cultural expression.

    Also, I want to comment that you don’t seem to reply in anyway to what I said I believed culture was. Instead, you only seem to take the negative standpoint that I am a privileged white cultural appropriator who can’t be talked with.

    You’re right in the fact that sometimes cultural expressions are used in a somewhat course manner. I, however, would say that is the very process that has driven cultural progress over the course of human history.

    To finish, I should like to say that I entirely endorse your opinion that something like stigmatization, discrimination and white supremacy are wrong. I don’t think that these problems will be solved by maintaining strict boundaries between cultures, conserving them from any influence from the outside world. I think violent political or cultural domination is plain wrong, but this doesn’t mean that any form of influence is plain wrong.

    Probably my opinion will again be done away with as some form of appropriative supreme white privilege, but I believe in the possibility of a respectful, open intercultural dialogue. You on the other seem to exclude this for the sheer fact that you induce that I am white. I am not guilty for what white people in the past have done.

    • Makokha says:

      Did you even read this post? I bet not. Because I already addressed what you wrote on how to solve the problems mentioned above:

      “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.”

      Stop wasting my time by constantly asking me to repeat what I have already covered.

  • Hugo says:

    Judging me by the presumed color of my skin? A form of racism I would say? But Black people can’t be racist?

    • Makokha says:

      Yes, your privilege misinforms you that I am under an obligation to not only engage you in dialogue but also educate you about my culture. I am not.

      Again – go educate yourself. It’s not my responsibility as an African woman to spend my precious time educating adult white men who enjoy much wider access to knowledge resources than I do, yet are simply too lazy to do the research themselves. I have much more important things to do than indulge appropriation apologists who seek to derail this conversation.

      And speaking of derailing, you will find plenty more tactics here: https://birdofparadox.wordpress.com/derailing-for-dummies-google-cache-reconstruction/

    • bhumikap says:

      Hi Hugo,

      Racism occurs when a privileged class oppresses and treats an unprivileged group on unequal terms. It is usually institutionalized and systematic. Privileged classes, such as white people, do not face the effects of racism that, as an example, black people might. Their resumes are not thrown in the trash, and they are not carded by the police at distinctly high rates. These are two very simple examples, but racism is very entrenched in society.

      You might face prejudice, but not you are not facing racism. That is not an issue you have to contend with. If you’d like to see racism and prejudice stop, then listening to persons of colour is extremely important.

      Before saying that you appreciate a culture, and therefore may deserve to partake in its traditions, it is important to listen to the lived experiences of people in those cultures, and how they feel about the way others consume their culture.

      I’m sure I’m speaking for both of us when I say we do not face the same racism as black faces. If we don’t know their struggle, why do we deserve to steal their culture on our terms?

      When one disrespects the lived experiences and opinions of those who are hurt by appropriation, one only prolongs racism- it doesn’t help to say I respect your culture when you aren’t respecting the people that are a part of that culture.

  • Melanie Keil says:

    I was hoping to get your perspective on the appropriateness of wearing an African dress to a African cultural event at a university. The dress was a gift from my boyfriend who is from Benin, and he would like me to wear it to certain events. However, I am an American and white and want to be sensitive to others that will attend, as far as cultural appropriation. I also do not want to offend my boyfriend’s taste, and would like to please him by wearing his gift.

  • bhumikap says:

    This was a great read Makokha. I stumbled across your blog after doing research about Me to We, the charity. They sell Sukhas and I thought it was reminiscent of the way keffiyehs from Palestine are also being appropriated as hipster swag.

    I wish people would realize that to over come racism, we need to listen to other races. There is way too much white privilege out there, and not enough respect for people out of the cultures that are being wrongly appropriated.

    • Makokha says:

      Thanks for reading Bhumika, and for the positive feedback. I do agree with you that the appropriation of “African dress” is comparable to that of Keffiyehs and Sukhas; and the lack of respect and unwillingness to listen by white people are at the very core of it.
      If you do write a piece on Sukhas, please post a link here as I’d love to read it.

  • […] clearly has a negative impact on African people. As Makokha writes, “When white people are today allowed to exploit their power by profiting from the commercial use […]

  • Kelly says:

    I am friends with a black elderly gentleman originally from Kenya. He recently traveled to Kenya to visit family and returned with a couple of hand carved wood and stone jewelry pieces that he gave me as a gift. Since I am white, is it ok for me to wear these pieces? I think they are lovely, such beautiful carving and I don’t want them to just sit in a box as they are meant to be worn and enjoyed.

  • I agree with you. that is a problem, but african dress one of the best dress in world fashion.

  • Hi Makokha,

    My goal is to proceed in a manner that honors Zambian and African culture and I hope you or some of your readers can provide feedback. I run a non-profit in the US with the sole purpose of funding our non-profit in Zambia (directed and run by a Zambian woman (Bemba and Lozi) and Zambian board members). They are closely collaborating with the following:

    To establish a tailoring program and self-sustainability, we plan to make and sell items integrating chitenge. Sales will be local as well as State-side since a greater profit can be made in the US — thereby funneling more resources back into Zambia.

    Each purchase will include information about the source and type of fabric (country of origin and location of purchase), place of construction and background of the tailor (Lozi); if there is specific meaning to the colors and patterns, we will share them—ceremonial fabrics and/or sacred patterns will NOT be used. Since chitenge are also used to show respect and modesty, I believe it is inappropriate to sell clothing abroad that is incongruent with cultural modesty standards (no mini skirts/shorts/and probably not even pants though I am seeing them crop up more and more often). Though we want to make a profit to support our program, it is also our goal to empower the community, so all purchases will be above the standard market value—from fabric to wages.

    From my personal experience, seeing a muzungu in Zambian fashions brought great joy to those I encountered and they seemed to celebrate the fact that I found beauty in their fabric and designs and was proud to wear them. I was able to refer business to the tailor I used and her family greatly benefited from the purchases that I, as an American with greater resources, could afford. My purchase and wearing of African clothes seemed to foster community and connection.

    My Zambian counterpart’s reaction to my concerns that it might be inappropriate or disrespectful for a white person to wear chitenge was met with a “What?!?!?”; nonetheless, you make powerful points, so I’d like your and any readers’ input. We are just starting out and I want to avoid as many pitfalls as possible. I greatly appreciate your insight.

    Sincerely,
    Stephanie

  • Tammy says:

    I am interested in reading the reply to Stephanie above. I dont seem to see it.

  • Sarah Drew says:

    Hi Makokha,

    As a white, western woman these questions nag me. If I respect the ownership of cultural practices and try to engage in a meaningful way by learning a bantu language and making friends, can I then participate in some African (Malawian) cultural practices? I enjoy Malawian cooking, going to church and yes, think the fabrics are beautiful. Would you merely see this as a fetishisation of the culture on my part, or something more meaningful? I fully recognise that our colonial legacy problematises these issues.

    Thank you.

    Sarah

  • Josh says:

    Hi Makokha,

    I really appreciate you writing this article and found some excellent points within. As a white male from a religious, conservative background who has moved into the socially progressive, far-left wing, I’ve done my best to try and listen and understand Africans (and women) on issues of which I might be ignorant. It’s been very difficult, perhaps testament to how rooted in systematic advantage I am. Regardless, I am motivated to learn and listen.

    The reason I found this article was because I have taken a keen interest in incorporating African visual style into my wardrobe. To clarify, I do not mean African style dress, I mean the artistic patterns found in various African tribes and cultures, but morphed with European style suits and clothing. I originally became interested in this style after finding the Belgian hip hop artist Stromae and seeing his music videos for “Tous les Memes” and “Papaoutai,” both of which utilize a sort of cubic form of African style onto European garments. I have wanted to wear something with African influence for a while. This desire was perpetuated significantly by the fact that I grew up and still live in Charleston, SC, a city clearly affected by white systematic oppression, but heavily cultivated by a strong African, specifically Gullah, influence in its arts and culture. The Gullah and African artistic scene have been enveloped by the white community in some ways–evidenced by such works of art as “Porgy and Bess,” a well-known and award-winning Broadway play set in the slums of the Charleston peninsula–creating a singular city-wide artistic image as opposed to exclusively white or black styles (although they still exist); point being, I feel very connected to African style, even if I may not have grown up Gullah or grown up black in Charleston. It’s been around me my whole life, and has stood testament to the concept that art can mold and form and adapt.

    All of this is to say that I still want to invoke this African style in my dress, but I want to be careful and vigilant in remaining educated on Africa, African people, and thereby African culture. My question for you is (and you’ve addressed this to a point in your article, I just wanted a little more clarification on your view), are you arguing against the use of African patterns and visual style by white people, or specifically the African fashion (like the Dashiki and Keffiyeh). I have worn the Keffiyeh for years, and after reading this article I believe I will stop as I did not know the Palestinian political message behind it. But I personally see no problem with customizing a European-style suit with African patterns. Here’s an example: http://www.allthingsankara.com/2015/12/lookbook-ohema-ohene-ss-16-enter-the-gentlemen.html. What is your opinion? Does the fact that I grew up in Charleston, enveloped by the artistic scene of the Gullah community, not allow me the ability to wear such African patterns in a non-African style?

    Sincerely,

    Josh

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