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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