Black History Month racial politics Racism

When Does Cultural Appreciation Become Appropriation?

After THAT Adele picture on the bank holiday weekend, when does an appreciation of black culture veer into appropriation?

Amy Freeman

August Bank Holiday Monday: the world-class singer-songwriter, Adele, has uploaded a new Instagram. “Happy what would be Notting Hill Carnival my beloved London” it reads, accompanied by a picture of her dressed in a Jamaican-flag bikini and bright yellow feather wings, her hair twisted into Bantu knots. 

With thousands of Instagram comments, memes, and news articles all in circulation by midday, the hangover-fuelled, social media world has clearly decided this is a conversation worth having: cultural appropriation or appreciation?

As the carnival’s executive director Matthew Phillip, noted, “For more than 50 years, Carnival has been a statement that Black Lives Matter”. A celebration of Caribbean culture in London, carnival is not a product of the recent BLM movement, but a hallmark of black identity in multicultural London. It is an event that aims to celebrate diversity and promote unity, one which is ever more important in the current political climate.

But could there be an issue with the continued celebration of Notting Hill Carnival itself in its current form? Its emphasis is undoubtedly cultural appreciation, not appropriation. But as Michael, 23, from East London highlights, “it needs to keep its authenticity”. Carnival is now recognised as an event not just for London’s black communities, but for all Londoners – in this sense, Adele’s ode to her “beloved London” is appropriate. However, as carnival has grown in popularity, it has also become increasingly commercialised, the Carnival Village Trust having successfully bid for its running until 2021. 

This monetisation of black culture directly relates to the debate surrounding cultural appropriation and/or appreciation. As Robbie, 25, from Northwest London suggests, appreciation “becomes an issue when people try to monetise it like Jamie Oliver did”, referencing Oliver’s “jerk rice” fiasco. Where white people attempt to engage with black people’s culture without a money-making agenda, this is usually positive, as cultural inclusion is preferable to cultural ignorance.

So if we take Adele’s Instagram as a genuine attempt to appreciate black culture, then what is so controversial about it? 

It;s important to note the way she expresses her appreciation, argues Zack, 28, from London: the Bantu knots, the Jamaican bikini, the feather wings. “There is a large disconnect in the UK between the actual history and roots of carnival” and its current celebration, explains Zack, as the idea of carnival was born out of slavery and genocide. Historically, it functioned in the eastern Caribbean as a way for “our ancestors to mock the group of people who enslaved and dehumanised them” and as such, is an “anti-whiteness event”. And although the colonialist history of carnival is not as visible on its surface as perhaps it should be, is this not something Adele, as a member of the group which caused the genocide of another, should have recognised before “dressing up as a caricature of a black woman” at a “deeply spiritual event”? Does being born in Tottenham and raised in West Norwood really excuse this behaviour?

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However, when Zahra, 20, from London first saw Adele’s Instagram, “cultural appropriation was the last thing on their mind”; and Michael’s first thoughts were “that she looked skinny and ready to whine her waist at carnival”. Born and bred in multicultural London, Michael thinks of Adele as an “ally”, who was simply “appreciating her London and her black Londoner friends”. Zahra agrees, describing Adele as a “friend” who “does not claim to be Caribbean by any means” and is “just appreciating our resiliently rich culture”. Robbie concludes that although many go too far when appreciating other cultures, such as the Kardashians, he does not think Adele crossed the line in this instance, particularly in the clear context of “carnival season”.

image from Unsplash

As a young, white woman living in London, I am anxious not to change the BLM debate and make it all about whiteness. But, as Reni-Eddo Lodge’s bestseller, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, concludes, in a post-colonialist, multi-racial London, it is not possible to only focus the debate only on issues of blackness, and not whiteness. 

The way is which white people approach black culture must be re-thought. And whilst it is by no means the responsibility of black people to talk to white people about race, it is the responsibility of white people to listen when black people do, and to educate themselves of the issues facing modern London, for it is white people who must change their views if racial equality is to be achieved.

So, how should white people approach issues of race in the UK? “Research”, suggests Zahra: “you don’t have to ask your one or two black friends everything, although many are happy to discuss”. “Step outside your own privilege and listen to people who are telling you that there is a problem you couldn’t possibly understand”, recommends Michael. Clearly, listening to others, educating yourself, and applying your newly formed consciousness is a good place to start.

Take the BBC’s recent decision to remove and then reinstate the colonialist lyrics of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!” at the Last Night of the Proms. The BBC put the changes purely down to COVID-19 restrictions, distancing themselves from a debate on race. Unfortunately, this is not good enough, as rather than silencing the debate, we must amplify it, continually questioning our so-called staples of “British culture” to ensure they remain relevant in modern society, whether that be Last Night at the Proms or Notting Hill Carnival. 

And although when I open up Instagram today my feed is not inundated with black squares, nor is BBC News plastered with headlines of BLM protests, the issue of racial inequality has not suddenly disappeared. This is something that Adele, born and bred in multicultural London as she was, should have recognised before posting that Instagram, whether it be finally judged as appropriation or appreciation.

However, ultimately, perhaps we should be thankful to Adele, for her Instagram has served at least one purpose: bringing the issue of race, and how white people approach issues of race, back into public consciousness once more.

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