Back in my secondary school days, every month on a Friday, we would have a non-uniform day. These days were dedicated to raising money for local charities, but they also brought a much-needed break from our typical school attire, which consisted of plain black jumpers and trousers. The only hint of colour was the yellow and black logo embossed on the top right.
I still vividly recall one particular non-uniform day: I decided to wear a pair of white floral capri jeans paired with a sequined silver halter top. I felt confident and unique as I stepped into school that morning. To my surprise, as I made my way through the halls, I spotted one of my friends wearing the exact same pair of jeans!
What were the odds? I thought it was a nice coincidence and looked forward to sharing a laugh with her about our accidental twinning. But the feeling wasn’t mutual. She distanced herself from me throughout the day and even went so far as to spread rumours that I had intentionally “stolen” her outfit idea.
A few things about the situation confused me. First, I struggled to understand why my friend was so upset over something as trivial as wearing the same pair of jeans. Second, how could she claim exclusive ownership or use of an item of clothing that was freely available to everyone else?
The latter is a question I still ask myself today when I come across claims or accusations that someone (usually White) has “taken” something from another culture. Whether it’s art, music, fashion, theatre, or food, it appears that no aspect of human creativity is immune to an intense ideological tug-of-war over ownership, defining who constitutes outsiders, and rationalising the boundaries of rightful or permissible use.
The footballer David Beckham recently reflected on the hairstyles he has had over the years, leading him to express “bitter regret” for his decision to have cornrows in 2003. He got them while on holiday in France with his family, and it was the style he had when he met with the late South African president Nelson Mandela.
Interestingly, the 48-year-old athlete had experimented with other distinctive hairstyles, including a mohawk, for which he felt no need to apologise. The mohawk hairstyle has historical ties to the indigenous people of North America, specifically the Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy.
While the origins of braided hairstyles are often debated, many have claimed that the style can be traced back to Sub-Saharan Africa. In any case, hairstyles, like many cultural practices or elements, have always transcended specific identities or geographical boundaries, illustrating the fluid nature of culture itself. Therefore, claiming that individuals outside of a particular cultural group are “not allowed” to style their hair in a certain way is rather odd.
Braids did not originate from a particular group of people with the intention of only serving that group; rather, they emerged organically as a part of life that served aesthetic, spiritual, and practical purposes. Sincerely, I find debates about braids and who is permitted to wear them tedious, intellectually dull, and extremely immature.
Cultures have long influenced each other through exchanges and interactions. Insisting that individuals rigidly adhere to the notion of exclusively participating in practices originating from their own cultural heritage is not only absurd and implausible, but it also runs counter to human nature.
Moreover, the selective focus on cultural appropriation – specifically when members of dominant groups, primarily White individuals, adopt elements from minority cultures – obscures an insidious exercise of power. This dynamic curtails the freedom of choice and creativity of these so-called “dominant” individuals.
Imposing these evolving, ever-changing, and occasionally contradictory restrictions while also forbidding individuals from engaging freely in diverse forms of self-expression, even when influenced by other cultures, places this behaviour in the realm of tyranny.
In his latest book, literary critic Martin Puchner states, “In our debates over originality and integrity, appropriation and mixture, we sometimes forget that culture is not a possession.”
Puchner’s perspective is spot on. It’s truly perplexing and strange to witness the uproar that sometimes occurs when a White person opts for braided hair or engages in activities considered “outside their culture”. Unfortunately, this type of conversation happens all too frequently.
To begin addressing this flawed but enduring concept of cultural appropriation, we should start by being mindful of our language use and phrasing. For instance, rather than labelling something a “Black hairstyle” or “Black music”, we can acknowledge that certain hairstyles or music styles are, for example, popular in Black communities. This recognition highlights their significance to a particular group without implying that others cannot appreciate or embrace them. It also removes the idea that some form of prior consent or approval must be sought or some form of pass must be given to be able to engage with elements of other cultures.
The word “appropriate” means to take something for one’s own use, often without permission from the original owner. However, when applied to culture, it doesn’t make complete sense since culture cannot be owned. It is a shared entity, and this concept is not unique to our time; rather, it’s a fundamental aspect of humanity’s story.
Cultures are the collective representations of traditions, behaviours, mannerisms, and ideas expressed through various aspects of our lives, such as language, food, music, clothing, and hairstyles, among others. As individuals and groups, we serve merely as representatives of these cultural expressions, not as owners.
Ada Akpala is the founder of Different Voice Initiative. It is a space for learning to help people navigate in this world of uncertainty and disorder.