Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's views on cultural appropriation

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists

You might know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her novel Americanah, named one of “Ten Best Books of the Year” by The New York Times. Or you might have come across the Nigerian author’s TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” which was turned into this handy essay. I bought early-bird tickets for her event at the New Yorker festival both because Adichie’s been an inspiration for my writing, and because I knew she’d lay out her bare naked feminist opinions without hesitation.

My attention peaked when the topic turned to cultural appropriation. An African-American woman stepped up to the mic during the audience Q&A, asking Adichie for her thoughts on Stella McCartney’s latest fashion show. Apparently, the British designer had been accused of cultural appropriation on the runway in Paris for using traditional African Ankara prints on her models. Now, her company was standing by its assertion that the collection was a tribute -- not a co-optation.

Cultural appropriation has become a prominent issue in recent years, mostly because Miley Cyrus started wearing dreadlocks and twerking in 2013. Cyrus adopted what she considered the “fun” parts of black culture, while avoiding the racial stereotypes that accompany them. This led black artists like Nikki Minaj accused Cyrus of co-opting traditions she didn’t understand or respect. The (mostly white) people who came to her defense argued that Cyrus was only showing admiration.

Adichie’s audience member voiced similar sentiments about McCartney. “Everybody is offended, but I think the prints are beautiful,” she explained. “Of course everyone else wants to wear them, too!” She identified with Ankara prints and was excited that the world shared her sentiment. And so, she asked Adichie, what delineated between cultural celebration and appropriation?

After thinking for a few seconds, Adichie asked the room to picture the African woman who wore these prints everyday. Would that woman wonder, “Why aren’t I getting the same admiration and praise for my outfits as Stella McCartney? Why does the world only care when a big, international fashion designer puts these clothes on white models in Paris?” She might feel ripped off. Most fashion week attendees would know next to nothing about her daily customs, political struggles, and rich cultural traditions. Instead, they'd associate her Ankara “look” with a British fashion house.

Dictionary definitions of cultural appropriation support Adichie's conclusion. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the phrase as "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Categorizing the McCartney runway as cultural appropriation is totally valid. But what about that audience member's more general concern? How do you differentiate between "showing that you understanding or respect" a given culture, and appropriating it?

What some people define as cultural appropriation, others interpret as cross-pollination. Journalists like Parul Sehgal and Jarune Uwujaren have explored this overlap in depth. While they both acknowledge the subjectivity of cultural appropriation, they also come to a definitive (and helpful) conclusion. In the words of Uwujaren:

“Where do we draw the line between “appropriate” forms of cultural exchange and more damaging patterns of cultural appropriation? To be honest, I don’t know that there is a thin, straight line between them. But even if the line between exchange and appropriation bends, twists, and loop-de-loops in ways it would take decades of academic thought to unpack, it has a definite starting point: Respect.

As someone who prefers certainty, I’ve long assumed that everything that appears to be cultural appropriation is. It always seemed safer to stay away from the blurriness altogether. Now, I'm reconsidering my approach. Adichie and Uwujaren have convinced me that my "safe" attitude to cultural appropriation has been coming from the wrong place: fear. Being afraid to offend people is different from respecting their culture. Who would you rather meet: somebody who appreciates your culture while respecting its boundaries, or someone so nervous about appropriating your traditions that they avoid your culture altogether?

I’d like to replace my fear with respect, as Uwujaren suggests. Obviously, respect doesn't mean wearing dreadlocks or hijabs or creating an Ankara-inspired wardrobe. It means spending more time learning about the cultures I’m so afraid I’ll accidentally appropriate. 

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