What is the definition of cultural appropriation - and why is it bad?

The singer divided opinion over whether she was displaying 'appropriation' or 'appreciation' (Photo: Instagram/@adele)The singer divided opinion over whether she was displaying 'appropriation' or 'appreciation' (Photo: Instagram/@adele)
The singer divided opinion over whether she was displaying 'appropriation' or 'appreciation' (Photo: Instagram/@adele)

Earlier this week, award-winning singer Adele was accused of cultural appropriation for posting a picture of herself on Instagram with her hair in traditional African bantu knots and wearing a bikini decorated with Jamacian flags.

The singer was highlighting that under normal circumstances, last weekend would have marked the start of Notting Hill Carnival.

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But while some criticised her for her hair and outfit choices, others, such as David Lammy and Naomi Campbell, came to her defence.

The divide in opinion over Adele’s post raises the question: what is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

What does cultural appropriation mean?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation 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”.

Journalist Ernest Owens tweeted: “If 2020 couldn’t get anymore bizarre, Adele is giving us Bantu knots and cultural appropriation that nobody asked for. This officially marks all of the top white women in pop as problematic. Hate to see it.”

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LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant, associate professor of Africana studies at Williams College, told Huffington Post that it’s “actually really hard to define”.

She said: “I think of it, in the most rudimentary terms, as this very fluid exchange of culture that happens among human beings.

“But the way we think about it, especially now, is that it refers to taking someone else’s culture - intellectual property, artifacts, style, art form, etc - without permission.”

Manigault-Bryant cited an example of an image of Kim Kardashian wearing cornrows, a style of hair braids popular in the Caribbean.

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For Kardashian, wearing the braids “becomes a kind of symbol of beauty in some ways” - but black people have been punished for wearing similar hairstyles in school and professional settings.

The double standard “complicates the idea of appropriation” according to Manigault-Bryant.

Why is cultural appropriation bad?

Fordham University Law professor Susan Scafidi told Jezebel: “[Cultural appropriation] is most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g sacred objects.”

Dr Jessica Metclalfe, who holds a PhD in American Indian Studies and heads up Beyond Buckskin, a website and business dedicated to promoting and selling Native American made fashion, said: “When people only know of us as a ‘costume’, or something you dress up as for Halloween or a for a music video, then you stop thinking of us as people, and this is incredibly dangerous because everyday we fight for basic human right to live our own lives without outsiders determining our fate or defining our identities.”

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Specifically referring to the Adele situation with her bantu knots, Aneth Jewel, British Beauty Council Advisory Board Member, said: “Many are arguing that Adele was showing appreciation for Carnival and Carribean culture with her look, but appreciation turns into appropriation when it’s worn as a part outfit and taken off again and disposed of.”

Jewel added: “It’s appropriation when an Afro is worn as a joke and for fun at a stag do, when that same person wouldn’t be caught dead with it at a high powered board meeting at their office on Monday morning.

“Has Adele ever worn Bantu knots to a red carpet event? Has she ever worn Bantu knots on an album cover or to a celeb party?”

What does cultural appreciation mean?

In an article for the University of Utah, Amerique Phillips, Black Student Union social justice director, and Alexis Baker, Black Student Union president, said that cultural appreciation “is honouring and respecting another culture and its practices, as a way to gain knowledge and understanding”.

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The article explained that ways people can appreciate a culture includes things like attending a wedding or celebration and educating yourself on the significance of their cultural traditions.

“For example, there is a huge difference between you and your friends having a luau-themed party and actually attending a traditional luau,” the article states.

David Lammy, Labour MP, tweeted in defense of Adele, writing: “Poppycock! This humbug totally misses the spirit of Notting Hill Carnival and the tradition of “dress up” or “masquerade” Adele was born and raised in Tottenham she gets it more than most. Thank you Adele. Forget the haters.”

Modelling superstar Naomi Campbell also commented on Adele’s original instagram post with love heart and Jamaican flag emojis.