“So, celebrating Halloween is gaining momentum in the republic. Weird,” a local celebrity tweeted on the night of the celebrations. Halloween is an American tradition that bears no meaning in Africa. I shuddered the thought of how horribly wrong things could have gone, particularly for white people.
And my mind replayed a Heritage Day occurrence that didn’t quite sit well with me. I was out of town for Heritage Day, but saw Instagram stories from colleagues about Heritage Day celebrations (a first for my company), and I was perplexed at the sight of my white colleagues wearing African clothing.
I discovered that the dress code was for a competition, where a person whose attire embodies the meaning behind a South African Heritage Day would win a prize.
But it’s holidays like these that we feel the ignorance of many white people, as they appropriate our culture.
Cultural appropriation is one of the many indirect versions of racially offensive actions. And like racism, we tend to walk on eggshells when we discuss this topic. Many believe cultural appropriation to be a complicated term with a meaning that somehow changes over time. But cultural appropriation is not technology than can advance, it’s a straightforward term that is centred around culture.
Simply put by my white friend; ‘it’s white people stealing.’ But the depth of it is when a dominant group adopts a symbol or an element of a culture that isn’t their own to use out of context, or to gain money, or to look cool, while the group that owns the culture is being discriminated against.
Like in the case of my colleagues in the above-mentioned scenario, they took elements of my culture and that of other tribes without understanding their cultural significance, and used them for a competition. This in a country where black people and their cultures have been oppressed for centuries.
I have the privilege of coming from two tribes, the amaXhosa and AmaZulu, both who take pride in their culture and traditions. And I was thankful I wasn’t around to witness the celebration, as I have grown greatly impatient with people who plead ignorance at the expense of my people’s historical and continuous suffering.
These are the same people who always ask me what event I am attending every time I happen to incorporate elements of my culture like beads on my hair and wrists, because it doesn’t make sense that I could be dressed that way to work just because it’s part of who I am.
And most times, white people are quick to jump on the ‘not all white people’ talk, but they don’t quite understand the privilege they have. They have the right to be themselves, wear their clothes and hair however they like without anyone saying anything negative about it. But we can’t – every part of our being is scrutinised and criticised.
They argue that ‘it’s just clothes’ or ‘it’s just hair’, but they don’t think about how these things affect us. Remember when Pretoria Girls School students of colour were told to straighten their natural hair. But those same people will cheer on a white girl spotting a synthetic version of an afro because it looks cool, like Kendall Jenner from the famous Kardashian family who wore an afro and was praised for her beautiful and ‘edgy’ hairstyle.
If you google ‘unprofessional hair’, you will see pictures of black people’s hairstyles, so really excuse us if we fight when a white person wears our hair – the same hair that is being viewed as ugly and unprofessional on us.
And on the other side: the reason for us ever putting on western clothing, burning our scalps with chemical or heat straighteners, and training our tongues to roll with proper English is because of cultural assimilation. We have spent centuries changing big parts of ourselves to fit the accepted ‘western’ standard of living. People of colour who lived in countries under the colonial rule used assimilation as a survival tool.
There can also be cultural exchange or appreciation, where a person(s) of the dominant culture is invited to participate in that culture. Like if I were to get married (God forbid, this never happens) and I invite my white friends to be part of my traditional wedding activities, including giving them permission to incorporate the clothing and other elements of my culture.
That, however, would be an isolated exception. It doesn’t mean they have a right to dress like that at any given day going forward. (And I am spoilt in this regard because I am surrounded by exceptional white friends who go out of their way to learn and understand my experiences and that of my people as well as their roles as allies.)
I think on a larger scope that is something we would, collectively as persons of colour, appreciate from white people. The openness and willingness to hear us, listen to us and understand us when it comes to matters of our cultures and traditions, because we have spent centuries experiencing the eradication of the core of our identities.
We’ve been hurt and continue being hurt on the basis of our cultures, traditions and skin colour.
We are trying to unlearn the pain and anger and relearn everything tied to our identities. Meeting us halfway is all we’re asking for. I don’t believe that is unfair.
Tell us: do you agree that white people shouldn’t dress up in traditional African clothing?
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.