Through appropriation, the powerful profit from the very cultures they malign, writes Shelina Janmohamed
Why Jamie Oliver's jerk rice debate is far more insidious than it seems
Finding the line between cultural appropriation and celebration is a thorny endeavour. Just ask Jamie Oliver, who this week has come under scrutiny for his “Jerk rice”. Or ask Madonna about her Berber outfit, Justin Bieber about his cornrows or Khloe Kardashian about wearing a niqab in an Instagram post.
When Kylie Jenner appeared on the front cover of Forbes as the face of billionaires under 30, she was no longer sporting her signature plumped lips, on which she built her commercial empire. Yet on black women, those same lips are frequently used as a racist trope.
Cultural appropriation is when a dominant group adopts the culture of a minority. The Oxford English Dictionary only included the term last year, although it’s been used since the 1970s. Which begs the question, why is it such a hot button topic right now?
I must admit I sometimes find myself scratching my head about what counts as cultural appropriation. When I was growing up in the UK, eating curry was something to be embarrassed about, considered smelly and disgusting. The knock on effect was that I was considered smelly and disgusting or even uncivilised.
Pretending I was eating English food with a fork and knife while feeling inferior was how I spent a good chunk of my childhood. Today I’m confident and proud of that food and feel valued because of my culture. That’s the great benefit of the cultural shift the UK has undergone.
But why wasn’t it cool back then when I, an Asian person, was doing it? Because racist structures deemed me inferior and therefore everything I did was inferior.
Only when those with systemic privilege adopted my culture – through cultural appropriation – did it became acceptable. Or was this simply the natural ebb and flow of cultures? These two views are, broadly, where both sides of the argument have positioned themselves.
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Whether you think this is political correctness gone mad or the last great battle against racism, the conversation about cultural appropriation is important. Not because we need to make proclaimations on Jamaican cuisine or dreadlocks, but because we must shed light on how structures of privilege operate and how those who hold privilege benefit from it, and knowingly or unknowingly, maliciously or not, use it to keep their privilege.
It’s about shining a light on how those who take from other cultures gain status from those cultures, while at the same time belittling and even deriding them – and stealing their meaning and dignity.
That’s why it is such an uncomfortable conversation for those accused of cultural appropriation. And those whose culture is being appropriated might feel torn, because it offers a sense of validation in the public eye, even if realities on the ground are quite different.
It mirrors the argument around having a black president: yes, the global and national recognition is profound, but that doesn’t mean racism is over.
In fact, what is most alarming but rarely exposed is that cultural appropriation is most rigorously denied by the same voices that demand integration of the kind that would erase the cultures from which they borrow.
This is about who gets to decide how we look and behave. And those that get to decide are ultimately those who hold power and push back against those who seek it.
To appropriate someone’s culture is to remove their power to self-determine and assert their value. It’s an insidious way of maintaining the status quo, because those who resent it are accused of denying positive cultural shifts. "You are lambasting us, even while we are championing you", the argument goes.
And yet hand in hand with this is the continued belittling of the people who are being appropriated, in addition to a demand that they erase their own cultural practices or themselves deem it inferior.
Cultural appropriation is a symptom of a structural problem. So when you see a story about jerk rice that has no jerk ingredients in it, or fake plump lips and dreadlocks that are donned as a costume to enhance a brand, the question is not how outraged or indifferent to be.
The question is why do some people get to profit from it while others are discriminated against for it and even told to abandon it. Because the ones who get to determine cultural value also get to decide who within cultures have power.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World