If you had told me two weeks ago that I would be launching a mass petition and social media campaign against a corporate retailer, I would not have believed you. For those unaware, about two weeks ago, a group of friends and I launched a Change.org petition and social media campaign against corporate retailer Urban Outfitters, and the attention the campaign has been receiving since has been simultaenously overwhelming and exciting.
The campaign, popularized by a Twitter hashtag I started called “My culture not outfit” has received an unprecedented amount of support. The petition is at about 7,000 signatures, and has received attention in outlets such as City Pages, the Huffington Post, and Al Jazeera English.
For some background, you might want to check out my open letter, which details what the campaign is and why it started. In a nutshell, the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities are calling on Urban Outfitters to relabel a dress it was selling on its website as a 90s vintage dress, when in actuality, the dress is a traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean dress. For a detailed explanation on why this is problematic, I again refer you to my open letter.
I also refer you to this segment in an Al Jazeera English program called “The Stream.” The show was inspired by the campaign, but it also addresses larger questions of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry. I appear in the beginning of the segment to talk about the “My culture not outfit” campaign.
I wanted to use this space specifically to respond to two questions that seem to keep coming up, not because I need to spend any time on haters, but because I think some people are confusing themselves. This is by no means comprehensive, and I’m sure there are more questions out there, and always things I need to say.
1. The crux of your argument is that Urban Outfitters is culturally appropriating a dress. But, isn’t Africans borrowing from the west, like wearing jeans, or us using the Internet, forms of cultural appropriation? Isn’t there such a thing as “reverse appropriation”?
To this, I say two things. First, that you are missing the point. The term “appropriation,” in this context, implies an inherent power dynamic. Meaning, the one doing the appropriating has to have some kind of relational power in order to actually be appropriating. When I use the term appropriation, I am not using it as a synonym for borrowing, because to me, “borrowing” implies an equal power dynamic. I borrow from you, you borrow from me. That’s mutual. That’s a relationship. We’re both on equal footing. We both have mutual respect. But cultural appropriation is not the same. When a culture is being appropriated, the underlying context is that it is a culture that is subordinate in terms of power to the culture or group that is DOING the appropriating. You could call this theft, because the appropriated culture typically does not give or was not asked permission, and there is actually no mutual relationship of sharing. There is no mutual respect. This unequal power relationship is what makes cultural appropriation what it is, and why it is so harmful.
Secondly, to those comparing this campaign to Africans borrowing “western” technology and jeans and asking how that isn’t appropriation: your argument is moot. Something that is of deep cultural and sentimental value to me is not comparable in any way to a commodified pair of jeans or Internet access. If you choose to define your own culture by commodified jeans and Internet access, then I actually feel sorry for you!
Your point is also moot because that stuff is already the norm; it is so pervasive all over the world because those with power were able to make it mainstream (thank you to colonialism and cultural imperialism!). So, saying “reverse appropriation” is kind of like pulling the “reverse racism” argument. You can’t cry “reverse appropriation!” when you have the power in this relationship, and a historical tendency of theft – theft of Africa’s financial, cultural, and human capital – and then calling it your own. You can’t say we Africans are appropriating western/European culture when y’all forced yourselves on us, when we did not want it, centuries ago, and continue to do so. You don’t get to take back and erase history and act like it never happened. You don’t get to do that. Because history matters. And we, Africans, are living with the aftermath of that legacy; not you.
2. So does that mean you are against inspiration or creativity? Are you a cultural purist?
I find it utterly frustrating that people are equating my pointing out the harms of cultural appropriation as being against creativity and inspiration. Did I ever say I am against creativity? Did I ever say people should not be inspired? No. Are you feeling inspired by our cultures? That’s great, and guess what – it is not new! The creativity and innovation that you claim to have come from Europeans was in one way or another “borrowed” or “inspired” by colonized peoples in Africa, Asia, and later the Americas. Non-Africans have been “inspired” by Africa and Africans for centuries, to the point where western civilizations could not have thrived if not for the cultural influences, knowledges, human labor and human capital of Africa and Africans. So again, read up on your history.
The point of this campaign is primarily to ensure that we, as Eritreans and Ethiopians, have ownership over our own cultural capital and traditional forms of wear, without having to worry about corporations and those outside the culture hijacking it and claiming it when it is not theirs. That is the point. And, frankly, I think Africans in general should be doing more to protect aspects of our cultures and what we have created, because it is ours! We have every right to claim and protect it.
But, if you as an outsider feel “inspired” by us, then get permission from us to use our inspiration for your financial profit. Give credit to the people it came from. Label accurately. Make sure any profits you make go back to the communities from which it came. Pay homage to the culture and its people. Educate your people on who made it and what the context is. Show that Africans are more than your stereotypes of famine and poverty. Take it upon yourselves to understand and educate others about the real Africa. We as Africans have gone too long with allowing our beautiful histories to be silenced, hijacked, white-washed and called something it is not. This campaign is saying, “enough of that!”
Sidenote: if an Ethiopian or Eritrean actually wanted to use aspects of their own culture and change it up, all power to them! It is their culture, they live it and breathe it on the daily; they – WE – have every right to dictate how we present ourselves and how we introduce (or not) aspects of our culture to the mainstream. You do not get to tell us that we are appropriating our own culture, because again, it is ours. We have ownership over it and can do as we see fit. (See model Liya Kebede’s fashion line Lemlem for an example of this). Also, we have already been changing up our designs for a long time now, as modern designs are much more stylized and fashionable for a younger generation, than they were decades and centuries ago. The difference is that WE are deciding how to do it, and it’s an organic part of the culture; also, our tailors and designers are making profit off of these modern fashions, not a corporate retailer that is completely disconnected from the cultural context and its people.
Also, feel free to check out my latest Youtube video, which address some of these concerns and my thoughts after appearing on Al Jazeera English “The Stream” on Tuesday! Comments welcome.
This column originally appeared on Lolla’s tumblr page.