Disclaimer: I am a white female living in Britiain and yes, you will realise I am stereotyping hard!!
A wave of anti-racist action has been witnessed across the globe in recent years. Its centre stage is without a shadow of a doubt in the United States – it’s epicenter unfixed, but perhaps now forever pinned to Baltimore or Ferguson. Those 3 words, ‘Black Lives Matter’, have started to occupy many areas of my political life, even as a British white female. Many Brits view our nation as ‘not racist’ relative to the issues in the States, but I think you’d be ignorant to doubt the subtleties of British racism. A racial issue that is particularly subtle, but incredibly prominent in pop culture is cultural appropriation.
Recently, the debate about cultural appropriation has sparked a crazy amount of controversy. Amandla Stenberg, Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks have got stuck in, calling Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift out for appropriating. But when do we know when something is appropriation or a cultural exchange through appreciation?
Mega babe, Amandla Stenberg, perfectly explains the issue in her youtube video ‘Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows’ (watch it!! It’s super enlightening). She defines cultural appropriation in comparison to cultural exchanges, in which she says the line will always be blurred. ‘Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes when originated, but is deemed high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves’.
Appropriation is a pretty fucking justified critique that is time and time again applied to the adoption of Bindis by the fashion world, and to a perhaps more trivial adoption of ‘Native ‘Indian’ costume’ (Here’s a little exploration of that from Buzzfeed!) Just think about all the basic girls at Coachella thinking they’re really boho and chic and cultured for wearing their $$$$$$ clothes from Free People, which perfectly co-ordinate with their Bindis and Native American headdresses. Appropriation is pretty catastrophic in that it makes exotic and a novelty of traditions or meaningful parts of cultures that are always deeply rooted in the history of an ethnic group.
Browntourage and Mo Juicy bring up a real interesting point here. They draw the line between what is appreciation and appropriation. Appropriation is bad, using aspects of culture for all the wrong reasons. On the other hand, you can still take parts of culture if you truly appreciate it and empower the people behind the culture.
How is this applied to Britain? Not only do we also thinking a cooler Coachella chic is a good look for going out clubbing (this time think more bindis, glitter, Nike Airs, and a crop top), but we also like to imitate an entire subculture’s look.
A few weeks back I went to a house party in which a huge portion of the people there studied at LSE and were quite obviously white, middle-class ‘gap yah’ kids. I couldn’t help but notice that most of the music played was hip-hop or grime. Kinda weird considering there was one Black guy there who was very Anglicized. In all honesty, these genres of music are expected at any party. But it got me thinking about this in conjunction with the current hype around grime and the ‘roadman’ aesthetic people are going for.
OK! Crash course on Grime!!: as JME (Skepta’s brother, also huge in grime) said, it’s music that ‘originated and will always be on the streets’. Grime is urban street music that originated in areas of London like Bow, Tottenham and Croydon. It’s a genre dominated by Black men, usually from working class backgrounds. Urban Dictionary best defines what a ‘Roadman’ is.
Lately it’s not only a type of person, but its become a style. The Roadman aesthetic is fairly intricately linked with Grime in that they both originated on the streets of London by working class Black men (sometimes women!!)
Now, fair play if you think I’m wrong, but haven’t you noticed that lately every second middle-class white guy aged 14-25 wants to be Skepta suddenly? Grime and the style of a roadman has become the new cool subculture for teens in cities across the UK, and it’s even started penetrating rural towns, AND HAS EVEN BECOME A THING AT HOUSE PARTIES FOR LSE STUDENTS.
The Basement’ is a fashion/streetwear group on Facebook, similar to Wavey Garms but has a bit of a rivalry with it. For the Basement Fam, guys like Skepta are one of a few icons. They go nuts whenever Skepta is seen wearing anything new or drops a new track. ‘Basement fam, can anyone ID Skepta’s jacket for me?’ The thing is, a bit like at that LSE house party, it’s conspicuously filled with more white kids than any kids of any other visible ethnicity.
The Basement style is concerned with camel coats, Supreme, Comme Des Garcons, baseball caps, Palace, bomber jackets, Adidas, Nike. It’s a healthy mix of middle class, well-tailored style (think Cos meets Kanye) with roadman chic.
Following on from Basement fashion, above is a picture of the man, the myth, the legend, Skepta gracing the catwalk with his presence and classic look. Yep, Skepta on the catwalk. Skepta and designer Nazir Mazhar collaborated for the soundtrack to the SS15 show, and Skepta even featured on the runway. Road is on bigger tings.
There’s even another FB group that’s emerged from this trend – Roadman talk UK/EU. It’s a pisstake group made by a white kid, and filled with white kids. It perpetuates some pretty awful racist comments where everyone gangs up on a guy for pointing out the hilarity of a bunch of white kids thinking they’re Black roadmen.
Dunno about you but I’m pretty fucking sick of white kids like this thinking they’re funny for starting on a guy for pointing out the subtle racism that Roadman talk UK/EU perpetuates through piss-taking.
So stereotype is a part of the current British mainstream, and is obviously creating really casual racism. It’s not only in high, conceptual fashion, but also in everyday fashion. Middle class kids are adopting and adapting this style and I too am guilty. I have started loving Supreme and CDG and North Face thanks to The Basement, but I can’t help but see through Amandla Stenberg’s eyes when considering the rise of this trend in both fashion and music.
So is it acceptable? To me it’s very obvious that even though this is a subculture, the roadman aesthetic and grime are being appropriated. Yeah, its possible to argue that this subculture is not as important for its particiapants as perhaps Islam is to Muslims. But even though it’s not religious or political, it’s still a way of life and its being stolen by white kids and those very white kids are creating racist mockery out of it.
This brings up a question that I’ve seen repeated all over social media in light the U.S.A’s racism in relation to police brutality: what if everyone loved black people as much as their culture?
These double standards resonate with any cultural variation. Why is it people talk about how great curry is, yet call someone a ‘Paki’ or perpetuate Islamophobia? This brings up a further question – why do we pick and choose aspects of culture? Us white Brits love things that bring us immediate pleasure, like a good old takeout curry, but threats from a minute Islam fundamentalist terrorist organization and we go off on hating an entire religion and it’s all of its believers.
But why is it middle class kids hyping this lifestyle?
I have two answers!
- Monetary safety.
- Instant culture (instant ‘cool’)
There is a severe absence of subcultures within middle-class life. Nothing cool comes from being middle-class. Ooh! Monetary safety! Ooh! Horses! Ooh! Brunch dates! Ooh! Cocktails with the girlies! Go suck a fuck.
Point #1) Compromise 100% aids creativity. Say you want to create a space for yourself, the less money you have the more you have the take a big leap out of the box in to the next fucking dimension. Why do you think so many subcultures transpire amongst the working classes and ethnic minorities? Imo the absence of middle class subcultures has a lot to do with being so comfortable. Lots of money = comfort, yes? When you have £s you don’t ever need to scrimp or think outside of the box when you want to achieve. You can afford to do everything by the rubric. You can afford things you want to identify with. If you love a band because their lyrics mean a lot to you, it’s pretty sick that your parents bought you a ticket to see them for your birthday and your car in which you can take yourself and mates. Life works around you when you have money.
Point #2) But what do you do when you have Ps but have no cool? Steal what’s cool to other people! Nick what looks pretty on others, despite how vapid you may seem. Bindis ARE really beautiful after all, and they would look SUPER beautiful on you.
Instant culture is a middle class desire at the disenfranchisement of the original owner’s of the culture. Instant culture appropriates in the most inappropriate of ways. It exoticizes and alienates. It demeans often the most important aspects of a cultural symbol. Back to Bindis – it is countless the amount of problems I’ve had with white girls at festivals and nights out wearing Bindis simply because they are beautiful. How would you like it if someone made fun of a huge part of your national and religious identity?
My dad grew up in Glasgow and my mum in Dublin. I know for a fact that living in southern England, they get endless stick about their nationality. People constantly make jokes about them and take the piss out of everything that belongs to their nationalities – sound familiar? Different ethnicities experience this to brand new heights when white people appropriate. Its like the Irish stereotype of Drunkards or the Glasgow stereotype of being a hardman/murderer/general mardy bastard etc etc.
BUT HERE’S THE CRUX OF IT:
On top of the devastating cultural and personal effects appropriation has on an entire population, it also prevents these middle class kids from becoming normal wholesome people.
The concept of ‘otherness’ is how people self-identify. Your brain works in differentiating yourself/your tastes/your beliefs from what other people are comprised of. But when people adopt cultural signifiers in poor taste, how are we supposed to identify ourselves? Appreciation and exchanges of culture is A-OK if you empower those who it belongs to and if the symbol has a potent meaning to you. But the line is becoming ever more blurred. Not only is this a crisis that results in racism and alienation of certain groups, but also it is a crisis of self-identity (although a minute issue in comparison to racism). The sheer wealth of most white people in the West poses a very real threat on authentic individuality.
It is a common misconception that capital encourages individuality. When these white middle class teens are faced with a coming-of-age crisis, they dabble in every subculture. Sure, capital ‘creates individuality’ in that it’s a mish-mash of loads of cultures (like WOWEE THIS GIRL IS WEARING A BINDI WITH A NIKE CROP TOP, INVENTIVE!!!!), but when at the cost of other cultures that are less privileged in what I like to call ‘The Great White West’™, is it truly individual??
Enough with being deep, back to grime. How can a middle class white boy from the Home Counties identify with a black man who was brought up in the depths of working-class London? Yes, identification spans across many levels – emotional, psychological, physiological. But when will we start valuing the authentic believers over the beautiful in their beliefs?
I’m going to leave you with a thought. I don’t know about you, but in my life I’ve heard a lot of criticism towards whites over ‘thinking’ they’re black. This phrase is a pretty well-used critique that affirms all I’ve said about stealing cultures. But what is interesting is that I’ve heard this not only from Black people who recognize their culture is being stolen, but I’ve heard it mostly from white people. So, if we all recognise that white people are stealing cultures, then why do we still do it and why do we still find racist piss take characters like Ali G funny?
By Shannon Sloan