10 September 2020
The profits of race.
By John Watson
Covid has made some sad holes in the social calendar and one of them is the absence of the Notting Hill Carnival. So the singer Adele put up a post to regret its absence and, that carnival being a celebration of cultural diversity, the post showed her with a Bantu hairstyle. So far so good you might have thought. There was nothing offensive about the post. It was not designed to upset anyone’s cultural sensitivities. There were no sacred symbols being trivialised. She simply decided to do her hair in a manner which is common in certain parts of Africa. Does anyone really object to that?
Surprisingly, the answer seems to be “yes”. Adele was immediately accused of cultural appropriation which, for those of us who are less woke than others, is “the act of taking or using things from a culture which is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”. Let us test Adele’s conduct against that definition. Was the hairstyle linked to Bantu culture? It seems it was. Is Adele from a different cultural group? Again “yes”. Had she made a study of Bantu culture first? Probably not.
So is this cultural appropriation offensive, as many of the twitterati seem to think? Should there be a rule against the casual adoption of things which originated in other cultures? Was I wrong to use the term “woke” in the last paragraph bearing in mind that it is Afro-American in origin? Is it wrong for Rishi Sunak and Chuka Umunna to speak perfect English, or is that okay because White British is the dominant culture? Would it be bad if they spoke perfect English abroad?
Oh dear, we are in a muddle aren’t we? Let us step away from low-grade philosophy and take a more practical approach. When this country emerges from the mire of covid and Brexit, what sort of place would we like it to be? Do we want a society where everyone gets a full opportunity to exercise their abilities, a land where people mix freely in a common culture without regard to race, religion or background? Or would we prefer a more siloed approach with different racial groups alienated from one another through their entitlement to distinct cultural property? Historically, as a country, we have gone for the first approach as different generations of settlers have gradually joined the mainstream, allowing their own identities to merge into and enrich the common culture. That doesn’t mean giving up their religion and traditions. Many Jewish family attend the synagogue on a Saturday and yet, as early settlers, the Jews have long participated fully in the mainstream of British culture. I have no idea what religions Mr Sunak and Ms Patel follow but few would think them less British if they follow those of their ancestors.
It is a slow process, of course, but what is the alternative? A collection of separate tribes, each sensitively guarding its own culture from encroachment? Distrust between them engendered by a failure to properly understand each other because there is no common stream to which they all relate? Surely not. That sort of separate development may have existed in apartheid South Africa but it has no place in modern Britain. If we are to work together to build Jerusalem among our mills there is no place for this. The gradual merger of the various cultures is essential if we want to create a society in which race and background become unimportant and that means that those cultures must be shared.
So why is it that Adele has been criticised? Why can you find on the Internet comments like “cultural appropriation is racist”? Is it just that some people have not really thought the matter through? Perhaps they would think differently if they looked a little bit further into the future.
Alas that is too charitable by half. Those who try to maintain divisions in society do so because it is in their interest. Dishonest insurance brokers will sell you a policy whether it is appropriate or not to earn themselves a commission, their own advantage trumping the interests of those who they purport to serve. It is the same with some in the race relations “industry”. Their careers depend on them being associated with important causes and they will pursue or create those causes to sustain themselves. From their point of view a division in society on which they can pontificate or which they can use to denounce others clearly beats a division which is gradually fading. It is little to them that they damage the very minorities in whose interests they purport to protest. For them the opportunity to promote themselves is paramount and it matters little whether the divisions and distinctions which they seek to create undermine the multiracial community in which the rest of us believe. Whether these people are racists depends on how you define the term. One thing is certain, however. They are profiteers.