A Few Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

I was just thinking about “cultural appropriation” recently, in the wake of the New York Fashion Week controversy and a conversation or two with some white dudes who didn’t seem to get why I referred to some kinds of appropriation as “problematic” or why nobody was angry about Mary Poppins.

It’s not something I have studied in any great depth, but I have used the verb “to appropriate” in my own writing to refer to Africans taking, borrowing, adapting, and altering cultural objects or ideas from Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. Usually what I meant was something being taken, adapted, and used in a new way. For example, several groups of people in Africa, like the Masaai, are known for the colorful designs of beads they wear. These were originally made with “local raw materials” (like shells) but were later replaced by glass beads, and eventually plastic ones, imported from Europe.

But I don’t think that’s what people are talking about in more recent discussions of “cultural appropriation.” I was using the word to refer to a kind of organic evolution of cultures blending – with one taking something from another and “appropriating” it for their own uses, almost how languages appropriate and borrow words from each other.

In these newer conversations, I think people are talking about one of three quite distinct things: 1) stealing and at times taking credit for an idea or style from a particular community, particularly one that has historically been disadvantaged or oppressed; 2) objectifying members of a historically oppressed community and treating their identity as a caricature or a plaything; or 3) confiscating sacred symbols from such a community and using them in ways that strip them of their sacred value – again, in a way that objectifies those people. Personally, I kind of see the first as theft and the second two as objectification, but maybe that’s just semantics.

But wait – why isn’t Mary Poppins an example of cultural appropriation?

This question was rather flippantly posed to me with reference to Dick Van Dyke putting on an English accent, but I think that would be more accurately framed as a question of whether or not it is racist (rather than a question of cultural appropriation). But Dick Van Dyke isn’t appropriating anything, he is pretending to be literally British – in a way that offends a lot of British people, apparently. Think, I guess, of Laurence Olivier in Othello.

The difference here is, there is no history of Americans enslaving, colonizing, segregating, and otherwise telling British people that they are naturally inferior to white Americans. There is no history of British people in America being refused the right to vote and, in the same era, having to endure countless popular plays and movies where Americans put on phony British accents and pretended to be British people in order to make fun of how stupid and lazy and inferior they were. If such a history were to exist, then Mary Poppins would be extremely problematic. And racist. Othello presents a different set of problems, one of which is that I’m sure there were plenty of black actors that would have liked to play Othello. But even today, we can’t seem to bring ourselves to have black heroes be played by black actors.

Here’s John Oliver on the whitewashing of Hollywood.

Cultural appropriation is something different – it is not someone playing a character and pretending to be a person they’re not, nor is it a person from a historically privileged class playing a stereotype of a historically oppressed group (like Dick Van Dyke or Al Jolsen, respectively). Cultural appropriation – the kind that is seen as bad, rather than organic or consensual – I think – consists of one or more of the three actions I describe in the fourth paragraph of this post. Personally, I think “cultural appropriation” is unavoidable as long as cultures interact with each other (which, of course, they always will).

The bottom line, I think, is that it boils down to what’s behind it. Is it objectifying people? Is it taking a style that you did not invent and passing it off as your own (and perhaps making lots of money off it as a result)? Or is it a fair creative exchange based on mutual respect? Is it a cartoon character you’re playing, or do you really deep down appreciate the art or style because you empathize with that community?

I’ll close with three short videos and two articles to help you contemplate this. And then hopefully it will be a bit clearer why, for example, I think Dick Van Dyke and Miley Cyrus are not doing the same thing.

New York Fashion Week

Here’s what it looks like when cultural appropriation is done right

Cultural appropriation vs. appreciation

This article made it painfully clear what was wrong with Cyrus’ VMA performance in 2013, and I highly recommend this as well.

UPDATE: For an even more nuanced take on cultural appropriation, listen to this interview with the hosts of The Stoop on NPR’s Code Switch: what do Africans think of African-Americans “culturally appropriating” their stuff?

UPDATE 2: This was a really interesting take on language, music, and cultural appropriation in Disney films.

Happy reading/listening!


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So, Which Is It?

It's Fine.

I’m scared to post this. I’m afraid of alienating people I love, people I interact with on a daily basis, people whose friendships I value. I wouldn’t say this if it hadn’t been weighing heavy, like a 50 pound weight on my tongue every time I open my mouth to say something and stop before it comes out because I don’t want to stir the pot. I don’t want anyone to be mad at me. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But I can’t, in good conscience, do that anymore.

I live with a certain degree of privilege. Monetary privilege? Not so much. But social privilege? Absolutely. I am part of a demographic that is perceived as the LEAST THREATENING to society. I’m a White Lady. Further, I’m a Southern White Lady. Still further, I’m a Heterosexual, Cis-Gender, Southern White Lady who Happens to be the Married Mother of Two…

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Why Ugandan Rights Activists Are Talking About Trafficking

Human trafficking is one of the most serious human rights abuses in the world, yet also one of the most underreported. That’s why Ugandan rights activists are trying to break the silence and draw more attention to this crime.

The past couple of years in particular have seen some high profile cases of the trafficking of Ugandan women to the Middle East. Just over a year ago, a 33-year-old Ugandan woman named Flora Ritah Zawedde Nanteza, who had been working as a housekeeper in Dubai, died of a heart attack in a prison hospital. She was not a criminal, but the victim of a system called Kafala in which migrant workers are subject to draconian restrictions that essentially render them indentured servants of their employers – often referred to as “sponsors.”

Yaskin Kakande explains that when Flora couldn’t bear to live in her sponsor’s home in Dubai anymore, “she decided to go out on her own and look for a job elsewhere. The sponsor lodged a complaint and she was registered as a runway, thus becoming wanted by authorities.” Kakande describes several other cases of African labor migrants being abused and even killed by their employers, who are usually acquitted of any crime.

Later that year, another body was returned to Uganda, with Dubai authorities stating that this housekeeper had also died of a heart attack. On a Ugandan radio program, Kakande discussed the conflicting reports of the Dubai and Uganda authorities with a labor recruiting agent. The Ugandan hospital found signs of torture and abuse, but no evidence of the heart attack that the Dubai medical report claimed killed her. Kakande writes, “The recruiting agent accused me of trying to pull down the ladder of mobility that had granted me prosperity, as I cautioned Ugandans about seeking jobs in Dubai. I responded, explaining the trafficking in Dubai was no different than slavery, and the work of recruiting agents was no different than the middlemen of slavery in past history.”

Mayambala Wafrika, Chairperson of the Justice for African Workers campaign, also likened the employment agencies’ activities to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He told me by email that one girl currently being held in a house in Saudi Arabia against her will “approached our group for assistance… The agents from Uganda who transported her sold her to a Saudi company called [the] Besher Recruiting Agency. Besher confiscated her travel documents including her passport, and forced her to work without any formal contract. She first worked in 4 houses without pay but kept on running away due to inhumane conditions. A Saudi family later bought her from the agency at a cost of 16,000 Saudi riyals (around $4,200)…  they essentially become property of the agency they are sold to.”


Press conference on trafficking at the Ugandan Parliament, August 2016. Left to right: Bruhan Byaruhanga, Councillor of Kampala City Council Authority; Mayambala Wafrika, Chairperson, Justice for African Workers campaign; Hon. Herbert Kabafunzaki, Minister of Labour; and Ronald Nsubuga, Partner, R. Nsubuga & Co. Advocates. Photo: Doreen Assimwe.

For its part, Uganda, which ranked as a tier 2 country in the US State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report, banned its citizens from seeking employment in Saudi Arabia six months after having signed a memorandum of understanding allowing Ugandans to migrate there for work. Uganda has also established a National Counter-Human Trafficking Taskforce, which works with an anti-trafficking civil society coalition and, according to Linda Kabuzire, “has conducted training programs, created public awareness materials, held pre-departure information briefings for intending migrants, drafted guidelines on victim care for investigators, and is designing a national database in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration for sex and labor trafficking statistics.”

These are positive steps, but the challenges are immense and the trafficking of African labor migrants to the Middle East is just one aspect of a much bigger picture. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking victims from at least 153 countries were detected in 124 countries between 2010 and 2012. The United Nations’ conservative estimate is that about 2.5 million people in 2015 were trapped in some kind of forced labor or indentured servitude. It is a diverse crime, encompassing everything from child prostitution — in the United States as well as central Africa — to laborers on agricultural plantations. These abuses are all part of the same global phenomena that objectify women, children, and poor people and take advantage of their low or second-class status; particularly when they are migrants.

The employment agencies that recruit Ugandan women are well known by name, but thus far no actions have been taken against them: “The international community is strangely silent,” Wafrika remarked. In order to combat these crimes, he says, the international community should take decisive action not just through the United Nations but also through institutions such as Interpol and the International Criminal Court — potentially invoking long-established legal frameworks such as universal jurisdiction and jus cogens.

One thing is certain — and that is that while many individual states have implemented strong anti-trafficking policies and programs, governments around the world will have to amp up their efforts to work together in order to make significant improvements.

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Deafening Silence: White Silence and Alton Sterling

Form Follows Function

I want to start by being very specific about who I am talking to; this post is meant for people who look like me, those of us with white skin.

Many of you woke up this morning and heard the news about Alton Sterling, the 37 year old man who was shot and killed by the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The sickening feeling in your stomach probably hit you hard as you watched the cell phone footage of a police officer charging and tackling Sterling to the ground. You knew what was coming next. And, within seconds you saw it: the police officer mounts Sterling like a UFC fighter. There is no confrontation. No struggle. Sterling is subdued and then another officer yells “Gun. Gun.” The officer on top of Sterling pulls his gun and within seconds fires multiple rounds killing Alton Sterling.

This morning my Facebook feed…

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An Atlanta Risk Assessment

What would a risk assessment for a field mission to the US from Congo look like?

When I traveled to Atlanta for the annual International Studies Association conference, I was traveling there from eastern DR Congo. I thought, if I worked in Atlanta, and had to travel to Congo for work, I’d probably have to do a risk assessment. What would it look like if I had to do one traveling from Congo to the US? I wondered. I realized I knew nothing about Atlanta. So I did a little research and, just for satire’s sake, wrote a hypothetical context analysis to assess the risk involved in traveling to Atlanta for a conference. I think most of the stats are pretty easily Google-able, because I did this in one afternoon. Unfortunately I didn’t save the links.

This was written in the spirit of/inspired by the “If It Happened There” series by Slate.  Enjoy!


Risk analysis for the mission to Atlanta:


Atlanta is a city located in the southern part of the United States, about 564 miles southwest of the capital, Washington DC. This is a region that continues to suffer from centuries of ethnic tensions, and today these tensions can be seen between the descendants of African slaves and the descendants of the Europeans that owned slaves and the plantations on which they worked. This scenario is complicated by the existence of a police force which is ostensibly meant to protect the community, but was initially established to, among other things, imprison runaway slaves or return them to their owners.

Today, 80% of African-American children in Atlanta live in extreme poverty, compared to 6% of their European-American counterparts; the level of unemployment of African-Americans in Atlanta (22%) is more than three times the level of European-Americans (6%); and the number of African-American and Latin-American students that graduate from public high school is 57% and 53% respectively, compared to 84% for European-American students. African-American and Latin-American students are more than three times as likely to drop out of school as European-American students.

Persistent inequality in Atlanta sustains these ethno-political tensions, which may, in the current political climate, be exacerbated by the broader national context. For example, frequent police brutality against African-American citizens throughout the country – while historically prevalent – has gained increased public awareness and notoriety in recent years thanks to social media platforms and the democratization of information-sharing it affords; and the grassroots response to police brutality has been the nonviolent civic resistance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Atlanta is the capital city of the state of Georgia. In that state, it is not against the law for citizens to own, carry, and/or conceal arms (for example, in their vehicle). The law of Georgia, furthermore, includes a stipulation known as “Stand Your Ground” – that is to say, the law stipulates that an individual has no obligation to retreat from a perceived threat and can use any level of force they deem necessary, including lethal force, if that person reasonably believes they are confronted with an imminent and immediate threat of grave injury or death. A “perceived” threat and “reasonably” believing one is confronted with grave injury are highly subjective.

It was this law, in the state of Florida, which allowed the European-American killer of a 17 year old African-American boy to be acquitted of manslaughter in 2012, even though the boy was unarmed and did not constitute a threat. This event received widespread international attention and built momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement. The availability of arms in the country and the laws, particularly in states such as Georgia, that protect those who own and carry arms (implemented in a way that favors European-Americans) thus contributes to the reproduction of ethnic tensions and the broader context of insecurity in the country.

Risk :

Atlanta has a high level of crime. The greatest risks are theft and assault, rape, and, to a lesser extent but still high compared to the national average, homicide.

Means of Reducing Risk:

Avoid leaving or returning to the hotel at late hours and stay in a hotel in a secure area. Do not go out alone at night, but always be in the company of trusted acquaintances that are also attending the conference. Do not walk alone after dark. Take a registered taxi to return to the hotel if it’s late at night. Make sure you have the phone numbers of the local police stored in your phone in case of emergency. Stay in contact, every morning and every evening on return to the hotel, with the office in Congo.


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…Free Books on race, gender, sexuality, and class that are bound to get you woke!


In need of some new reading to spur your mind? Here is a great list of FREE BOOKS in PDF form to educate oneself on race, gender, sexuality, class, and culture!

Please feel free to share this with anyone who you feel might benefit. Special thanks you to Tracie of Emory University.

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Human Trafficking between Uganda and the Middle East: An Interview with Mayambala Wafrika


Earlier this year the Ugandan government enacted a ban on its citizens from seeking employment in Saudi Arabia. I interviewed Mayambala Wafrika, a Ugandan human rights activist and Chair of the Justice for African Workers campaign, to find out why.


  1. What got you interested in this issue?

In January 2016, many young girls from Uganda around the age of 16 to 25 years sent audio and video recordings home, crying for help. Their outcry was in search to be rescued from torturous houses in Arab countries. Many of them were claiming to be raped, tortured and forced to work under inhumane conditions. Their videos went viral, forcing me and the general public to take interest in their plight.

As the chairperson of the Worldwide African Congress, I invited my colleagues to join me in the Justice for African Workers campaign to help rescue our sisters. Those who joined the campaign include Ronald Nsubuga of R. Nsubuga and Co Advocates, and Doreen Assimwe the Managing Director of Uganda Fire Experts.


  1. Why do you think Ugandan women, in particular, are attracted to opportunities in Saudi Arabia, in particular?

Women from poor African and Asian countries are lured to work as housemaids in Arab countries due to high unemployment rates back in their home countries. Uganda, for example, has one of the highest unemployment rates among young people below the age of 25 in the world. It stands at 83 percent according to the World Bank’s African Development Indicators for 2008-2009.

One girl (her name withheld for security reasons), currently held inside a house in Saudi Arabia against her will, approached our group for assistance. She graduated as an I.T. specialist from a university in India. Upon returning back home, she failed to get a decent job. She decided to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia in search of greener pastures. The agents from Uganda who transported her sold her to a Saudi company called Besher Recruiting Agency.

Besher confiscated her travel documents including her passports and forced her to work without any formal contract. She first worked in 4 houses without pay but kept on running away due to inhumane conditions. A Saudi family later bought her from the agency at a cost of 16,000 Saudi riyals (around $4,200). A trade similar to the trans-Atlantic slave markets in America in 1800s. In Uganda, she was promised work that would pay $300 per month, but instead she received only around half of the promised salary.

She says the household she works for forces her to do hard labour including cleaning from 6am in the morning until 3am at night. Her daily chores include degrading services like flushing toilets after family members, washing the underwear of household girls and cleaning after them during their monthly periods. She demands to be brought back to Uganda but the agency won’t allow her since it already took a lot of money from the family she works for. Her story is similar to reports narrated by several girls. Another girl in Oman is paid only $40 dollars per month but she has to clean 3 different houses every day.

But the problem is more than just unemployment. Many girls are lured to Arab countries by devious relatives or friends. These relatives promise to keep them safe, claiming to know the agency they will be working for. Little do they know that their relatives are actually paid around $500 per girl they deliver to the Arab agency. And that upon arrival, their relatives or friends will not be able to protect them since they essentially become property of the agency they are sold to.


  1. Do you think the issue receives sufficient attention from governments and the international community? Why or why not?

The international community is strangely silent. The US embassy normally makes official statements when reports of human rights violations are egregious, but they’re strangely silent on the plight of these Ugandan housemaids.

After rigorous lobbying, the parliament of Uganda managed to put a ban on the exportation of housemaids to Arab countries. Unfortunately, little or no measures have been implemented to enforce the ban. Many girls are still recruited openly. Agencies now use Kenyan airports to traffic them. Recently, the Kenyan police arrested a group of 26 Ugandan girls who were being held in a lodge, waiting to be trafficked to Saudi Arabia.

The assistance we need from the government is simple, like processing new official travel documents so that we can transport these girls back home. But our organization has moved from one government office to another in search for assistance in vain. On 28 April 2016, under the Justice for African Workers campaign, we decided to take a petition to the parliament of Uganda demanding the resignation of the Foreign Affairs Minister and our ambassadors in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on grounds of neglecting our citizens.


  1. What do you think are the biggest public misperceptions about this issue?

Many people in Africa hold the misperception that life outside the continent is by default better. They’re not aware of the perverse racism against black people that is still rampant in Arab countries. While western governments have implemented different policies to try and end racism, many Arab governments are in denial of the existence of racial prejudice in their society. As a result, a survey published by the Washington Post in 2013 pinned Arab countries as the most racist places on earth, only after India.

We have cases where girls claim that family members they work for look at them like animals. They don’t want to talk to them, share the same dining room or eat on the same plates. It’s common to find black housemaids who are given leftovers of food of their bosses. One girl claimed that her boss would rather throw away leftover milk than give it to her.


  1. Do you see this more as a crime, or more as a human rights abuse? Why? Is the distinction important in your opinion?

Given the way how most girls are trafficked, raped, tortured and forced to work against their will, its appropriate for one to conclude that this is a syndicated crime. The maltreatment of our girls in Arab countries today is similar to the enslavement of Africans during mediaeval days. The only difference is that today girls are offered some small money as a form of consolation but the misguided racial attitudes and inhumane treatments are the same.

The human rights of these housemaids are obviously abused in the process but the extent to which it is done proves that this is a criminal enterprise that must be halted. We have reports that indicate there are ministers, ambassadors and powerful people in the government who are involved in this human trafficking.


  1. What do you think are the best strategies to fight trafficking?

There is need for greater coordination between African governments, the international community and Interpol. For example, the names of agencies that are involved in this human trafficking scheme are openly known. But since Arab governments keep denying the mistreatment of housemaids in their countries, nothing can be done to hold these Arab based agencies accountable. It is only Interpol in coordination with the International Criminal Court that can arrest and force these agency kingpins to face the wrath of justice.

Other poor countries like Philippines have banned taking their people to work as housemaids due to torturous conditions. African governments must impose and enforce a similar ban.

Our ancestors like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King struggled to ensure that we, their children enjoy life with dignity. African people need to be reminded that nothing should ever take us back to life of servitude. Poverty should never be substituted with slavery.

Mayambala Wafrika

Chairperson, Justice for African Workers campaign

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