Pauline Nevins: Appropriation or appreciation?
Adele, the English singer with the beautiful voice and the foul mouth (dropped 44 f-bombs at Wembley Stadium) was recently criticized for “cultural appropriation.” She’d posted a picture of herself in Bantu knots, a traditional African hairstyle, and a Jamaican flag bikini. Adele was celebrating what, until COVID-19, would have been the 54th annual London street carnival celebrating British Black culture.
Cultural appropriation is a term new to me. I looked it up. The definition read: “The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices and ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another …”
I plead guilty. Sorting through a shoebox of old photographs I came across one of me in a Halloween costume dressed as Carmen Miranda, a Portuguese-born Brazilian samba singer, dancer and film star. I’d won first prize at the agency where I worked before retirement. Ms. Miranda is long gone, but we have not forgotten her fabulous fruit hat.
I am neither Portuguese nor Brazilian, but I loved Ms. Miranda’s colorful headdress. With the help of my husband, Jim — notice how I bring him into this — we desecrated his construction hard hat with plastic fruit. A calf-length tiered crimson dress completed my ensemble.
Several years later. Same agency. Same holiday. This time I arrived to work in what I would have described as my Gypsy outfit. I now know the term to be derogatory. Romani is the respectful term. As the beloved poet Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.”
I sat at my desk in my Romani outfit comprising the same Carmen Miranda dress, this time adorned with scarves, necklaces galore, hooped earrings resting on my shoulders, and a collection of bracelets up to both elbows. Employees wandered around, complimenting each other on their costumes. None, and I mean not one co-worker commented on my outfit.
Was it because my costume choice offended them? Doubtful. None of us were woke back then. I had never wanted a workday to end more. If you think my everyday office gear must have been flamboyant, you’d be wrong. Calf-length skirts, dropped a foot from my Swinging ‘60s days, and a suit jacket, were my usual attire. I put my co-workers’ lack of a reaction down to the hesitation one has when we think we see a baby bump: “What if there’s no baby?”
I thought it was fun to dress up in those colorful costumes. But the writer, Diana Bruk, in her 2018 article on bestlifeonline.com, “How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation This Halloween,” was pointing her finger directly at me when she wrote:
“You might think it’s ‘fun’ to dress up as a Gypsy, but the word itself is a slur; many people don’t even realize that the Roma people have been systematically persecuted in Europe for hundreds of years, which makes it especially offensive as a costume.”
And this offense, continued Diana, extended to other groups that have “suffered from colonialism, oppression, or genocide.”
I can see readers’ eyes rolling. “Good gravy, isn’t there anything we can do that doesn’t insult or demean someone? What are we and our kids supposed to wear for Halloween or other celebrations?”
I’ve done the research for you. Here’s what not to do:
Nazi outfits or symbols. Remember Prince Harry? Fifteen years ago, he was photographed holding a drink and dressed in a shirt with a swastika armband. I bet Harry still cringes when he thinks about that.
Blackface. I think we’ve all got that one. At least some celebrities have. Comedians Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Tina Fey have uttered their regrets. They only wanted to make us laugh. But as Fey put it, “I understand that intent is not a free pass …”
Now that we know what not to do. What can we do? I turned to Mia Moody-Ramirez, a professor of journalism and public relations: https://neaedjustice.org/2019/10/25/three-tips-to-avoid-offensive-halloween-costumes: “Choose something that is fun and tasteful — animals, movie characters (without darkening your skin), ghosts, ghouls, etc. Avoid dressing in a costume that will reflect another ethnicity or culture. Think about whether the costume will be perceived as tasteful or tasteless.”
Was Adele, a white woman, guilty of cultural appropriation? Recently, Ancestry.com sent me an update of my cultural heritage. I knew I was half-Irish. My mother’s accent was a dead give away. But guess what? I learned I’m descended from the Western Bantu people. So, I say to Adele, celebrate British Black culture in the tradition of a street carnival, as others do. Wear your Bantu knots and tell your detractors to “get knotted” (rude British slang for get lost), but please stop swearing.
Pauline Nevins, who lives in Colfax, is the author of the memoir, “Fudge — The Downs and Ups of a Biracial, Half-Irish British War Baby,” and “Bonkers for Conkers,” a compilation of personal essays. She can be reached at paulinenevins.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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