Is it appropriation for a white woman to wear African fabrics?
August 10, 2019 4:59 AM   Subscribe

I am an able-bodied neurotypical white woman in her 40s. I am trying to spend money with businesses owned & operated by POC & PWD whenever I can. I am currently in need of new work clothing, and I love the look of the jacket dresses made by Ray Darten. Is it appropriative for me to wear a dress made with African fabrics? I would like to support this business, run by a Black woman & named after her daughters (combination of syllables), but I understand that this clothing may not be for me.
posted by pammeke to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I am not going to tell you what to wear, but I can tell you the cultural significance of the fabric. You can then decide for yourself.

These dresses are made from Dutch Wax fabric, which is an industrialized imitation of Indonesian batik fabric. Batik fabric is decorated by hand using multiple dye baths, applying wax to areas that you do not want dyed. The English and Dutch learned to imitate this by printing fabric in colorful patterns using steel rollers. Still later, factories in Africa, especially sub-Sahara west Africa, like Nigeria, began producing this style of fabric too. You are correct that this fabric today is, indeed, considered African.

In the 20th century Dutch Wax fabric became strongly correlated with fashion in Africa. Wearing such clothing in the workplace was sometimes considered a tacit political statement about African pride, as well as a rejection of European business attire. A few decades ago when Africa was being de-colonized, the political message seemed much stronger than it does today.

Among artsy folk today, there is some awareness of the international history of these fabrics, as one of the most celebrated artists working today, Yinka Shonibare, uses them as a symbol of his cosmopolitan, multinational, identity. He had been taught in many contemporary art classes in recent decades and has made it into many of the Art 101 textbooks, as professors love his many identities (Nigerian, English, royal, black, gay, physically disabled, etc.). The PBS video segment from Art 21 on him is good, if you want to learn more about him. You can stream it in the Art 21 website.

Today these fabrics seem to be worn both by people in the African diaspora that want to celebrate African cultures, as well as by non-African people that want to project a global aesthetic sensibility and worldiness. When non-African people wear them, they often seem to also have other "ethnic" clothing and jewelry from around the world in their wardrobes.
posted by mortaddams at 6:42 AM on August 10, 2019 [36 favorites]

Why don't you contact the store and ask them what they think? You wont get a unanimous answer here, and the overwhelming majority of mefites are white so opinions here are only worth so much.

Some people may think it's appropriative, others may not: the ratio is anyone's guess. You'd need to be comfortable knowing that some people may make assumptions both bad and good before you purchase.
posted by smoke at 6:58 AM on August 10, 2019 [16 favorites]

This comes up a lot in my sewing classes as people are choosing fabrics and opinions are all over the board from "It makes me feel acknowledged when other people wear fabrics native to my world" to "Absolutely not, no, never".

This is a broad range of opinions and there are two things I tell people to keep in mind:

1. Is it coming from an African or black maker/designer/distributor?
2. A good deal of the time people are ambivalent at best but the BEST thing I heard a woman say was this: "You can do whatever you want all the time, but as a black woman my first reaction is going to be to question whether or not I can trust you and your motivations. I may or may not take the time to find out, but it sets up a barrier right off the bat". This was coming form a strictly American perspective.

When I've mentioned the second one in classes there is a lot of nodding and "that is a really good way to say it"
posted by Tchad at 7:03 AM on August 10, 2019 [15 favorites]

It depends on who you ask. The thing of it is that you're not going to get one right answer. Some people feel like fashion is the merging of cultures and as long as you're not getting into costuming, then you're okay. Others argue that it's inappropriate. I'm thinking of the teen who wore a qipao (traditional Chinese dress) to prom and was attacked for cultural appropriation.

I think it comes down to your comfort level and as long as you're not costuming, you're fine.

(I say this as someone in your demographic who has fallen in love with the clothes sold here, which are made from Kenyan cloth.)
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 7:33 AM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm not African, or African-American, but as a WOC from a culture that is frequently appropriated, my rules for whether I'm okay with something are this:

a) Is the thing of religious significance? In which case, HELL NO
b) Did you buy the thing from a member of the community in question, thus making sure they benefit economically and not Anthro or some other big corporation?
c) Are you okay with the fact that you will have to work extra hard to make people from the culture feel safe around you and trust you, and are you willing to do the work rather than whine/get defensive/get upset that nobody is giving you Ally Cookies? If not, step away and get your ass to JC Penney or wherever.

a) especially is important, but c) is second, because goddamn is it exhausting dealing with white folk who are butthurt that we're not patting them on the head and/or gushing over What A Woke Person they are.
posted by Tamanna at 8:23 AM on August 10, 2019 [31 favorites]

I’m on team “support artists of color”. And not only when they make “neutral” work.

One of my core definitions of cultural appropriation is white people using non-white motifs to make a profit.

This is a non white person pulling from their heritage to pretty things to survive in this goddamn hellscape of an economy, and you’re worried about supporting them because of “what will other people think?”

If this is a business transaction between enthusiastically consenting adults, buy the dress and walk like you know you’re following your own moral compass.
posted by itesser at 9:39 AM on August 10, 2019 [34 favorites]

I'm not African, or African-American either, but I am a PoC whose culture has been often appropriated, and I 100% agree with itesser. As long as you are not buying from a white person selling "ethnic" / non-white things (i.e. food, clothing, books, exercise -- hello, yoga!, way of life), I am perfectly fine with wearing something that is from my culture. For example, you buying Thai food from a food truck owned by a Thai owner -- great! You buying Thai food from a food truck owned by a white dude who spent three months in Thailand, mostly spent drinking beer and hanging out with other white people, thought the food was exotic and wanted to share with more white people -- no.

It sounds like the business you speak of is run by a Black woman (is "run" same as "own" though?) so on first glance, I would have no problem with this. But obviously I can't speak for Africans, African-Americans, or even people of my heritage.
posted by moiraine at 12:45 PM on August 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I really appreciate all the answers so far. Thank you all for taking the time. I want to support businesses owned & operated by POC, but I don’t want to be an inadvertent [expletive] in the process. My concern is for impact of my actions, not appearances. I do what I can to be actively anti-racist rather than simply not racist. I do understand the remarks about folks who don’t know me possibly (likely?) not trusting me or my intentions.

Here is the “our journey” text from the Ray Darten website:

“Ray Darten specializes in creating deeply rooted African made clothing and accessories. We are focused on using our styles to tell stories of our magnificent Nigerian culture and heritage. We view ourselves as not just story tellers of African elegance but also playing a role in helping drive its economy with all our fabrics sourced and our clothes handmade in Nigeria. In 2019, we made a transition into a new production facility in Nigeria, significantly increasing our team members count, thus reaffirming our commitment to telling stories of Africa through pieces made in Africa. We've also made a commitment to give back to children in our community through our Ray Of Hope initiative.

Ray Darten represents an idea held by Yetunde Olukoya, a medical doctor turned designer, whose idea has finally come to life...transitioning from a long adored hobby and taking the huge leap to share its uniqueness with the world. The name Ray Darten was birthed from a wordplay with her kids' rich Yoruba names...Ire, pronounced eRAY, DARa & TENi. She strongly believes in sharing our handcrafted pieces, made of bold Ankara prints , with versatile styles geared towards complimenting each individual's unique beauty.”
posted by pammeke at 4:18 PM on August 10, 2019

Reading your update, I would shoot off a quick email to the seller, along the lines of, 'I love your clothes, but I don't want to overstep my boundaries. If you're okay with me wearing your designs, I'd love to buy some!' Because at the end of the day, the impact of your actions is a) a Black small business owner gets paid and b) people in Nigeria benefit economically as well. So I say go for it!
posted by Tamanna at 7:24 PM on August 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

As a white woman in Northern Arizona, I’ve developed the following rules for wearing anything made by Navajo, Zuni, or Hopi artists:

1. never wear anything with significant religious import. This can be hard to know, so I depend on:

2. Buying from the person that made it, and asking them about the work. There are designs specifically made for sale. This ensures the money goes to the artist, and that I’m not cruising around with something I don’t understand around my neck. This also avoids the provenance issues that can come along with antiques.

3. Even with the above, it’s important to not overdo it and wear so much that it appears to be a costume. Good to support artists, bad to pretend to be a part of the artists’s culture.

So far, this approach seems to be ok.
posted by chuke at 10:20 PM on August 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm a sewist and I have a huge, insane love of African Wax Print. It makes me incredibly happy to see it, I love working with it, it is a joy on all levels for me.

When I first really fell in love with the textile, I was super concerned about the same things that concern you. I asked a bunch of my friends what they thought (one even put it to a Facebook group that she's in) and I also did a bunch of reading and taught myself the history of the fabric.

In the course of that research I came by this article by Marcy Harriell, a well-known sewist who often works with AWP. She says, in a word, "Go for it."

I do have one hard and fast rule: I never wear or make anything that can be mistaken as religious or cultural clothing. I also tend to look for sellers on Etsy who are people of color, and I buy only authentic AWP, not the knockoff fabric that comes printed on one side, and is generally sold on bolts, rather than in 6-yard cuts.

Similar to your case, I have also bought a beautiful, amazing dress from a local woman who runs a boutique. She came to my local street festival (which in my 'hood is pretty much white-lady grand central). She helped me choose and try on the dress I bought from her. I agree with the above advice -- if you cannot tell from the context that she's cool with selling to white people, just send her an email and ask her. Hopefully she will appreciate that you're trying to be thoughtful.

Also report back with your story because those designs are FIRE and I would love to support them as well, if they are cool with it.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:27 AM on August 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I didn't see this mentioned yet - but obviously, don't cover yourself head to toe in the print, plus a headwrap, etc. Integrate the print into an outfit you would wear normally - otherwise it will seem like a costume, which yeah, is offensive. I don't think there would be any issue with wearing this jacket over a black t and black ankle pants or jeans, with your usual hairstyle, makeup, and subtle jewelry.
posted by schwinggg! at 7:05 AM on August 11, 2019

I’m a mid-40s White woman with family connections to an African country. I lived in that country for several months. Some dear students gave me a traditional dress of that region in my size. I knew I would never wear it. It wouldn’t be recognizeable to many Americans. But I’d hate for folks who could recognize it to know I was wearing the traditional clothing of an African cultural/ethnic group.

So I wouldn’t wear it.

I did buy lots of scarves and I wear those all the time. They’re not clearly African or even non-American. I supported the businesses but it doesn’t feel or look appropriative.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:00 PM on August 11, 2019

Again, thank you all for your answers here. On careful consideration, and given your very helpful food for thought, I won't be purchasing clothing for myself from this particular designer. The pride in African heritage represented by this beautiful work (and explicitly laid out in their "Our Journey"/About Us) doesn't belong to me, I can find other colorful professional clothing to wear, and I can find other ways to financially support Black-owned & -operated businesses - and to donate to and support deserving causes.

I really appreciate your patience with my well-meaning but ultimately selfish impulses here. I can admire this work without trying to take it as my own.

I believe it's meaningful that makers of similar clothing which include white models in their marketing are made by white people, and that this designer features solely Black models.

In case folks stumble across this post later and are looking for other ways to support Black-owned businesses, The Official Black Wall Street online directory has provided me with some good leads, including makers with online (including Etsy) presences. I'm very open to other suggestions folks may have.
posted by pammeke at 5:25 AM on August 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think you made a really thoughtful and smart decision. I think it gets tricky because we good-intentioned white folks feel that, in our capitalist society, buying things that are for sale to us is one good way to support people of color -- but wearing what they are selling out and about in the world might communicate a different message.

Your solution in looking for other ways to support black-owned businesses is a good one.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:58 AM on August 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

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