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#HERitage: Swaady Martin on Doeks

‘I believe cultural appropriation is a virtual concept used to create separation among people’

The discussion about cultural appropriation is more than just topical. It’s a critical move to rebalance power dynamics. But what is its effect on real people? And is there a difference between appropriation and appreciation? For Heritage Month, we asked eight women to weigh in as part of our #HERitage series.

Swaady Martin on doeks

Founder of YSWARA. Of African-American, German, French, Guinean and Ivorian heritage

Behind the scenes @ellesouthafrica wearing @justina.azrienne earcuff #supportingartisanmakers

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‘My father is African-American and German. My mother is French, Guinean and Ivorian. In my family, we have almost all continents represented, with some native American, Chinese, Indian, European and African cultures. We have a unique and diverse family culture and I’m a mix of all of these cultures.

‘People have a really hard time understanding diverse backgrounds and cultural multiplicity. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they want to associate me with one culture or nationality, or with the country I was born in. Beyond being inaccurate, I find this compulsive need to put people into boxes reductive. I see myself as a citizen of the world – part of one, big family.

‘As a result, culture is not something I think too consciously about. Too often traditions and rituals turn into cultural dogma and feed racism. This limits the potential of individuals to reach their full potential and thrive.

‘For me, culture is a continuum. It’s constantly evolving. Sometimes I wonder if our compulsive attachment to it is fuelled by fears and a need to belong. But I believe that our tribes and families are beyond cultural and blood ties.

‘There really is no romantic story or specific cultural heritage about the doeks that I wear. The headwrap I often wear is born out of a practical need: bad hair days. It’s a hair cover I usually wear when I don’t have time to style my hair.

‘The colours and fabric I use depend on my outfit – anything from Italian linen to Kenyan kangas or Chinese silk. Headwear is an important fashion feature in West Africa, where I grew up. But that extends to all over the world, where you find headwear incorporated into protection, adornment and even religious beliefs.

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Cultural appropriation versus appreciation

‘Headwraps are worn all over the world. For example, as for the so-called African fabrics, aren’t those ankara prints worn in West Africa actually from Indonesia? Indonesians themselves have probably borrowed them from elsewhere, too.

‘Today, ankara fabrics are mostly designed in the Netherlands and manufactured in China. So what is cultural appropriation, really? If we dig thoroughly, I don’t believe there is such a thing as cultural appropriation. No one group can confidently declare that they solely own a unique cultural feature. Everything comes from somewhere and people at opposite corners of the planet often come up with the same ideas. I believe cultural appropriation is a virtual concept used to create more separation and antagonism among people.

‘I believe in the necessity and right for all to contribute and be acknowledged for their contributions to society and humankind. The issue arises when certain voices are deemed more important than others, especially when these voices are gathered by boundaries such as ethnicities, languages, religions, social class or material wealth.

‘With globalisation, media and pop culture, culture has become a complex matrix – a multilayered imperfect concept, and the term cultural appropriation actually entrenches further the sense of separation.

‘Recognition is important – in a way to show deep gratitude and say in a meaningful way, “Thank you for your gift which contributes to my advancement.” If every one of us showed gratitude for what we receive from others, the issue of cultural appropriation would probably not even be debated. On the contrary, we would all feel happy to share widely with all. Because, at the end of the day, I am because we are…’

Read more about our #HERitage series, and the other women weighing in on the conversation, here.

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