This term, in typically Cambridge fashion, the university, colleges and societies are offering numerous structured activities to help students de-stress. Yoga, ‘Puppy Days’ and arts and crafts sessions are all relatively harmless – an MCR ‘Africa Themed’ formal hosted at Queens’, however, is not, and there are several reasons why.
Perhaps it’s the fact that on the Facebook event it claims diners can ‘travel far away’ – in reality you’ll be travelling to Cripps Dining Hall, which is incidentally only filled with portraits of white people, in spite of the efforts of the Black Cantabs Society. Or the fact that it promises an opportunity to ‘discover Africa’s cuisine’ – you’ll actually be tasting dishes from 3 (possibly 4?) countries from a continent of over 50 nations. Perhaps it’s the poorly chosen Facebook cover photo of a tree in the Savannah at sunset, along with the initial opening line (now removed) ‘Hakuna Matata’, which reads something along the lines of Africa = Disney animated movie or Taylor Swift ‘Wildest Dreams’ music video. Or finally, maybe it’s the fact that when the African Society of Cambridge University (ASCU) asked if the date could be changed so more members from the society could attend, the organisers refused – what could’ve potentially been a partnership between the MCR and ASCU quickly became a solo event, with the ASCU not granted the allocation of tickets they were promised.
People often ask where the line can be drawn between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and truthfully it is at times blurry. Simplistically, cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture, specifically adoption of the minority culture by the majority. Whether it be hairstyles, music, ‘fancy dress’ or food, what’s key is the power dynamic by which the majority has historically oppressed the minority. Cultural appropriation therefore differs from cultural appreciation or cultural exchange, as it reduces deep-rooted and highly personal cultural norms and expressions as ‘exotic’ or mere fashion accessories.
In this sense, the Africa themed formal is most definitely cultural appropriation, but there are several ways this could have been avoided. Perhaps if the initiative had come from members of the ASCU themselves, who could then determine the menu and terms of cultural exchange rather than being invited as a token afterthought. Or maybe if the formal was more honestly named ‘West African’ or ‘South African’ themed, rather than attempting to reduce an entire continent into 3 courses. Queens’ MCR may claim the formal is to ‘celebrate diversity’, but really it’s just an opportunity to enjoy a mildly ‘different’ dinner with vague allusions to a ‘far away’ culture. Billed as a revision break, the formal is a chance to escape from the serious world of Cambridge essays and exams, and enjoy the trivial pleasures of African food.
The MCR Africa themed formal therefore reduces the cuisines and cultural expressions from a vast continent into a formal dinner for privileged students at an elite university. Instead of consulting and working with the ASCU, the organisers had preconceptions of the event and the way in which it would be advertised. A little more sensitivity would go a long way.