Alice Davidson | Africa Isn’t Yours To Appropriate

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.

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An acacia tree. Very originality. Much new.

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.

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Louder for the people in the back

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.

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19 thoughts on “Alice Davidson | Africa Isn’t Yours To Appropriate

  1. I am trying to organise a African Caribbean festival on Mill Road in October. It would be so great if you would get involved so that the same mistakes don’t happen there.

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    1. As Lola says in this comment section, “Also, that the theme was suggested ‘to’ the them and not ‘by’ speaks volumes. They should really be taking the lead on this. Hopefully, you can use some of these critiques to improve the dinner!”

      Since you are the one who is taking a lead on organising an AfroCaribbean themed event, and not just sitting there expecting ASCU to magically initiate this sort of thing, you’re already in the wrong. Sorry!

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      1. Lola again!

        No, Jess. This seems like a person that is *genuinely* interested in collaboration and isn’t too defensive to have their ideas/theme critiqued so that they don’t repeat your mistakes. Your responses are genuinely baffling and very unnecessarily defensive for someone who claims to be invested in providing a genuine cultural experience. The cover photo and description were very stereotypical – reducing Africa to an exotic ‘far away land’ contributes to the idea of it as a ‘mysterious other.’ Whilst it is near impossible to represent all the continent, I think it’s safe to say you could have worded the description better and chosen a cover photo that didn’t so obviously fall back on western perceptions of Africa.

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  2. The themed formal tomorrow was suggested to the ASCU in November and was planned with members of the ASCU (including the menu). There was a group booking for the ASCU, the formal is currently sold out and will happen as planned.
    A date change was not ‘refused’ and we are in fact still working with the ASCU to explore alternatives to host a dinner in queens on the date requested.

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    1. Hello Jenny,

      Glad to hear you are working with ASCU and looking into alternatives. It’s odd that the event description (‘Hakuna Matata’ ‘escape to a far away place’etc) as well as the cover photo could be so jarring if you say you worked as closely with ASCU as possible. Also, that the theme was suggested ‘to’ the them and not ‘by’ speaks volumes. They should really be taking the lead on this. Hopefully, you can use some of these critiques to improve the dinner!

      Lola

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      1. Maybe not all people with ties to Africa find it offensive; perhaps it’s just a vocal minority, and that’s why this issue was never brought up.

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  3. “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.” None of the foods, nor the photo of a savanna, nor the phrase “Hakuna Matata” are deep-rooted or highly personal cultural norms. This is therefore not cultural appropriation.

    My friend made this argument and I can kind of see where he’s coming from. How is it offensive if you never say that “this is all Africa is, and nothing more” or anything like that? Like, there’s literally no way to represent every complexity of a continent in a meal. So do we just have to not hold any broad category themed events in the future? Or is it OK to simplify things for the sake of practicalities?

    I don’t know, I can’t really see a good solution to this conflict.

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    1. I think the best response to you would the statement for ASCU:

      ASCU’s Response to the Queens’ Formal
      In response to the numerous conversations around the African themed formal at Queens’ College as president of the African Society of Cambridge University (ASCU), I would like to clarify our engagement with Queens’ MCR team.
      Did the Queen’s MCR contact the ASCU to organise a formal? Yes. In fact, conversations regarding an African themed formal started in November.
      Our discussions about the formal stopped after it got too complicated for many reasons, including rude messages sent ironically by the international student rep giving ASCU an ultimatum as to whether we wanted to be involved or not. Given the historical (and ongoing) prejudices that have defined interactions with the African continent and its peoples, I decided as President of ASCU that it would be in our society’s best interest to withdraw for the following reasons:

      Firstly, communication between the two parties had been broken– an event that was meant to celebrate diversity was turning into a unilateral conversation in which our propositions were not being considered. Secondly, the Queen’s international rep stated in a written message, her intent to pursue the dinner with or without the continued input of ASCU. “The formal will still go on, so if you want to attend, you will have to find someone at Queens’ to get you a ticket”. Would African students organising a dinner in celebration of other cultures dismiss representatives from that group for delaying them as they insisted on a date that is best for them? Probably not.
      Engagement on an equal basis demands a level of respect that lacked in our earlier engagements with the MCR representative. Although the president of the MCR apologised for how the process unfolded, there is the revolting inkling that reminded me of carefully written programs for ‘Africa’ in Washington DC and London that “invite” Africans only to sign, just sign… The idea of the dinner was coming from a good place but the process was flawed. The Queens’ MCR President did sincerely try to make amends – that is why a Queens’ member in the African Society invited those interested in attending to do so – ASCU, as a society, however would not be associated as a co-organiser due to how the process unfolded.

      ASCU is willing and welcomes engagement that make the diverse cultures that represent Africa appreciated and known, but only when it is truly inclusive – from planning better together to choosing dates that suit both parties to designing the advertisement to avoid such messaging that reduces a dynamic continent to simplistic stereotypes embodied by Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata”.

      Halimatou Hima
      President
      Africa Society of Cambridge University (ASCU)

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      1. I think you answered a rather different question to the one I asked. “There’s literally no way to represent every complexity of a continent in a meal. So do we just have to not hold any broad category themed events in the future? Or is it OK to simplify things for the sake of practicalities?” As far as I can make out, by the criteria for offensiveness that many seem to be applying, there is no way round this.

        As for how communications between ASCU and Queens’ went: if that’s the actual issue why are people making it about “simplifying Africa” etc?

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        1. Hi Jess,

          Audrey here. What you’re forgetting about is the power dynamic. Simplifications of African culture are part of a wider history and present of acts of violence committed against the continent, be it through colonisation or through present-day conversations about African development that exclude Africans. Simply put, our voices aren’t given as much weight as yours. Within the university itself, the African Studies department (from what I’ve heard) is under-funded, there are too few Africans lecturing us generally, and too few on our reading lists.

          This formal was symptomatic of this wider problem. The organisers clearly can’t know much about the continent as the choices they made on the event page were purely stereotypical, yet they ignored the readily available voices of African students, deciding they knew best in the end. This says less about the organisers themselves and more about a general culture in which the trivialisation of African cultures and opinions is the norm. Small issues like these have to be tackled because they are manifestations of a bigger problem. It has little to do with practicalities.

          There is literally no way to represent every complexity of a continent in one meal. The fact that the organisers thought that they could do so speaks volumes.

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          1. “Our voices aren’t given as much weight as yours.” First, don’t assume things about people you know nothing about. Second, I was not consulted at ALL about this formal. Third, the ASCU was, so clearly they at least have a little say in the matter (i.e. more than anyone else, except the organisers). The idea that “our voices aren’t given as much weight as yours” is blatantly incorrect, unless by “yours” you mean “white people as a whole, extrapolating the organisers of this event to represent all of white people” which is as childish and foolish an error as assuming all of Africa is one big savanna.

            The argument that “from what you’ve heard” the AS department recieves too little funding hardly holds water or demonstrates institutional bias; I’m sure the Fluid Dynamics department would say the same thing. Either way, hearsay has no place here.

            Finally, your position is totally self-inconsistent. You agree that yes, representing all the complexity is impossible – “There is literally no way to represent every complexity of a continent in one meal” – then STILL claim that the fact that it failed to do so is wrong. Literally no where did anyone claim they thought the event would do so; you are entirely making that up, and doing so to justify a narrative that simply does not hold water.

            But just to make things totally clear, when I ask “There’s literally no way to represent every complexity of a continent in a meal. So do we just have to not hold any broad category themed events in the future? Or is it OK to simplify things for the sake of practicalities?” your reply would be a “Yes, don’t hold events like this”?

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  4. Hi Jess, Audrey here.

    Here’s a quote from the ASCU statement above that you might have missed: “Firstly, communication between the two parties had been broken– an event that was meant to celebrate diversity was turning into a unilateral conversation in which our propositions were not being considered. Secondly, the Queen’s international rep stated in a written message, her intent to pursue the dinner with or without the continued input of ASCU.”

    Second, on a structural and global level, yes, European voices are lended greater weight than those of Africans. Go back to the examples that I made. You’re right that on it’s own the African Studies dept not receiving much funding isn’t evidence of structural bias, but a cursory glance at the dept’s website will show that there are far fewer (indigenous) African voices than one might have expected. This does suggest a structural bias and does support my point that there’s a culture that doesn’t value African voices, even when it comes to us discussing our own issues and ideas.

    No one is here to make personal assumptions. I’m pointing out a structural problem in which we can all be complicit, and which has manifested itself in a small way in this formal. That the voices of African students weren’t given sufficient consideration here is evidence of a wider problem.

    Also you’ve misunderstood me. I don’t claim that the fact that the organisers failed to represent the entire continent in a meal is an issue. My issue is that they tried. You claim that the organisers didn’t try to claim that they were representing the entire continent, but I’m not sure what other interpretation was available when they literally named the theme “Africa” and used the stereotypical image of an acacia tree that is so often used by non-Africans when homogenising the continent. Alice makes the good point that rather than naming the formal “Africa” while only showcasing the cuisines of 3/4 countries, they could have easily had a “West African” themed formal (for example).

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    1. So in other words, pretty much no matter how you do it, it’s unacceptable to have “Africa” as the theme for an event? Genius…

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      1. Audrey here. Nope. As Alice states in the article, as Lola and I have stated in our comments, the correct way to go about it is to get informed. The best people to inform you are Africans.

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