It would be an understatement to say that Adele has faced some cultural backlash over the past couple of days. On Monday, she appeared on Instagram sporting Bantu knots and a Jamaican flag bikini top in homage to the cancelled Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration led by London's West Indian community.
For those of you thinking "what’s the big deal?! It’s just a pop star’s hairstyle! Don’t we have bigger things to worry about?" Adele’s Bantu knots are part of something bigger. Hair is political – it has cultural significance – and black women’s hair comes with a long and often violent legacy of discrimination.
White women’s attempts to "borrow" culturally black hairstyles as a cool look without acknowledging its heritage have been a consistent trope in popular culture from the Kardashians to Rita Ora. It’s unsurprising then that Adele’s post provoked an important conversation about white women’s often clumsy attempts at solidarity and apparent inability to listen to those we claim to support.
Adele’s costume has divided opinion: is her hairstyle an example of cultural appropriation, a case of a white woman trying to steal a bit of easily disposable Black Girl Magic (yet again), attempting a bit of edginess before returning to white woman hair and the privilege that comes with it? Or, are Adele’s Bantu knots cultural appreciation, a symbol of her solidarity and a nod to the cultural richness of her hometown?
Black celebrities from David Lammy to Naomi Campbell have stepped in to defend Adele from charges of cultural appropriation. Lammy tweeted that Notting Hill Carnival is about performance and masquerade so it’s an appropriate context for the singer to sport Bantu knots. Whatever the case, Adele surely had the best of intentions but as history has shown, well-intentioned white women can prove deadly for people of colour.
We white women have so much on our heads that Adele’s Bantu knots are just another drop in a very bloody ocean. But we tend to see ourselves in the soft-focus light of 1960’s TV romances, blurring out our flaws and veiling our often highly problematic behaviour with the flattering glow of good intentions.
We’re prone to saying things like "I don’t care if they’re blue, green, black or rainbow-coloured, people are all the same to me." We’re usually the ones who attempt the "I don’t see colour, I just see humans" mic drop comment in social media discussions about racism. No matter what we do, we’re never, ever racist. Never. Ever. Even if we attempt to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement with #AllLivesMatter, we’ll sit smugly in our righteousness while the point flies over our heads. Call us racists and we’ll cry our sad little white woman tears because you hurt our feelings – you see, you’re the bad person, not us. We would never intentionally hurt anyone.
Watch - Adele’s hair: appreciation or appropriation?
Even white women who consider themselves "progressive" or "allies" often get it terribly wrong. Take recent Black Lives Matter activism. Did white women immediately rush to shield black protestors from aggressors? Not so much. What did we do? We posted sad or crying emojis and hashtags to show our anti-racist credentials to our other white progressive mates. Or, in an example of the damaging consequences of our superficial acts of solidarity, we posted black squares for #BlackOutTuesday so the hashtag eclipsed vital information on social media about the street protests themselves.
We’re good at doing the easy stuff. The stuff that doesn’t cost us anything or make us feel uncomfortable. We shared horrified posts on social media in response to the killing of George Floyd. We might do nothing at all to change our behaviour or interrogate our contributions to racism but posting our horror at racial violence on social media shows that we’re good, non-racist white people. The easy activism of hashtagging has the added benefit of showing what fabulous people we are to our social media followers. We might not have seen Kelly from school for 20 years but we still want her to see our carefully curated social media timelines and recognise how great we are.
I don’t know if Adele’s Notting Hill Costume was cultural appropriation but then, it’s not for me to judge. As a white woman, I need to wrangle with the insidious ingrained sense of superiority that’s our cultural legacy and recognise that my place – our place – is to listen. To listen very carefully to the communities we claim to support and then turn our superficial activism into painful, demanding real-life action – the stuff we don’t want to do because it means relinquishing privilege… Hmm… maybe we’ll stick with the hashtags and shouting at Adele.
After all, I’m not racist so I can’t possibly contribute to the maintenance of white supremacy. If you say I do, then I’ll post photos of me crying and then you’ll look nasty and aggressive.