Nancy Pelosi And Chuck Schumer’s Fashion Fail? The Problem With White People Wearing Kente
On Monday, in conjunction with the introduction of new federal police reform legislation, Democratic Congressional leaders came together in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol to kneel together in support of the fight for racial justice. In addition to the symbolic gestures, the leaders, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, wore kente stoles, ceremonial African cloths originating from the west African nation of Ghana.
In doing so, they meant to honor Black lives. Instead, they appropriated African culture.
Kente cloth is known as nwentoma in Akan, and according to Ashanti mythology, was inspired by the intricate weaving of Anansi the Spider. Two Akan friends, enchanted by the design of the spider’s web, returned to their village and began to weave kente. According to African American Intellectual History Society, textile production by the Akan and Ewe peoples began as early as 1000 B.C.E , and the bold kente design we are most familiar with today is thought to have proliferated in the seventeen century, as Asante traders began to traffic in goods and other products across trade routes from Africa to the Middle and Far East.
But kente cloth is more than an artisanal product. It holds social, sacred, and historic meaning for the Akan people, with the threads of gold, green, blue, red, and black each symbolizing a different set of values, such as serenity, fertility, renewal, and spiritual awareness. It also has a deep historical connection for many in the American Black community who seek to foster connection between contemporary Black experience and the African diaspora. The stoles are often seen at college graduations, worn in ceremonial significance by Black graduates seeking to honor both their educational achievements as well as acknowledgment of ancestral experience and wisdom.
Congressional Democrats take a knee as they observe a nearly nine minute moment of silence for George Floyd at Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol. https://t.co/JnqDlzMFDq pic.twitter.com/8CBdgtLUjz
— ABC News (@ABC) June 8, 2020
Which is why seeing white people wear kente is so conflicting.
On one hand, it is easy to understand the sense of symbolism that many white leaders and activists see in the kente cloth, and their desire to wear it in solidarity with the Black community. And no doubt many in the Black community welcome the outward gesture of allyship – in fact, it is reported the Congressional Black Caucus that provided the kente cloth for the act of solidarity by the Congressional leaders. But as was quickly apparent on Twitter and elsewhere, many Black activists and cultural leaders are critical of the gesture, remarking that the wearing of kente cloth by white leaders was action that was more symbolic than meaningful.
In many ways, wearing kente is an act of cultural misappropriation: the use or adoption of another culture’s symbols, dress, and rituals by those who are in a majority or more dominant culture. While accusations of cultural misappropriation are often made when the symbols or practices are used without the appropriate level of deference and respect, its critics also decry the inappropriate use of cultural symbols to advance unrelated agendas. For many, seeing individuals who do not share their same within or cultural background wearing their symbols in solidarity feels like allyship, but others find it offensive.
Content courtesy of Forbes