On August 30th, it started with British singer Adele.
She posted an Instagram photo wearing Bantu knots and a Jamaican-flag patterned top. Of course, reactions poured in. Adele trended on Twitter, while the notorious drama page on Instagram @TheShadeRoom reposted Adele and incited debate in their comment section. Many Black people, primarily British Jamaicans, said that this was an example of cultural appreciation, not appropriation. Adele was at Notting Hill Carnival, an annual cultural event organized by the British West Indian community.
Others argued that it was cultural appropriation, due to the large amount of praise white women receive for wearing hairstyles that Black women are vilified for. On my side of Twitter, Adele’s Bantu knots also led to jokes: edits of Adele’s song “Someone Like You” with a reggae twist, etc.
However, instead of remaining a meme or becoming a simple disagreement about cultural appropriation vs. appreciation, it spiraled into a debate over whether Black-Americans had the right to call-out cultural appropriation.
Nearly five months later, I think back to this incident often. While it was my first time witnessing such large-scale arguing amongst Black people on Twitter, it would certainly not be the last. In fact, “diaspora wars,” referring to arguments that break out within members of the global African diaspora, are all too common. Some of these “wars” are tiny and meaningless– such as arguing over which culture makes the best food– but others reveal internalized anti-Blackness.
The Adele situation provides a good example of how diaspora wars harm Black people. The fact that this furor and disrespect towards other cultural groups (on both sides) was in defense of a white woman never sat right with me.
At the end of the day, it’s not like Adele was even a victim of cancel culture. Calling her out for cultural appropriation, or defending her actions as cultural appreciation had no impact on her career. Two months later, Adele was hosting SNL, as famous and celebrated as ever. Yet, there was intractable harm done to online relations between Black Americans, Africans, British West-Indians, and others.
The Philadelphia Inquirer notes another cause behind a past diaspora war centered among Black people in America: the casting of British-Nigerian actress Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, a Black-American abolitionist who is a cultural symbol of freedom and resistance. When an old tweet of Erivo’s surfaced mocking “ghetto American accents,” some people claimed that she should not portray a Black American hero. According to reporter Valerie Russ, Erivo’s casting, among other incidents that have sparked diaspora wars, raised these questions:
“Who is black in America? Can there be unity based on skin color alone? Who gets to speak for African Americans?”
So far, there isn’t unity based on skin color alone– but there should be (at least within different Black groups living in the United States). There are always going to be inherent differences between how members of the diaspora respond to racism and injustice– because we simply don’t share the same experiences.
For example: A common component of the diaspora wars are Black Americans being accused of being “obsessed” with race, because we’re quick to point out microaggressions. Of course, coming from a Black American standpoint, I’m inherently biased. But when you think of the Black experience in the United States– Black people always being in the minority, always being forced to assimilate, always having our culture dismissed by white society– we care more about seemingly immaterial issues like cultural appropriation because we’ve been told our trends and styles are more acceptable on white bodies.
If you’ve grown up in a Black-majority country, however, a foreigner or white person wearing box braids is an indication that they’re attempting to assimilate or connect with your culture. Living in a country as a minority culture vs a minority culture creates completely different ideas about what constitutes as racial injustice.
Diaspora wars often bring to light the stereotypes we believe about other Black groups, most of them negative. These stereotypes are built from global white supremacy and anti-Blackness, such as the notion that African or Caribbean cultures are inferior or that Black-Americans are all lazy and low-achieving.
I can’t directly speak for African or Caribbean-American communities. But I can say this:
Whether we’ve been divided by willful immigration or involuntary enslavement, at the end of the day, we’re all Black. We may have separate cultures and values, but issues such as racism and white supremacy impact us all the same. In many ways, our divergent cultures are built with components of one another. Standing for Black people, and empowering Black people, means standing for all Black people, even when they don’t share your culture or nationality.
Acknowledging genuine hurt is important. When people claim that, say, they felt like their African culture was dismissed or made fun of by Black Americans, those feelings of hurt are valid. When African-Americans are hurt when they’re told that they’re lacking a culture by those who know their African ancestry, those feelings are valid, too. But continuing this cycle of hurt online benefits no one.
At their core, diaspora wars are caused by a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to listen to another group’s differences. We are not each other’s enemies, and we can unite with each other without being the same. White supremacy in America (and abroad) doesn’t care what nationality you are or what culture you have. Instead of fighting amongst ourselves and feeding into anti-Blackness, let’s work together to tackle issues that impact Black people worldwide.