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Lucky Dube writes a response to Chante Joseph’s argument on the position of black students at the University of Bristol.

I would see it as a positive that these pictures – of two students of the University of Bristol in ‘Orange is the New Black’ costumes – surfaced as they encourage some students to say how they really feel. In this respect I appreciate Chanté Joseph’s piece on black culture at the University but there are issues with the views espoused that need to be addressed.

People, irrespective of their race, should be free to wear what they want

It would appear that for some, ‘dressing like the seventh member of N.W.A’ is a bit jarring, especially if you appear to hail from the ‘Northern Powerhouse.’ We can never know that these people haven’t always dressed like this and even if they adopted this style upon coming to university, that’s doesn’t make it a bad thing. If it is assumed that wearing ‘edgy’ clothes is a part of black culture – and it would be a most extraordinary instance of reductionism if anyone had such a view – then is it not a good thing that white students would want to dress like their black counterparts? It’s a good thing that students feel they can dress how they want, instead of being confined by their race or background.

It is true that black people have grievances and have suffered throughout history but is it necessary that a person be aware of this before they consider wearing a puffer jacket? Even if white middle class students have the privilege of not being followed in shops or perceived as a threat, that shouldn’t mean that they should be prohibited from speaking or dressing a certain way. Also, I’m not sure how Joseph knows that people think black when they wear an Adidas tracksuit or intensify the atmosphere in a gathering by putting some Stormzy on. Views that reduce being black to a way of speaking and dressing lead to relentless stereotyping. This is to say nothing of the suffering that some black students, that don’t conform to Joseph’s standards, endure – I myself have had to get used to being questioned, often by fellow black students, as to why I speak the way I do and why I wear smart trousers.

Appropriation of culture is fine so long as you participate in activism

The introduction of the ‘house nigger narrative’ came as a release – it is the case in pieces like these that the narrative is suffused in the argument but is never addressed explicitly. The term, ‘house nigger,’ refers to a black person that has, as it were, sold out. They have abandoned their ‘brethren’ and instead choose to associate with their oppressors, who apparently hold them in contempt.  This is what Joseph means when she writes, ‘[black students] hell-bent on denying the existence of racism on campus as a means of appeasing their white friends.’ It is in no way helpful to have the view that white people or institutions in our society will never accept those from minority backgrounds – such hopelessness is in no way healthy. How can you sustain friendships with those that happen to be white if it is your view that they harbour contempt for you? It’s impossible to trust anyone that isn’t like you if you have this view.

I’ll finish by addressing Joseph’s final point that reads, ‘If all the white girls wearing cornrows, bantu knots, fetishizing black men … decided to actively campaign against racism as opposed to just appropriating the culture maybe we’d see some real change in society.’ A gap that lay unfilled in Joseph’s first point on appropriation has now been addressed: appropriation of culture is fine so long as you participate in activism. Suppose the person appropriating culture does not share Joseph’s politics? Does that make them racist? Is it not enough that people see black people as people and treat them as they would anyone else? This is the true signifier of a cohesive society: people, irrespective of their race, should be free to wear what they want, speak how they wish, listen to grime, and do whatever else.

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