Ask LIE: Where is the line between appreciation and appropriation?

Dear Love Isn’t Enough,

My husband and I are white. We have a bio son and daughter and a son who was born in Ethiopia.

Since I was a girl, I have been drawn to learning about Africa. I watched documentaries and read books about African cultures, land and wildlife. As I grew older I was attracted to African art, and we have many art pieces and textiles in our home that depict African wildlife and people. Some of the pieces are gifts from family who traveled to South Africa, some are Kenyan and Ugandan pieces I purchased at a local Fair Trade store, and one piece we purchased from a Nigerian artist at an African American art show. We also brought several pieces home from Ethiopia when we traveled. I don’t consider the pieces part of a decorating theme, but rather a reflection of things I love in my home.

We had African American guests to our home for the first time this weekend. I found myself suddenly very self conscious about my home. I was concerned the couple would find our decor disingenuous at best, and I was uncomfortable as I showed our guests around.

The fact that I was nervous made me wonder if we have crossed the line from appreciation to appropriation. What do you think?


From the Editor:

I admit that I have put off answering your question. Maybe my hesitancy is because I think only you can really determine whether you truly appreciate African cultures or if your interest is a form of exoticizing and appropriation. The answer to your question, I think, lies heavily in your motivations and how you view the African continent.

Is the allure of Africa for you rooted in mythology about “the dark continent” and noble savages?

Do acknowledge that there is no such thing as one African culture–that the continent is one of many nations and peoples with unique cultures? Do you, for instance, work to teach your son about his Ethiopian heritage rather than “generic Africa?”

Do you recognize modern-day Congolese, South Africans or Kenyans as real, living, breathing and nuanced people?

Do you adapt bits of African culture that have deep cultural or religious meaning and use them for fashion or decor?

Do you pay attention to what is going on in African countries TODAY? Do you know the realities of South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia? Do you acknowlege the way that Western “interest” in the African continent has oftentimes harmed its people? Is your interest in the mythology of Africa or the real Africa?

Do you take care to purchase authentic items that support African artists and peoples?

I must admit, as an African American woman, if I were to visit a white friend’s home and find it dripping in African-themed decor, I would find it…odd. But I am always a little wary when I witness people taking an obsessive interest in a culture that is not their own. My wariness stems from a realization of how easy it is to move from appreciation to Gwen Stefani trailing a group of faux Harajuku girls behind her like pets.

Why do you love Africa and African cultures? That is the question. And it is one we all–regardless of race–have to ask when we explore and are drawn to other cultures. I have a tiny Buddha figurine under my computer at work. It is there because I have studied Buddhist philosophy and I believe in its principles. I am not a Buddhist, though. And I know that here in America, we are really quick to slap a Buddha on an ironic t-shirt, when to do the same with a Christian religious icon would be heresy. And so sometimes I wonder if I am being insensitive by displaying this figure. And so I constantly examine my motivations and so must you.

Readers? What do you think?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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