May a white model wear dreadlocks? Is a white male novelist allowed to tell his story through a black female character? Am I permitted to wear a sombrero and say Olé!?

The answer is a firm no, unless you want the politically correct trolls on your back. Welcome to the whacky world of cultural appropriation, now trending where PC is spoken.   

At first glance it all seems so ridiculous. East Anglia university students union bans sombreros for mocking Mexicans. Designer Marc Jacobs creates outrage at the New York fashion week by decorating his mainly white models in dreadlocks. Male novelist Chris Cleave riles critics by telling the story in Little Bee from the points of view of two women, one black and the other white.   

Those who rage about these transgressions argue that the “appropriators” are behaving like colonials and misappropriating elements of the dominated culture. Outrageous? Maybe not.  

A few years ago Land Rover quickly withdrew a locally made TV ad in South Africa that showed the bare breasts of a Namibian tribeswoman “pointing” in excitement at a passing 4x4. It’s virtually impossible to count the number of issues raised by this ad. But South Africans knew why the makers found it funny and not all viewers were appalled. 

US novelist Lionel Shriver intentionally annoyed elements of an Australian literary audience with a speech pointing out the many stupidities in the debate. She did this while wearing a sombrero. Unsurprisingly, she got exactly the reaction she wanted. One mixed-race social activist who stormed out tweeted that Shriver provide an “unfettered celebration of the exploitation of the experiences of others”.

Cultural appropriation

Most cultural appropriation is more subtle. The Rolling Stones appropriated black American music (or should that be African-American?) and made millions. Mylie Cyrus made her mark with the twerk appropriated from African dancing. Sports teams call themselves chiefs and redskins. 

Libertarians defend the rights of anyone to say or wear anything. They bewail the new political correctness of the lefty-liberals, who are quick to censor through attack, bans and ridicule. 

This is an especially dangerous space for marketers, desperate for strong images to flash online for a Snapchat generation that is as quick to ignore as it is swift to judge.  

The fashion and cosmetics industry is particularly vulnerable, mainly because those who inhabit this other-worldly place are often gloriously naïve about the real world. Some time ago the editor of the UK edition of GQ magazine was fired after running a feature on the high style of the Nazis. All those tight black leather coats and high boots were so seductive that the editor could not foresee the consequences of his decision. 

Economic dominance

The creative industries spend their lives borrowing and enhancing other people’s ideas. This sampling is part of the creative process and integral to innovation. But when does borrowing become appropriation? For me, it is when it becomes stealing for financial gain. The appropriation debate is really about economic dominance and exploitation.  

For example, you often see the Masai tribe of Kenya depicted in ads. Their bright colours, pogo dancing, legendary bravery and regal elegance provide striking visuals and an emotional backdrop for everything from cars to make-up.

The colourful Masai tribe of Kenya are often depicted in ads

Is this borrowing or stealing? If the car company pays the tribe well for using its imagery, then, for me, this is simply commerce and the tribe is capitalising on its intellectual property. But if the tribe’s style is simply taken, then it becomes appropriation (stealing), and should be condemned. 

Cultural appropriators are invariably the economic dominators. Anyone interested in a fairer society should be seeking a better balance between the haves and have nots. But where does that leave us with the cultural sleights of everyday life? How worried should we be about others trying to edit our lives?  

Maybe we should just chill. The outrage about cultural appropriation is probably part of our evolution to becoming a fairer society. After all, performers don’t black-up anymore. And nobody illustrates children’s stories with gollywogs.   

Relax, yes, but we should also protect our right to expression even if we cause a little offence. Cultural appropriation has unfortunately got caught up in the liberal-left censorship crusade with its micro-aggressions, safe spaces and no-platforming. 

We should not have to seek a safe space to wear a sombrero. 

Peter Knight is chairman of The Context Group.