Both Sides Of The “Should West Indians Wear Dashikis” Controversy

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Dashikis made an appearance as a fashion item in St. Lucia. I don’t know much about the cultural origins of dashikis, except what I’ve read from articles about African cultural appropriation and what I’ve heard from Africans (from various different countries). Wikipedia provides a simple breakdown for those of you who are curious to know more. Dashikis were at the center of a minor social media controversy in October 2016 on Jounen Kweyol in St. Lucia. Many people argued over whether or not dashikis were appropriate attire for Jounen Kweyol festivities. The debates were… interesting (and at times uncouth) and brought to light different perspectives and anxieties about black heritage that exist in the Caribbean.

One side of the debate defending West Indians wearing dashikis by mentioning that “we are all Africans”. Since we are all originally from West Africa, they saw dashikis as being a celebration of our African heritage. Some defended dashikis by saying they were just a style, and imbuing them with any meaning was going too far. Others defended it by saying that dashikis were no less West Indian than madras, which originates from India and is a part of many islands’ national dress. The other side of the argument — the side that believed West Indians shouldn’t wear madras — came from a different perspective. They believed that we are West Indians, not Africans, therefore, we shouldn’t wear African clothing. They said that madras was different as it came to the West Indies and became a part of West Indian culture when the first Indians migrated to the Caribbean. They cite our multiracialism for why madras can still be a part of Jounen Kweyol, as it is a celebration of our creole heritage. They were also against St. Lucians wearing dashikis because they didn’t believe we had a proper understanding of the culture dashikis came from.

When reading through the debates, slews of insults, and arguments, and whilst talking to people, I really came to empathize with both sides and to understand their general perspective. The side that supported wearing dashikis represents a perspective of people who are both desperate to connect to their lost (or somewhat lost) African heritage. There is an underlying desire to be “pro-black” and proudly display their blackness. The side that disagreed with wearing dashikis represents a perspective of people who want to support who we are now. They don’t disavow our African heritage — at least not necessarily — but they do acknowledge that we are different people. They acknowledge West Indian culture’s contemporary disconnect from Africa and they do not see this as a problem.

It’s difficult for me to look at both sides and see either side as being wrong. One side might be misguided and both may certainly be misguided in their methodology. But it’s in my nature to empathize with people who have been stripped of their homeland and identity who struggle with their current place in the world. This is especially tricky in a country like St. Lucia, where we do not learn history specific to our country in school.

While I empathize with both sides of the discussion, I also see a place for both sides to be critiqued. There’s a possibility that the new interest in dashikis could be interpreted as a disrespectful attempt to connect as it doesn’t require any real education about West African history. Thus, it may appear disingenuous, especially if it’s not paired with other attempts to connect to West African history, politics or social issues. Also, we do not necessarily hail from the regions in Africa where dashikis are popular. It simply might not be our culture to claim — and there are many arguments that suggest it isn’t.

Those who are against West Indian folk wearing dashikis are not above reproach. Some of them shun the dashiki for racist reasons, a deep-seated shame about our African heritage and desperation to cover it up under the guise of caring about the dashiki’s cultural significance in West Africa. The desire to acknowledge multi-racialism usually reads as being quite suspicious to me. The West Indies contains a black majority and there is a big push by some to paint the region as being multi-racial in an attempt to distance us from blackness. Additionally, the side against wearing dashikis doesn’t seem to be as vociferous about other trends in St. Lucia. What is bothersome about the dashiki, except the fact that it is African?

So, should West Indians wear dashikis? Personally, I have no stake in the matter. I won’t be wearing a dashiki, but I feel neither enraged nor impressed when others do. I acknowledge that there’s potential for it to be perceived as disrespectful by West African people, and I see that as valid. Yet, I question the real impact of West Indian cultural appropriation. We are a small group of people with an even smaller scope of influence on the globe. I see this issue as representative of a larger issue regarding heritage and belonging. Many feel content to be West Indian, while others yearn for a connection severed hundreds of years ago. I question how our culture will change in the future. I question what we will consider worth protecting, and what we will consider worth fighting for. I wonder what we will see as important to preserve.

 

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