In 2020, Adele found herself at the centre of social media backlash after posting a photo to celebrate Notting Hill Carnival in which she was wearing Bantu knots, a traditional African hairstyle. Several people criticised the photo for cultural appropriation at a time when Black Lives Matter protests were taking place around the world.
Adele later admitted that she ‘didn’t read the room,’ but said that the photo was intended as cultural appreciation, showing her support for the Carnival, which she has attended annually for most of her life.
So, was Adele’s outfit offensive? And how can white people (or other people outside of an ethnic community) be respectful when entering these spaces?
Notting Hill Carnival: A Brief History
After the SS Empire Windrush arrived in London in 1948, Notting Hill became home to a large community of West Indian immigrants. However, it was also a hotspot for far-right groups, like Oswald Mosley’s Union Party, and they routinely targeted the black community in racially motivated attacks.
On 29th August 1958, several nights of violence broke out, with black residents’ homes firebombed and several black men left unconscious. Some members of the black community responded with counterattacks, which the police used to paint the incidents as having ‘no racial element’. However, confidential files released in 2002 reveal that the unrest had, in fact, been instigated by a ‘Keep Britain White’ mob of 300-400 men. Less than a year later, Kelso Cochrane, a young aspiring lawyer, was murdered in the area in a racially motivated attack.
This history of racial violence was a major factor in the development of Notting Hill Carnival. According to broadcaster and activist, Darcus Howe,
In January 1959, Trinidadian activist, Claudia Jones organised a Caribbean Carnival at St Pancras Town Hall, which was an ancestor of the Notting Hill Carnival we know today. Notting Hill Carnival first took place in its current location in 1966, when a street party for neighbourhood children became a parade, after Russell Henderson’s Steel Band went on a walking tour and most of the community joined in.
The carnival continued to grow throughout its first decade. By 1975, there were 250,000 attendees. You could find different musical genres in different areas, ranging from reggae to soul, R&B to calypso.
Anthony Francis, who has been attending Carnival since the late 70s, said that it was ‘exciting [and] colourful. It was good to meet up with friends, the music was great, the atmosphere was fantastic… It was, as it said on the tin, a carnival: lots of people were enjoying themselves and it was just a nice place to be over the weekend.’ Attendees were still predominantly members of the black Caribbean community, though the crowd was a mixture of Notting Hill’s inhabitants from various cultures. Everyone has always been welcome.
Today, Carnival looks very different. The crowd is more diverse, and the carnival has become more commercialised. ‘Because it’s become so big now, you can’t walk around like you used to,’ Anthony explains. ‘The police have put in all these restrictions, so you’re more or less caged into a certain area. To go from one place to another is almost impossible.’
Margaret Greer, the National Officer for Race Equality in Unison, agrees. ‘It has got a lot bigger, but it’s also been condensed into a much smaller, more confined area, with a lot more police presence, which I don’t think you’ll see at other kinds of celebrations. So, there’s still that sense of over-policing in the black community, even when you’re celebrating something that should be a celebration of differences.’
In an article for the Evening Standard last summer, Emma Loffhagen wrote that Notting Hill is now ‘a microcosm of the gentrification that has affected many of London’s ex-immigration hotspots, pushing out residents who can no longer afford the skyrocketing rents.’
Perhaps this is one reason that Notting Hill Carnival’s charm has diminished for some members of the community that once flourished in the area. To become ‘cool’ and mainstream, the Carnival has ultimately had to appeal to white people, meaning that some aspects of its black culture have been lost.
As Notting Hill becomes increasingly gentrified and, not incidentally, white, black people find themselves pushed further out of London’s centre. Something similar happens when white people adopt black hairstyles or fashion trends. Things that were historically construed as ‘untidy’ or ‘ghetto’ on a black person suddenly become trends on white people, who remain at the centre of mainstream culture.
Appreciating Without Appropriating
While you might enter a non-white space, be it physical or cultural, with every intention of being supportive, you could still make an offensive mistake.
It’s important to do your research and know the history behind trends before adopting them. Certain hairstyles (like Adele’s Bantu knots) are sensitive because black people, who have historically worn these styles to protect their hair, have also been discriminated against for them, especially in education and in the workplace. As an employer, try to ask yourself whether decisions you’re making about what’s appropriate (for example, a hairstyle) might have an underlying racial bias.
In the case of Notting Hill, Margaret suggests that ‘it’s about knowing that there is more about the culture. There are such differences and nuances, but such similarities sometimes. The smaller islands that don’t get a mention, like my island, Montserrat, like Martinique, St Kitts, Nevis… There’s so much richness. I think it’s about involving yourself and having an understanding of the history.’ Treating an event like Notting Hill Carnival as an opportunity to educate yourself on the vibrant diversity of other cultures, as well as a fun day out, is an enriching experience.
If you feel like something could be offensive, err on the side of caution. When you’re not sure, don’t do it.
As a white-run business, don’t profiteer off black culture. If you want to post about an event like Notting Hill Carnival, go ahead, but be inclusive of black culture all year round, not just during the one weekend in August when it’s trendy to care about it.
The Future of Carnival
As for Notting Hill Carnival, it seems like there’s one thing that everyone agrees on: the need for modernisation. It’s been a celebration of London’s diversity for several decades but, to survive, it must adapt.
‘I think that they should move it to a park now, if I’m honest,’ says Anthony. ‘On the streets of the Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove areas, the number of people make it impossible for people to enjoy themselves. It doesn’t matter what background you come from.’
However, not everyone agrees. Talking about previous attempts to move the carnival off the streets, Margaret says, ‘I think that kind of competition to take it away from the streets – because it is a kind of street carnival – really was without the consent of the people and those organisers. It didn’t work. And now it’s back on the streets of Notting Hill, which is what really makes it so special.’
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