Emma Dabiri: "Diversity and inclusion have become buzzwords, there needs to be something greater"
You're reading Her's digital cover story. October 2020's star is broadcaster, author, and academic, Emma Dabiri.
"When black people are demonised or discriminated against for their culture, it's an issue."
When Emma Dabiri was pregnant with her first child, she cut all of her hair off.
After years of engaging in the chemical straightening process, she decided she wanted to return to her natural look. Straight hair didn't correspond with her politics, she says, but it also wasn't how she wanted to be seen by her children.
"I wanted them to know me with my natural hair," she tells Her. "They say the most powerful messages come from your parents. I think my hair would have had a big impact on how my children perceived beauty."
In 2018, the Irish-Nigerian broadcaster and academic published her first book, Don't Touch My Hair.
A fascinating, educational, and deeply personal piece of work, the book (recently published as 'Twisted' in the US) presents black hair as a means of oppression, but also as a pathway to liberation.
"The straightening process destroys the hair," says Emma. "The only way to stop is to cut it all off, to start from the beginning. I had wanted to do it for a long time, but I didn't have the confidence.
"I didn't want to quote-unquote sacrifice it, even though it was bad for me."
Born in Dublin to a white mother and Nigerian father, Emma spent the first four years of her life in Atlanta, Georgia before returning to Ireland. Now based in London, she boasts a comprehensive career spanning from writing to lecturing to television presenting.
Her frank and eloquent discussions of discrimination and racism in Ireland (and abroad) have subjected her to some trolling, but more importantly, they've made her one of the most articulate, informed, and listened to voices on issues of race and colonialism of our time.
This regard is most evident in Emma's resource-based contributions to 2020's Black Lives Matter protests, and more recently in her measured online discussion of cultural appropriation.
When singer Adele shared a photo of herself in a Jamaican flag bikini and her hair tied in African Bantu knots, many users presumed that all black people should be offended by the image. Emma provided a more cognisant response to the issue - one that was widely shared on Twitter.
"Adele is from Tottenham and she's participating in Carnival," she says. "One argument I heard from a lot of Londoners is that it's a culture she's grown up with so it's different, but there were others who did think it was problematic."
The issue of cultural appropriation is no doubt a complex one, particularly when it comes to black culture. For centuries, black people have been criticised and discriminated against for their style, their language, and their hair - elements of their culture that are often celebrated and adored when worn by white people.
But where on Twitter there exists arguments around what can be considered cultural appropriation or not, elsewhere others deny that it exists at all.
"People can try to dismiss it," says Emma. "But if you're reacting like that and saying 'This is ridiculous, it's just hair', it might be that you're completely unaware of the history surrounding it, or that you're a racist who dismisses any point that black people might be making."
Pointing to genres like techno and house music, types of dance such as tap and swing, and even words like "hipster," "vibe", "cool" and "man", Emma says that so much of Western popular culture is black in origin - most people just aren't aware of it.
"You've got the Kardashians who are regularly lauded in magazines and they make a lot of money from their facsimile of blackness," says Emma. "At the same time, you've got a lot of black people who are fired or not hired for jobs because of their hair.
"When we're not allowed to have these styles but white people are celebrated for wearing them, there's a disparity in treatment. People who dismiss cultural appropriation are not taking that on board."
Nor are they considering that all people of colour can have differences of opinion. The assumption that all black people must be enraged by the same thing, says Emma, is "mind blowing."
"It's completely dehumanising," she says. "Nobody thinks that all white people all over the world with their different cultural backgrounds think the same thing. Why on earth would black people?"
But where problems remain, elsewhere there exists progress. The beauty industry is one facet of culture that has done its best to catch up, to represent where there was once no representation before.
"I couldn't buy foundation in Ireland when I was a teenager," Emma says. "Before Mac opened in Dublin, I was just buying the darkest shade available for a white person."
Fenty Beauty, AJ Crimson, and Too Faced are just some of the brands ensuring inclusivity in their collections. Where foundation lines were once directed solely towards white women, countless brands are now marketing towards women and men of colour.
"One of the excuses that always used to be given was that there wasn't a market for it," says Emma, "but we've all seen the unparalleled success of Fenty.
"Brands like that are inclusive, but they've also got a starting point of black women. We're the centre, rather than starting somewhere else and then spreading out to include us as an afterthought."
While representation has increased and beauty lines have expanded, Emma says that for the most part, classic beauty standards remain. Women might have more options, she says, but we are still conforming to what we are told is beautiful.
"Beauty has been diversified, but rather than abolishing the standards altogether, they've been expanded," she says.
"Young women in particular still place a lot of value on their appearance. We've broadened the way one can look and still be considered beautiful, but I don't think we've shifted the idea that women are valued by what they look like."
Next March, Emma releases her second book, What White People Can Do Next. A resource that cuts through the vast swathes of online discourse, the book will consider how to keep the momentum of this year's anti-racism demonstrations going, and where we need to go next.
"More institutional and structural change needs to happen," says Emma. "I feel like 'diversity' and 'inclusion' have become buzzwords. There has to be something greater.
"There needs to be location specific responses. I don't like to conflate what needs to happen in the US, the UK, and Ireland. There's parallels between black experiences in the diaspora, but there's huge differences even within the English speaking world because of different histories and different legal systems.
"There needs to be more of a shift, more representation in decision making positions - not just having diversity in ways that are surface level and performative."