School Capture: “Cultural Appropriation”, Heritage Day & Cancel Culture at St John’s College – Richard Wilkinson

As South Africa’s St John’s College prepares for Heritage Day celebrations, the school’s decision to address the concept of “Cultural Appropriation” has ignited a lively debate. In an email to parents, the Deputy Headmaster, Mr. Allan Magubane, encouraged students and staff to embrace their cultural heritage but also highlighted the need for respectful celebration. The term “Cultural Appropriation” has its origins in Critical Race Theory, and it raises questions about who can wear or use elements of other cultures. This contentious issue has sparked controversies worldwide, including the 2018 Utah prom dress incident. Richard Wilkinson delves into the school’s stance, the broader context of “Cultural Appropriation,” and the evolving landscape of cultural expression and identity in South African schools.

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By Richard Wilkinson*

​St John’s College in Johannesburg is due to mark Heritage Day tomorrow, Friday 22 September 2023. As is customary, the boys and staff are encouraged to celebrate the day by wearing clothing and accessories of cultural significance.

Last week, the school sent an email to parents which included the following message from the Deputy Headmaster, Mr Allan Magubane:

“While we encourage everyone to wear their cultural dress and share their heritage, it’s equally vital to do so with respect and sensitivity. Cultural appropriation occurs when elements of one culture are used or borrowed by individuals from another culture, often without proper understanding or reverence for their own benefit. It’s essential for our students and staff to be mindful of this, especially during our Heritage Day festivities.”[1]

The trouble with “Cultural Appropriation”

“Cultural Appropriation” is a concept that originates in the world Critical Race Theory. Essentially, it uses Marxist analysis to tie cultural symbols to identity politics[2] and, in so doing, seeks to dictate that people from an oppressive group (this almost always means white people) are not permitted to make use of clothing, food, music, hairstyles etc which originate in other cultures.[3] Typically, the perpetrator of “Cultural Appropriation” is accused of being “racist”.

“Cultural Appropriation” has been used by Woke activists as a means of setting up a target for public destruction, or what is commonly referred to as being “cancelled”.

One of the most sensational examples of a “Cultural Appropriation” scandal occurred in Utah in the United States in 2018. Keziah Daum, a white, 18-year-old high school student was the subject of an avalanche of vicious online attacks after she posted photos of her attending her “prom” (what is referred to as a “Matric Dance” in South Africa) dressed in a traditional Chinese dress known as a qipao.

Keziah Daum wearing a qipao dress at her prom in Utah, United States

The controversy kicked off when one Twitter user posted the following inflammatory comment which received a truly staggering 39,000 retweets and 168,000 likes.

Daum’s critic expanded on his point, stating that “for [the dress] to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”[4]

To her enormous credit, Daum refused to genuflect before the Woke mob. She stated that she did not regret her decision and would happily wear the dress again. She noted the rich cultural significance of the qipao which is a symbol of female empowerment in Chinese culture. Daum said that this made her “love it even more.”[5]

Earlier this week I emailed the Headmaster of St John’s College, Mr Stuart West, and expressed my view that it was disturbing and disheartening that the school had warned parents that their children should not wear items which originate in other cultures. I asked him to confirm that St John’s College unreservedly rejects the concept of “Cultural Appropriation” and that boys and staff would be free to wear cultural attire of any description on Friday.

Mr West did not respond to my email.

Fortunately, other South African schools have been able to see through the nonsense that is “Cultural Appropriation”. Leading the way is Curro in Edenvale:

Woke rules for thee, but not for me

The “Iron Law of Woke Projection”[6] states that Woke activists always accuse their targets of transgressions or wrongdoing of which they are themselves guilty. For example, those who demand censorship of “misinformation” are often guilty of spreading misinformation. Those who condemn “extremism” and “racism” are often guilty of promoting extremism and racism. Those who denounce “hate” are often filled with loathing towards their political enemies.[7]

The Iron Law of Woke Projection never misses – and, at St John’s College, we don’t have to look far to find evidence of hypocrisy and double-standards.

Mr Magubane wearing a suit and tie. According to Wikipedia, “the modern lounge suit appeared in the late 19th century, but traces its origins to the simplified, sartorial standard of dress established by the English king Charles II in the 17th century.”[8]
Mr Magubane wearing a dashiki suit and Yoruba Aso oke hat. Both of these garments originate in West Africa.

​As far as I am concerned, Mr Magubane is perfectly free to dress as he wishes. I would never accuse him of committing “Cultural Appropriation” for wearing clothing of British or Nigerian origin. But it is hard not to chuckle at the irony of the situation, for it demonstrates clearly why the whole concept of “Cultural Appropriation” is complete nonsense. If Mr Magubane is allowed to “appropriate” clothing from other cultures, well, then so should everyone else. 

In short, Woke activists never intend for their own rules to be applied equally to everyone, and they certainly do not envisage that they will ever be subjected to the same standards and accountability that they apply to everyone else.

In fact, the double-standards and hypocrisy are so blatant that they may well be committed intentionally. Perhaps the whole point of this exercise is to rub it in the face of white staff and children: to demonstrate that they are second-class citizens, subjected to peculiar rules which are invented and enforced by a self-appointed Woke ruling class?

Perhaps hypocrisy is not the right word? Perhaps what is happening here is social hierarchy – with Wokes at the top and everyone else very much at the bottom?

The sinister creep of Woke Justice in South African schools

Of course, it is fun to laugh at the petty self-importance and ludicrous hypocrisy of the Wokes. Not only is it fun, but it is also important, for there are only two things that Woke activists cannot cope with. The first is blatant defiance of their authority. And the second is laughter. We need to normalise both.

But there is a very serious side to all of this. Last month, I published an essay entitled â€œThe Trouble with Roedean’s Woke Anti-Discrimination Policy”. I explained how St John’s College’s sister school now explicitly recognises “microaggressions” as being a form of racist conduct. According to the University of Minnesota, the following remarks or situations would constitute “microaggressions”:

  • Asking someone where they are from or where they were born.
  • Complimenting a “person of colour” on being articulate.
  • Promoting colour-blindness or identity-blindness.
  • Promoting meritocracy, for example, by stating that the most qualified person should be given a job.
  • Promoting hard work, for example, by stating that everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.
  • An educational institution which has buildings named after white, heterosexual, upper class males commits what is referred to as an “environmental microaggression.”
  • White people who deny their racial biases also commit a “microaggression”.

The concept of “microaggressions” mandates that people and institutions adopt an explicitly Marxist worldview. It does this most notably by prohibiting the promotion of meritocracy and identity blindness. In my opinion, “Cultural Appropriation” needs to be filed alongside “microaggressions” (and a host of other concepts such as “unconscious bias”, “white privilege” and “white fragility”) as being nothing more than fragments of the folklore of Wokeness, concepts that are as dangerous as they are academically dubious.

Indeed, until about 20 minutes ago, nobody in South Africa even knew that “Cultural Appropriation” or “Microaggressions” even existed, much less that we should all be extremely concerned about them. After all, this is a country that decades ago smiled with pride as Johnny Clegg sang in Zulu and danced wearing African clothing. In an earlier essay, I explained how these concepts were invented by crackpot Marxist academics like Robin DiAngelo and then imported from North America into our universities and schools via a network of self-described “diversity-and-transformation consultants” – most notably Lovelyn Nwadeyi, Teresa Oakley-Smith and Asanda Ngoasheng. They are now being embedded into school policies and school culture by Woke Commissars such as Mr Magubane.

The key thing to understand is that none of this is done with any real sincerity. Absolutely nobody is genuinely offended by a white child who wears Ndebele-print clothing or a white teacher who wears a Zulu umqhele (a traditional headdress) or umgeko (a beaded necklace). In fact, many people often feel great pride when they see their culture reflected by others.

Ultimately, this is nothing more than performative activism. It is about power and control. The purpose of “Cultural Appropriation” is the same as every other Woke tactic: to frighten, intimidate and demoralise white people; to make them fear cancellation and thus encourage self-censorship; and to remind them that their faceless Woke overlords regulate what they may and may not say and what they may and may not wear. The message is as clear as it is sinister:

“We have captured this institution. We are in control now. Remember what we did to that Geography teacher when Panyaza Lesufi came round and demanded that he fired by 1pm? Remember what happened to that former headmaster on 702 radio? Remember what we tried to do to that boy at Michaelhouse? Every move you make is being monitored. You could be next. You will obey our commands and submit to our authority – or else you will be singled out and destroyed.”

From “Cultural Appropriation” to Cultural Appreciation

For many people, it is tempting to simply comply with the latest Woke diktat. Blue jeans and a Springbok rugby jersey should be a safe option that will allow you to participate in the day’s festivities without risking your job or career.

This may be tempting – but it is wrong. For when you comply with Woke demands to refrain from committing “Cultural Appropriation” you yield far more than just your choice of clothing for the day. British author Douglas Murray says it best:

“The bare minimum that people should do in this era is not to go along with mobs, not to go along with crowds, because you never know what you will be asked to do next. Today you will be asked to take a knee or raise a fist. Tomorrow you will be told to dance, the next day to jump.

Somewhere down the line you have no control over your own life. You don’t have your own words because someone else gave you the words to say. And you don’t have your own actions because someone else told you how to act. Before you know it you have disappeared as an individual and have given yourself over to the crowd.

Get some self-respect. Say no.[9]

Say you won’t do it, in matters large or small. You won’t have mobs come to you and tell you how to behave. You won’t have your bosses tell you what you should read and how you should think and try to tinker in your mind. That is not how we operate in a free society. That is how people behave in totalitarian societies.

There is no reason for people in a free society to behave in a way that people have to in totalitarian societies. No reason at all.”[10]

All I can say is that I encourage teachers at St John’s College (and every other school) to wear whatever they like tomorrow – and I encourage parents to let their boys do the same.

If Mr Magubane or Mr West tells you to remove certain clothing or accessories because they do not form part of “your culture”, you should politely decline to do so. If they persist, then you should invite the school to take disciplinary action against you for committing the offence of “Cultural Appropriation”. I repeat the offer that I made to the teachers of Roedean: that I will gladly take a day’s leave and turn up to assist you at a disciplinary hearing. I won’t send you an invoice – but I do need to caution that I might struggle to keep a straight face throughout proceedings.

I doubt that any of this will be necessary, though. Last year, at the height of the public scandal that occurred when a boy at Michaelhouse was accused of using a racial slur against a St John’s College boy, I received information from a source inside of St John’s College that, on the afternoon before the trip to Michaelhouse a senior black pupil met with the St. John’s College headmaster, Mr West. The pupil related that he had been contacted by a Michaelhouse boy who suggested that something untoward could occur on the upcoming trip and that he (the black pupil) could be the target of personal abuse. Apparently, by the time of their arrival at Michaelhouse there was already chatter among the St. John’s College boys that some kind of racial incident could be expected to occur.

This information was corroborated by three other sources.

I emailed Mr West, asking him whether this version of events was true. Mr West declined to respond to my emails. I subsequently published an article in which I publicly revealed this rather crucial information.[11] Less than 48 hours later, St John’s College effectively chickened out of the disciplinary hearing which it had previously demanded and instead opted for a “mediated settlement”. (Disgracefully, despite lacking the courage to have their allegations subjected to proper scrutiny and cross-examination, St John’s College has repeatedly asserted, in subsequent communications, that the racial slur was, in fact, uttered by the Michaelhouse boy).  

The lesson from the Michaelhouse debacle is that Woke bullies – and their weak enablers – will always back down when confronted. They crumble at the first sign of steadfast resistance.

So have some self-respect. Get off your knees. Stand up tall. Be proud of your culture – and be proud our collective national heritage.

Above all, be worthy of the freedoms that are our birthright as South Africans. Take advantage of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights which explicitly protects freedom of belief, freedom of expression and the freedom to “participate in the cultural life of [your] choice”. Be the living embodiment of our founding creed: that out of many, we are one, that the many peoples who form the diverse South African nation are united in our diversity.

Do not allow our freedoms to be sacrificed so cheaply on the altar of Wokeness.

In short: wear whatever you like tomorrow – and have a fabulous Heritage Day.


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*Richard Wilkinson is on (formerly Twitter) @wilkinsoncape