U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi used a traditional African textile to take a stance on racial injustice — a move that has since sparked debate.
On Monday in Washington, D.C., she joined Congressional Democrats in taking a knee on the floor of the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, in honor of George Floyd, before a press conference announcing the proposed “Justice in Policing Act.”
Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis by white police officer Derek Chauvin. After taking Floyd into custody, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, while three other officers have been charged with lower counts. Since then, the world has erupted with Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests, bringing the conversation of race relations to the forefront.
At the Capitol, Pelosi, who dressed in a red pantsuit and matching red pumps, also wore the cultural African textile called Kente cloth, in order to make a silent statement of solidarity with black people. Kente is a woven fabric produced by the Asante and Ewe people of Ghana and dates back to the 17th century.
Critics, however, have called the move “virtue signaling” and accused the politicians of cultural appropriation, with activist Charles Preston tweeting, “We pay elected officials to politically represent and execute a vision. That hollow symbolism is disrespectful when you think about state violence against Black people.”
April Reign, though, the creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, encouraged critics to look beyond the moment with her tweet: “Not a huge fan of the Kente cloth, but it was a show of solidarity from more seasoned folks, so I get it. I just hope we don’t miss what happened after the performative part, which is that legislation is being introduced.”
This is not the first time Pelosi has used fashion to convey a stance on a social or political matter.
At President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in Washington, D.C., in February, for instance, Pelosi and other Congresswomen wore all-white to mark the 100-year anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. And last year, Pelosi also wore the Kente cloth sash while commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first-recorded forced arrival of enslaved African people to the United States.
Rep. Karen Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, defended the clothing choice to reporters on Monday, explaining: “The significance of the Kente cloth is our African heritage, and for those of you without that heritage who are acting in solidarity. That is the significance of the Kente cloth. Our origins and respecting our past.”
Pelosi’s “Justice in Policing Act” proposes a sweeping overhaul of current laws governing police, including banning chokeholds and making it easier to sue officers who unjustly injure or kill citizens. Democrats also are seeking to create a National Police Misconduct Registry and bar the use of “no-knock” arrest warrants, which led to the death of Breonna Taylor in March.