by Sophia Akiko Stephens
Talking about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can be a cumbersome, confusing, and frustrating experience for folks on either side of the conversation. Whether it is Halloween costumes, culturally-themed birthday parties, your daughter’s “Native American-inspired” headdress, or your child coming home from school crying because her classmates made fun of her mehendi, there are two sides of the dialogue that must be heard and addressed:
“But I am respecting the culture by doing ____!”
“Nobody understands, I’m trying to respect your culture here!”
“You are being too sensitive about this cultural appropriation thing.”
“We are all a part of one race: the human race. ____ is not cultural appropriation.”
“My ancestors practiced ___ for hundreds of years. It is not yours to take.”
“You are mocking my culture by doing _____.”
“Appropriation is about power, not respect. You are practicing power over a culture when you use your privilege to take and appropriate ____.”
“You may genuinely respect my culture and have that intention in doing ____, but your intent does not cancel out the fact that you are still appropriating.”
For the marginalized person witnessing their culture being appropriated, there is a deeply-rooted, and entirely justified, frustration. For many Black folks and people of color, fully practicing our culture was denied to us growing up, or we were shamed out of it. For example, I still remember how my seven-year-old-self’s cheeks burned when I overheard my classmates asking my teacher to sit somewhere else at lunch because my tonkatsu and onigiri were stinky.
There are many stories that orbit around similar feelings of shame, isolation, and targeting amidst people of varying cultural and ethnic identities. Many people describe their efforts to preserve their own cultural practices and identities as a daily struggle, a fight.
To practice some empathy here, (especially if you are privileged) reflect on how it must feel to invest all this labor, intention, and time to protect your cultural identity and practices only to later witness people using our culture as an accessory or sign of social status.
Furthermore, if you argue against the people who are appropriating your culture, you are prone to being socially isolated or humiliated for being an “over-sensitive SJW (social justice warrior).” Can you imagine how that must feel?
To the folks with privilege reading this, and especially white readers: cultural exchange is important in order to be a worldly citizen. However, it is also just as important that you know how to do it. I will not be writing a step-by-step guide here on how to immediately know if you are culturally appropriating XYZ culture—it is important that you invest the work in building that knowledge and intention. Rather, I will leave some guiding points and questions that will push you to self-reflect on your own position and actions:
Am I degrading, mocking, or sexualizing this culture?
This is a straightforward one. If you are doing any of the three, stop.
Will it only be privileged people partaking in ____ cultural practice?
If there is nobody of that culture doing this with you, or if there are no people of color involved in what you are trying to do, that is a sign that you should sit down and reflect on the intention of what you want to do here. Is this inherently inclusive, or exclusive—and who has the power in this situation?
Would I be comfortable if a person of this culture witnessed me doing this?
This is a matter of recognizing what you are doing does have consequences. Of course it is going to be personally uncomfortable for you to acknowledge when you are appropriating, but so is seeing entire cultures being turned into cheap trinkets, commodities, and caricatures that also manifests itself on an institutional level. If you would not be comfortable with someone of the culture seeing what you are doing with it, this is a sign to reflect.
Am I sharing, or am I taking?
True cultural exchange is just that—an exchange. Are you holding space for people of the culture you want to interact with, too? Or is it only about what you can take from it for yourself, and for people like you? Especially when you are a person of privilege, there is always going to be a power dynamic when you interact with other cultures. How are you sharing or withholding that power?
For example, imagine your white daughter wants a “Girls’ Day” Hinamatsuri Tea Party. Cultural exchange and appreciation are possible. Can you make it a joint party with a Japanese mother and her daughter? Can both cultures be shared at this event? Can you treat the culture in respectful and thoughtful way, rather than relying on stereotypes? Taking the time to be mindful of whether you are taking or sharing can allow you to come away with a great experience.
Am I remembering my privilege and position?
You can never shed your privilege. Claiming that “we are all one race” is a way of erasing the experiences, diasporas, histories, and identities of Black folks, people of color, and those of marginalized identities, and is also a blatant display of your power and privilege. You have the ability to erase your own power, while simultaneously denying it to us—is that what you really want to do here? If you truly respect our culture, you need to be aware of your position.
How am I addressing the power imbalance between myself and the culture I’m interacting with?
No matter how much you respect our culture, you possess a power that people of marginalized identities do not. Any cultural exchange between us is therefore inherently unequal.
Your approach is already unequal because of your power and privilege. How you use it, and how you use it when you engage with us and our cultures, should sufficiently tell you whether you are going about this in a way that is healthy and/or productive. Intention does not take away from your impact, and if you appropriate something, no matter how good your intention was behind it, you need to still hold yourself accountable for any consequences that harm a marginalized person/community/identity.
For example, you may have had the best intentions in guiding your preschool classroom through a “Rain Dance” to teach them about “Native American” cultures and the cycles of nature. However, your intention does not take away from your potential impact. As this situation is a defined cultural experience, anything you do under that umbrella during the time you spent with your students will have a direct impact on their understanding.
Many teachers may have had good intentions behind teaching a history that largely erased indigenous Turtle Islanders* in “honoring” their “long-lost culture,” but the reality is that there are so many existing cultures that are being actively erased on a path paved with good intentions.
Cultural appropriation is a difficult topic to understand, but if you truly respect the culture that you wish to interact with, a little patience, understanding and time go a long way. If you possess a genuine interest in the entirety of the whole culture, not just the facet that is most appealing to you, you are on the right path.
Again, it is important to remember that culture and cultural practices are the ways through which people practice their own unique human experiences, and their humanity. So think twice before rolling your eyes at the school’s “no appropriation Halloween costumes” policy, or going off on a friend of color on Facebook for expressing frustration at witnessing their culture being appropriated, and instead center your dialogue on how you can best support the other person’s humanity. We are all human beings, and in a color-blind world, dare to be color-conscious and embrace our reality, too.
*Author’s Note: I am saying “cultures” when I discuss Turtle Islanders, and choose to not use the term “Native American” here for a reason—for a long time, white teachers taught me about “Native American” culture, when there are in fact hundreds upon hundreds of cultures unique to independent tribes and nations.
In an interview with Howie Echo-Hawk (of Pawnee and Athabaskan descent) and fabian romero (of Purepécha descent), I learned that while “Native American” and “American Indian” do work for many, there are many other indigenous people who dislike these names. As these titles are based on a colonized understanding and identity with “American” land, “Turtle Island” is a direct counter to what is now called North America, as Turtle Island existed long before Amerigo Vespucci or Christopher Columbus came along.