A few months ago I put out to the internet asking what they thought about cultural appropriation. There was an odd response. Either you were a person of color and answered me with thoughts, feelings, and examples, or you were a very confused white person. There were some folks in the middle of the appropriation debate. ButI had no idea how grey this issue was to the general white population. Then add on top of that confusion an often sincere wish to not be a racist shit bag and you have created a sensitive albeit, clueless, monster; one who either tip toes around or smashes the whole town. I’m going to address that monster real quick before it destroys any more unsuspecting cities.
There are a few things to get straight about cultural appropriation. Luckily, it is simple to avoid if you stop and think first. I cannot be held responsible for a lack of thought on anyone’s part and I wash my hands of that responsibility right now.
1. Do you have an invitation?
I have been to Native American funerals, a few Pow Wows, and was invited to each and every one of them. I have been to an Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan and gotten henna from the women participating at the party. Growing up, one of my best friends was Cambodian and I went to many family parties. I’ve worn a traditional sari with my Indian friends. I even went to a Mormon dance once. I had invitations to do all of these things. I was directly invited to participate and engage with other cultures by other cultures. This is an important distinction. When you are asked to join in, it means that you are being asked to experience and share in another person’s culture. When my friends invited me to join them at Pride festivities this year they wanted to celebrate their own community but have me there too. It wasn’t appropriation, it was a shared experience. If I go to Japan and am asked to a traditional tea ceremony and they request that I wear a kimono it is much different than just slipping one on because I “love Asian culture”.
Twitter once used the hashtag, #WhitePeopleInvitedtotheCookout and what ensued was hilarious, but also a strangely good metaphor. If my neighbor has a cookout, I won’t be mad if they don’t invite me. They don’t have to. Even if we are friendly and they have a key to my house, they can still do whatever they like. Non-White cultures don’t have to make space for white people and that shouldn’t be the expectation. The mere existence of the precedent that white people should always be accommodated is evidence of a racist and colonized system. I don’t expect to be invited to the Oscars so, White People, why do you expect to be invited to the cookout?
2. Did you earn that?
Clothing and fashion are rife with appropriation. If I see one more set of dreamcatcher earrings, I will scream. Native American headdresses are symbols of accomplishments. Moccasins can be hand-beaded gifts from family members that mark rites of passage. There is a difference between a dreamcatcher and a medicine wheel. Also, there are many tribes with many different meanings instilled to objects that can appear very similar. If you don’t know what it is, set it down. If you didn’t earn it, set it down.
One of the respondents to my questions about cultural appropriation brought up an instance where Urban Outfitters was selling exact replicas of traditional Ethiopian dresses worn by women to go to church. Down to the fabric, the garments were identical. A frequently used definition of appropriation is stripping something of its cultural significance and not giving credit to the culture it is borrowed from. That example is that in every way. I’m sure many of the people buying the dresses were not even aware of their place in Ethiopian society. The same as when I am upset by the improper displays of the Irish Claddagh ring, other people can see their cultures’ history and importance brushed off in the name of fashion and when their concerns are brought to light they are made out to be an overreaction.
3. People aren’t just “being sensitive”.
As soon as we come to terms with the fact that even the color of our skin can be triggering for some people, the better off white people will be. The history of the white race is frustratingly parasitic and it is hard to not look back and question what made any of western civilization feel as if they were doing anything good by “influencing” and colonizing the rest of the world. Native Hawaiians were made by nuns to wear long dresses instead of their traditional clothing. Native Americans were given alcohol because it made it easier to make “treaties”. Africa was blocked off into chunks to keep peace between white nations trying to colonize it but with no regard for the dominion of preexisting tribes. The ramifications of colonization stretch into the histories of the entire globe; India, South Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean. Those histories are still playing out today. When you take something that doesn’t belong to you whether it is a fabric or a dance or even a hairstyle, you are still saying that as a white person you can still have whatever you want. It doesn’t matter if that isn’t how you mean it. That is how it is received.
In the early Christian church there was a disagreement about whether or not it was okay to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Some people thought it was okay, some didn’t. So Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and said that it basically didn’t matter. It’s one of the rare times in the Bible where Paul is just like, “Eh, do what feels right”. But what he does go on to say is that it is important to consider your brothers and sisters and not to make their lives harder by exercising your right. He even goes the extra mile and says that if meat is what is causing his brothers and sisters trouble, then he’ll never eat meat of any kind ever again.
So, it’s true, you can wear what you like, say what you like, do what you like. There will always be at least one person who takes issue. There is even disagreement within communities about who should be allowed to do certain things. But remember this: Are you making someone else hurt unnecessarily?
I liked having dreadlocks. I’m not going to lie about that. Some black people were okay with it and some weren’t. But what I didn’t like was the fact that no one ever knew why I had them. The mere presence of a white person with dreadlocks could be detrimental to someone. They may only see the thousands of years that white people came in and cherry-picked their culture. They may only see that their natural hair is considered “unprofessional” or “unkempt” and that they themselves don’t have the luxury of having whatever hair they choose, I even wrote about how dreadlocks taught me about white privilege. Ultimately, I had to decide what was more important, having hair I liked or my relationship with an entire group of people. I decided to not risk the relationship.
Racism is very real and very alive. It has lots of facets and intersections. It is not as clear cut as it once was. Until we make progress we will all have to be careful.
Please, white people, make peace with the fact that there will be lots of cookouts that you aren’t invited to. That’s what happens when you crashed every barbecue for two thousand years. You think kids still invite the Kool-Aid man to their house after he crashes through the wall once? Multiply that by a million. You don’t have to be invited. You are not allowed to show up anyway. This isn’t about you.
So when it comes to cultural appropriation ask yourself three things before you move forward:
1. Am I invited?
2. Did I earn this?
3. Am I hurting someone unnecessarily?
How you respect other people will always have a bigger impact than what you are wearing.