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Ever since my post last week on cultural appropriation I have been trying to work out what it is exactly.

I received a couple of responses with people explaining to me what cultural appropriation was, and why it was important. I moved to facebook to ask people their thoughts on the matter. People seem to be emotionally invested in this but no one really explained it to me. I did receive a couple of things where people tried to explain what it meant, but I need clarification.

I was linked to the last two paragraphs of this article. I will post the last two paragraphs here because they are the part of the article that it seems is supposed to cause emotions, and create a response:

“People of color have survived centuries of unspeakable violence against our cultures and our spirits. The cultures we have built today, in all their vibrancy and richness, are testaments to our strength and survival. Therefore, they have incredible meaning to us.  When white folks just put them on like a pair of shoes, they neutralize years of resistance and celebration.

The day when all peoples have equal access to large-scale media, when all peoples can travel with the same freedom, when all peoples have equal and humanized representation in the global cultural landscape, THEN we can talk about cultural exchange and how cultures can benefit from influencing each other.”

By itself I can see how one can read this paragraph and go “YES, this makes sense, this is true, this is cultural appropriation”. Frankly, much of the rest of the article frustrated me immensely but I am not here to pull apart an individual’s views, I am here to try and understand the views and see how they relate to life.

My problem with this quote, which is obviously meant to elicit an emotional reaction from the reader, is that it is looking at things in black and white (literally and figuratively). It is isolated in the idea that culture is black and white. That each culture evolved independently and became something with no outside influence. That any action, dress style, dance style, etc created by a person of color is meaningful and that anytime a white person does this it is devoid of meaning.

Let’s move back to basics. What does cultural appropriation mean? Well, the dictionary defines appropriation as “to take or use (something) especially in a way that is illegal, unfair, etc.” so by basic logic, cultural appropriation involves taking or using something that is belonging to another’s culture. But what really belongs to culture? If two cultures unknowingly develop a certain thing (yoga is a potential example) can it belong to both cultures? Is one culture appropriating from the other? Of course not. The thing (yoga in this case) can be part of both cultures and just as meaningful for each.

And what is your culture? If a Korean child is adopted by white, American parents and grows up in so-called “white” culture. Is s/he culturally appropriating if s/he chooses to take on Korean customs and learn Korean? What about a different way around? Can a white baby be a part of African American culture if they were adopted into it? Or is it cultural appropriation merely from the color of the child’s skin? Is our culture where we are born? In which case, any “American” practicing another culture would be guilty of cultural appropriation. Is culture what we are brought up with? What is our culture?

The biggest concern I have with the way that ‘cultural appropriation’ is thrown around nowadays is that is seems to be only relating to black and white. Literally this time. “White people stealing culture from black people”. Breaking that down we see how painfully flawed our (figurative) black and white thinking is. All black people have one culture and all white people have one culture? No! Are people of color the only one’s who have faced persecution over the years? What about those people who are Jewish? Those who are disabled, gay, transexual, and of other colors? These are all groups that have created a culture within them and color isn’t a part of it.

If cultural appropriation is a real problem then we–black, white, and everything in between–are guilty of it. Salsa dancing (Cuba), tea drinking (tea), coffee (Ethiopia or Kenya), body piercing (depends on the piercing), alcohol (Middle East), certain types of jewelry (depends on the type), the list goes on. All of our cultures are a result of cultural blending and stealing in a time at which there were huge inequalities. If you belief that cultural appropriation is bad then make sure nothing you do is the result of something “stolen” from another country.

The follow up question of what is cultural appropriation in practice? Is it learning and using the language of another culture (as mentioned by the author of the quote above), or dancing in a style developed by another culture? I don’t know. Is the fact that cafes now sell hamantaschen with much frequency a symptom of the cultural appropriation of Jewish traditions?

The most common response I got on facebook was that it was about intent. If I do something from another cultural and claim it as mine then that is cultural appropriation, but if I acknowledge it’s roots and culture then that is okay.

In reading the article I linked too I began to feel as if part of the author’s concern was about (to put it in much lesser terms) being part of a club. It is the idea that I belong to a certain club and it is an exclusive club. The outrage at a white woman speaking Spanish seemed to be part of that “Spanish is the language of my club, not yours, so keep out” mentality. I understand that the idea is “white people” have it all and they oppress everyone else so let the “everyone else” have their own personal space. But in constantly pushing people away are we not going to create a world in which people never get along? Where we all live in separate groups, angry at the others for not letting us in. It’s like the cliques in high school. What I don’t understand is this: if I’m not allowed to speaking your language (again, literally or figuratively) then how am I ever supposed to understand (not steal, take, or use) your culture? And if I am never able to understand your culture how am I supposed to know what is important to you culturally so as to ensure I don’t accidentally do something offensive? Isn’t knowledge and understanding a vital part of allowing us to get along? Some of the biggest fights and offenses are caused by a mistake. A simple lack of knowledge of another culture.

This was long, and I apologize, but I’m still trying to fully grasp the concept. So, what does cultural appropriation mean to you? Is it important? Is it even a problem?