A few years ago I was in a class about being a good ally to people of color, or POC. It is a sad fact that often any such class on allyship is least well attended by those who most need it. As a white woman I can certainly understand that — had it not been a required class I likely would not have chosen it, due to a fear of butting in where I wasn’t really wanted. Regardless, I took the class… and found it a fascinating and enlightening experience. There were no men in the class, of course — it is vanishingly unlikely to see a man in any Women’s Spirituality class — but there were more women of color than white women. I learned a great deal, and I hope I wasn’t too obnoxious. ;)
At one point, and with some trepidation, I asked what it was that I could do to most help POC — what did they most want from white women? I was nervously braced to receive some anger or racism in reply, considering that most of the time POC have to simply swallow rightful rage at the social injustice they face on a daily basis. As a consequence the answer I received was extraordinarily startling to me: they wanted me to listen. Just listen — deeply and truly. I remember saying incredulously, “That’s it? You just want me to listen?” Looking around the room, I received nod after nod after nod of agreement: yes, listen to them — no interrupting, no ‘correcting’ them or shouting them down, no telling them what I thought they should be doing. By truly listening I would no longer be ignoring, erasing, or appropriating them; rather, I would help to socially validate them, their beliefs, their needs… their very right of existence.
So that’s what I’ve tried to do with all the POC I know, both on-line and off: I try to listen with respect and caring. Since I also believe in continuing to fight for a just society I have simultaneously attempted to share this received learning with all my white friends. As a feminist once put it, misogynist men are not going to suddenly start listening to women and decide to be good allies… but they ordinarily will listen to other men. If a man therefore truly wishes to be a good ally for women, he should speak up to stop misogyny when he stumbles across it in men around him, and if he can, take the opportunity to teach a more feminist perspective. Equally, most white people aren’t going to truly listen to POC because that’s not how they were taught — and so it is incumbent upon white people, not POC, to teach other white people how to be respectful to POC.
I mention this because I’ve recently discovered a handful of my conservative white friends and acquaintances believe cultural appropriation is a good thing. I find this horrifying but I don’t want to simply antagonize them all — I’d rather take this opportunity to maybe help them see a different perspective. So I’m using my blog as a tool to sort out my thoughts on the matter in an attempt to reach out constructively — and maybe get across just how unjust cultural appropriation truly is. I see a couple of main issues in discussions about the subject: it’s easy to engage in cultural appropriation without realizing, and it’s hard to define. However, it is my hope that engaging in this discussion will help myself and others better understand cultural appropriation so we recognize it and learn how to avoid it.
But what is it really?
Unfortunately cultural appropriation is not something we can easily condense down to a single-sentence definition that works in all cases. Simultaneously it appears there are far too many who are willing to deliberately misrepresent the issue so as to either ignore it or misuse it. Thus, as a starting point I’m going to borrow from K. Tempest Bradford’s thought-provoking article Cultural Appropriation Is, In Fact, Indefensible, where she states:
Writer Maisha Z. Johnson offers an excellent starting point by describing it [cultural appropriation] not only as the act of an individual, but an individual working within a ‘power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”
Knowing this, it is perhaps unsurprising that those who most approve of cultural appropriation are also those who stand to profit the most from it, and have the least to lose from it.