Not long ago I had lunch with an 82-year-old friend of mine who has been a social justice activist all her life. We are both white. My friend is a poet who has been published in several small literary journals. She listens to a broad range of podcasts regularly, reads widely, and continues to take a keen interest in the world around her. Her poetry focuses on the lives of working people of all races, although mostly white women. Her work is often drawn from her own life experiences and often written from the perspective of those she is writing about. As a child, her family was very poor, and she herself was a single, low-wage working woman for the first half of her life.
My friend recently read one of her more popular poems at a local poetry reading. It is written in the voice of a child of color, in a situation which my friend has never personally experienced but for which she has great compassion. As a former school teacher, she knew many such children, and thus felt able to represent the child in her poem.
As usual, the poem was well-received by the crowd, which was predominantly white women, and mostly middle-aged or older.
Had anyone else but me felt uncomfortable with it? I had no idea.
Over dinner a few weeks later, I asked her if she knew what cultural appropriation was. She said, no, she had never heard of it. When I explained, she understood immediately and also why her poem made me uncomfortable. I told her also that I knew two other poets who were very familiar with the experience she had written about, and I suspected that while they might understand her positive intention, they probably wouldn’t appreciate an older white woman from a totally different culture appropriating their voices. She agreed she would work on rewriting it from her perspective in her own voice.
More Radical Reads: 7 Ways “Honoring” Other Cultures Is Really Cultural Appropriation
Before that happened, however, my friend had an opportunity to meet one of the poets I had mentioned. My friend sent her the poem and asked for a response. She received a tactful but emphatic explanation of why the poem was problematic and how she might reimagine it. My friend was both grateful and gracious about the critique. In my experience, however, her positive response was extremely atypical compared to the reactions of other similarly situated older white poets.
Several months ago, in two different poetry workshops, I heard poems written by older white poets. In the first case, the poem was written in what appeared to be the voice of an intellectually disabled Latinx man working the drive-through window of a fast food restaurant in a Latinx neighborhood. It was inauthentic and came across as racist to some of us.
But when the inappropriateness of the use of this voice in the particular way it was done was raised – by two women of color and one white woman – the older white male poet could not understand why he had done anything objectionable. He was supported by all the other (younger) white writers in the room with the old fallback, “But if this isn’t OK, then writers would only be able to write about people like them.”
In the second workshop, a white female poet dressed in modern clothes that were a suggestive mishmash of the Indigenous tribes of the Southwest, complete with multiple necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and rings made of silver and studded with turquoise, read a poem in the voice of some unspecified Indigenous woman. This was not a context in which poems were being critiqued, but if it had been, I would not have said anything, as I suspected no one else in that room of mostly middle-class white women would have known what I was talking about. Someone would have inevitably responded that it was cultural appreciation.
Should I have raised my concerns nonetheless? I made a judgement call that it was neither the time nor place, but sometimes I wonder.
More Radical Reads: You Don’t Have an Excuse: Cultural Appropriation, Power Dynamics, and Historical Context
My own education in understanding what cultural appropriation means is relatively recent, which is to say within the last decade, and it is by no means over or complete. It was started, once again, by my daughter, who is inevitably far ahead of me (thank goodness!) in learning things I think I already know. I wish I could say I immediately understood what she was talking about, but I didn’t. It came up over her criticism of white boys who wore their hair in dreads. While I didn’t understand why on earth they did it (the embarrassingly conservative side of myself), I also didn’t get why it was seen as offensive, rather than as an example of the old adage, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
That lack of understanding stemmed from my ignorance of the history of locs, their relationship to Rastafarianism, and my belief that locs were “only” a hair style. I began to understand that I was guilty of cultural appropriation in many respects, thinking it was appreciation, and that unfortunately in that regard, I was the same as virtually all of white America.
I also now know that the concept of appropriation is a very complex discussion, one that is not always easy to navigate, and, as an older white woman constantly struggling to be conscious, a concept still fraught with uncertainty or even occasionally resistance.
One of the reasons for this widespread lack of understanding among many progressive white people in the anti-racist struggle, especially those of us who are older, is rarely acknowledged. The discussion about cultural appropriation versus appreciation has little visibility or value in the mainstream, particularly in those media sources where it most needs to happen: where liberal white people who perceive themselves as anti-racist are most likely to find it.
If they don’t know about it, they don’t care about it. If they don’t care about it, they’re definitely not going to change.
The reasons for the absence of this discussion are obvious: the integration and ultimate trivialization of cultures from around the world is now deeply entrenched in our national mythology and daily lives as a positive thing (Taco Bell, anyone?). Asking Americans to recognize it now as theft and appropriation over years of global exploitation is daunting. It is akin to asking us to acknowledge our racism and privilege; we can see how successful that has been in the discussion about white privilege so far, where even the most self-described “I’m not a racist” people get defensive.
But just as we can’t avoid that discussion, we can’t avoid this one, either, by continuing to talk only to each other about it. Here are three steps we can take to challenge the cultural appropriation we white people have internalized.
1. Listen to those whose cultures have been and are being culturally appropriated
As Julie Feng points out, power dynamics and historical context are key when it comes to understanding the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. As a white woman, I look to educate myself by closely following what people whose cultures have been appropriated have to say. There is a great tendency to want to say, “But it’s so beautiful…” The necessity is to learn why our objections are unequivocally not the relevant aspects of the question.
2. Work through our excuses and make amends
It is hard to look at things we love and recognize they represent cultural appropriation. It is perhaps even worse to admit that when we bought them, we ourselves were engaging in cultural appropriation, even if we didn’t know it at the time.
What do we do with those often well-loved objects now? Are we supposed to just throw them away?
In my view, not at all. But we do have to look at what we have through new eyes and with a more educated understanding of what they represent. If it’s an article of clothing, jewelry, or other object that has some special religious or other significance in its own culture, we may decide not to wear or use it anymore out of respect (unless it was gifted to us by a member of that culture). If it’s valuable, we might want to gift it back to representatives of the community from which it comes. We could donate it, for example, to an Indigenous-owned non-profit. Raising our own consciousness is never easy, but it’s always a prerequisite before this next step.
3. Call out cultural appropriation when we see it
Last spring, at San Francisco State University, a Black female student criticized a white male student for having dreads. The white student reacted angrily, arrogantly, and defensively, and the encounter escalated. What is most telling (if not surprising) is the way the story quickly became focused on the white student as the victim and the Black student as the aggressor and villain. The result was that she became the target of a vitriolic, misogynist, and viciously racist backlash. Once again, it serves as a stark reminder of the difficulty of the task before us and why it is so important to use the strength we gain from radical self-love to help us.
As an older white woman, it’s less likely that I’ll have to confront the kind of response that occurred in San Francisco. To the extent that I have this extra degree of protection, I have an added obligation to use my privilege to call appropriation out when I see it. I also have the obligation to raise it as an issue among the people around me who are ignorant, but open, to learning and change.
Learning how to deprogram ourselves from furthering cultural appropriation isn’t going to be easy, and it definitely means we still pick our battles. It means being prepared to possibly do a whole lot of explaining and to have some good examples ready. It may mean making some difficult decisions, some on the spur of the moment, with unpredictable outcomes. But as white folks, that is the work we should be doing.
[Feature Image: A Native American person stands in traditional dress staring ahead at the camera. Source: Zacharyo for Flickr ]