Not long ago I had lunch with an 82-year-old friend of mine who has been a social justice activist all her life. 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, often drawn from her own life experiences, and often in the voice of those about whom she is writing. 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. We are both white.
She 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, although not completely, 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.
Before that happened, however, she had an opportunity to meet one of the poets. My friend sent her the poem she had written asking 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.
Her response, however, was extremely atypical in my experience. Here are two other brief examples. 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 a Latinx man of lower than normal mental capacity working the drive-through window of a fast food restaurant in a neighborhood where he had a lot of Latinx customers. 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 fall back, “but if this isn’t OK, then writers would only be able to write about people like them.”
In the second workshop, a white woman poet who was 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 and a person would have called it cultural appreciation. Should I have raised it nonetheless? I made a judgement call that it was neither the time nor place, but sometimes I wonder.
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 that I think I already know. I wish I could say that 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 in particular, who believes herself to be constantly struggling to be conscious, a concept that is still fraught with either uncertainty or even – occasionally – resistance.
More Radical Reads: 7 Ways ‘Honoring’ Other Cultures Is Really Cultural Appropriation
One of the reasons for this wide-spread lack of understanding among many progressive white people in the anti-racist struggle, especially those of us who are older, is rarely acknowledged. At least I’ve not seen it in most of what I have read about cultural appropriation, which though far from exhaustive, is far more than anyone else among the majority of my contemporaries.
The discussion about cultural appropriation versus appreciation has little visibility or value in the mainstream, particularly in those media 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.
As Julie Feng recently pointed 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 following closely what people whose cultures have been appropriated have to say. There is a great tendency to want to say, “but, it’s so beautiful …” and “but…” this and “but….” that, and the necessity is to learn why beauty, this, and that are unequivocally not the relevant aspects of the question.
2.Working through our own excuses, accepting our own realities.
It hard to look at things we love and recognize that they represent cultural appropriation, and, perhaps worse, 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 for 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 tribe from which it comes, or to donate it to an indigenously-owned tribal not-for- profit. Raising our own consciousness is never easy, but it’s always the first step before the next.
3.Calling it out when we see it.
This doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, and it definitely means we still pick our battles. It means being prepared possibly to 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.
Last spring, at San Francisco State University, a black woman 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/ 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.
I can’t change my white skin and whatever unwitting appropriation I did in the past. 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, and to raise it as an issue among the people around me who are ignorant, but open, to learning and change.