Wikipedia says: “Cultural appropriation is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon.”
Cultural appropriation has been often associated with White-person wanna-be’s – wannabe cowboy, wannabe Indian. Wannabe’s buy a big Western hat, get dressed up in stereotypical and ceremonial regalia, buy some painted feathers, leathers and beads, buy a pow-wow drum, a buy a “peace pipe” and hang on their wall. Their ignorance of the origins and purpose of those cultural practices and sacred objects makes the behavior come off as trivializing and disrespectful. Pretending verses authenticity, and ignorance verses respect, are what qualify as cultural appropriation.
But what’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange? It is easy to notice that over the long haul, cultures have always spontaneously mixed themselves when they get exposed to each other’s food, art, music, customs and traditions. In fact, the diversity and strength of our country’s “Melting Pot” comes from cultures exchanging, borrowing, and sometimes even ‘stealing’ from each other. That’s stealing in the good-natured and competitive way, the way comedians steal jokes, cooks steal recipes, and musicians steal melodic phases and lyrics. In ordinary cultural exchange, “imitation is flattery” – it makes you feel proud that someone thinks that highly of your customs that they want to incorporate them into their lives. And you are happy to share. So what makes one form of cultural mixing a favorable melting pot? And another form of mixing an unfavorable cultural appropriation?
The answer is: The Long-Story [history] of Power and Politics. When artists, cooks and musicians borrow/steal from each, it is a competitive exchange among people who are on most levels, politically “equal”. On the other hand, our world’s longstanding racial and ethnic divisions have provided harsh multi-generational experiences of social/political inequality and economic discrimination. For the past few thousand years, the European-origin Whites, have shown persistent distain and disregard for the rights and cultures of all Peoples of Color. It is within this long-story of injustice within this “Majority/Minority” dynamic which gives rise to the very real experience of “cultural appropriation” – where imitation is not experienced as flattery.
When the Majority casually and unthinkingly “borrows/steals” a cultural practice or art form from an oppressed Minority, it is an overt re-enactment of the already long list of injustices and mistreatment extended by the already intrusive hand of the Majority. Once again, in one more way – there is a “taking” – without permission or understanding – of something which originated and evolved from within the Minoritity’s household, community and culture.
Even more, what is being taken – its inception and evolution has often largely come about as a response to the inequity experienced by the Minority from the hands and minds and words and actions of the Majority. So the “ownership” of this Minority cultural practice is a precious source of pride, a claiming of invention and uniqueness that is delibrately intended to not be easily understood by the Majority. Comedian Richard Pryor was once asked by a White interviewer why he talks Black jive lingo so fast making it hard for a White person to understand? “Done took everything else MotherF_ _ _er.” he easily quipped.
When you don’t understand the story and the purpose and the function behind a cultural practice, that’s when your innocent imitation can become painful “appropriation”.
So how do you avoid being an appropriation ass? Avoid mimicking/borrowing/stealing badly? The answer is: “Don’t imitate what you don’t understand!” If you see or feel a cultural practice that you like and want to try out, and maybe incorporate it into your life, seek first to understand its origin story; its evolving purpose, and its meaning and effect on those who already embody it. It’s really as simple as adhering to the discipline of “all my relations”, seeing everything, every cultural practice, every art form, every recipe, as a living being worthy of your honor and respect. And then taking the time to understand its long-story, where it came from and why. Get to know it before trying to have an intimate relationship with it. Really just common sense. And good self-care.
So now TransGender – the ultimate cultural appropriation – in reverse. [A slightly satirical teachable moment.]
With full and sad acknowledgement of the dangers of being a TransGendered Person, [very high rates of depression/suicide/harassment/beaten/killed] I say TransGender is the ultimate form of cultural appropriation because we TransPeople are a tiny 0.5% minority, and we are asking the other 99.5% majority to be nice to us as we violate our culturally and legally official birth certificate and the collective cultural understanding that “men are masculine/, and women are feminine” Instead we say “I am not a woman, I am a man”, and then we go and sit with the men. Or we say, “I am not a man, I am a woman”. And then we go and sit with the women. AND we want you to accept us!
When a TransPerson imitates [or more likely spontanously emanates] the “other side” of the majority-culture’s sex/gender understanding, two reactions from the majority culture are predictable and natural:
- The group who were born with the same gonads you were born with will revile you for betraying the group.
- The group who you are resonating with and spontaneously emanating will feel like you are trespassing, and trying to steal/co-opt their group’s sub-culture.
“How can you possibly know what it is like to be a woman or a man, when you were not born that way, or did not grow up that way?”
It is that initial sense of indignity and annoyance that signals what “cultural appropriation” feels like – only in this instance, it is the “majority” who feels trespassed against, and it is the “minority” who is doing the trespassing. It is a very interesting teachable moment – with many subtleties.
A few weeks ago, I was raving with my usual amazement about how good it feels for me to be living trans to a very good woman friend. She said, “I love your joy and your insight into the feminine, AND you are lucky because you get to “play” being a woman.”
That word “play” stuck out for me as a bit of a sting. Even though, I have often and freely acknowledged that I didn’t come of age experiencing the pressure of young female beauty, I haven’t had to tiringly fight off perpetual and humiliating sexual harassment, I haven’t had to rise above all the cultural discounting and trivializing of women’s ideas and ways of being, and I have not been beaten, and I have not been raped. Even though I do recognize and acknowledge all that privilege, there was still this stinging feeling in me to hear that my newfound sense of authenticity of self could also be reduced to “play” in the eyes of another.
My friend wasn’t being mean. Actually, she was simply “right”. From her lifetime of lived experience and shared culture as a woman, it was easy and accurate to characterize my trans-gendered interloping as “play”, even though to me, I am feeling I am my most authentic Self.
So back to cultural appropriation: “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon.” TransPeople are inherently “cultural invaders”. We invade the largest culture of humanity – the otherwise universal culture of masculine men and feminine women. It takes a great commitment to the Self to do this. Fortunately, an ever-growing number of “majority” people are empathetic and supportive of the transgender experience. It is, I believe, a sign of important cultural evolution and of good things for all Humans to come.
All My Relations.