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Politics & Policy, Appropriation

Cultural Appropriation for the Rest of Us

I used to think there were basically two basic types of people; those who exist and thrive only at the extremes of any given belief system, and everyone else stuck in the middle. Think of the hard Right and Left extremes, and then the innocent centrists stuck between them. You could write endlessly about the sins of those who are ultra woke on the left, oblivious in the middle and anti-woke on the right. But why? There are already 84 billion blogs doing that today. I counted.

But this is too simple, and the center is often far from innocent.

Cultural Appropriation as a concept stretches like fine harp string between the unyielding fists of the left, ready to be plucked nay triggered by the faintest wisp of unauthorized cultural use. You can hear the resulting angry, high-pitched tone in every corner of the internet and social media, a gradually crippling tinnitus that drowns out quieter human interactions with every rising scream of social injustice.

Did you eat a burrito? Are you white? How. Dare. You.

This is one extreme.

On the right here is the tone-deaf bubble of infinite denial, a nearly hermetic snow globe that pushes any unwelcome or unflattering concept back through the transparent membrane of cultural narcissism more effectively than the pressurized clean rooms at the CDC purge errant viruses. In this shiny white world there is no such thing as Cultural Appropriation because America is perfect and anyone who says otherwise is an uppity Marxist immigrant welfare queen. Who hates guns.

Wear black face? Why not? Black faces are magic and pretty and they should be grateful we even notice they exist.

This is another extreme.

Shielding both left and right extremism is a vast doldrous sea filled with the oblivious smiles and vacant stares of the conveniently indifferent; those who neither know nor care about the universe beyond how it impacts their paychecks or vacations. People who don’t care because they don’t have to care or simply aren’t aware they should. Mostly, they just want everyone to get along so they can ignore everything beyond the delightful flicker of the magic screen. They are not angry but are, instead, terrified of challenge or threat. They never understand that it is their silence that amplifies every other extreme.

It’s okay. Everything’s okay. The Redskins aren’t racist, they’re just traditional. I’m sure they mean well. What does it matter? Just don’t look over here.

This is moral cowardice.

In the middle there are the willfully ambivalent branded as centrists, defining moral perfection as somehow equidistant from every other ethical position. In their magically balanced world, all things are equivalent, white equals black, evil balances good and Fox perfectly negates MSNBC. They stand proudly at perpetual equinox, the zeros between everything that counts.

Black Lives Matter but so do Blue Lives Matter. See, they’re hugging. How beautiful.

This is intellectual cowardice.

But enough of that; it is not my intention to neatly classify everyone. We are not Linnean categories and this supposed to be an article about Cultural Appropriation. I just wanted to point out that things are not always as simple as we want them to be.

And I’m hoping that most of you didn’t see yourselves┬áin any of those definitions, or at least not your ideal self. I think we all have a vision of ourselves as we wish to be, a personal conception of against which we compare our daily behaviors and of course fall short, but to which we return to at night when we close our eyes. There we are. There are the people we want to be. Tomorrow, we’ll do better.

Well, tomorrow is today. You are that person. You are awesome.

Now, let’s talk about Cultural Appropriation.

In the paradisiacal world in which my ideal self lives, there are many cultures, but they are fluid. Concepts and ideas, art and thought, color and kind flow between them as easily as air through opened windows. I appreciate things that are comforting, and also those that are challenging. I respect difference, but I do not segregate. I understand that the more we learn from each other, the stronger and more powerful we all are.

Of course, we do not live in that world and that is, surprisingly, the point. We live in this world and here we are rigid and segregated, fearful and angry. We have sins to acknowledge and forgive, debts to pay and broken limbs to mend. The question asked by Cultural Appropriation at heart, or at least in my heart, is how we find the path from this world to that other, better world.

This to me was the real truth of King’s “I have a Dream” speech because in that one phrase he captured both now and then, today and tomorrow, reality and aspiration. He knew where he stood and the long walk over many bridges it would take to get to that other world. He knew he would never see it, and neither will we.

But we all have that dream and we all know that it can only become reality if we walk intentionally toward that vision of ourselves, actively, every day, in everything we do. Every word of hate, every word of pointless division, every lost opportunity to learn takes us farther away from the only place we want to be. It’s insane.

And while it’s trite, the best definition of insanity remains the act of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Good luck with that.

What I propose in this context is that Cultural Appropriation writ large and explicit is hateful, damaging and racist. It is very much real. We should walk away from it, or fight it, as necessary. We should genuinely try to understand the plaintiff voices who just want us to understand their perspective, their pain and their truth.

And we should do this actively; we should fight black face, racist team mascots, bigoted place names, cultural theft and ugly stereotypes. Today. Now. It’s absurd that these things continue in our day and age.

But most things cannot and should not be labeled appropriation. We have to be able to share, borrow, improve, learn and, yes, sometimes profit. It’s wrong to steal Navajo name and art and claim it as our own. It is right and wonderful to be inspired by Navajo culture and designs to create more art and more culture that blends worlds in ways that segregated cultures cannot.

Somewhere in there, between theft and inspiration, there is a line. I don’t know where that line is. I’m not sure it’s even definable, and the effort to do so may just formalize division and segregation. The only promise anyone can truly make in good faith is that they will seek that line and try to stay on the right side of it — erring perhaps on the side of caution due to an abundance of caution, but not fear.

So, I’m going to keep eating Mexican food and listening to rap and speaking a language that’s mostly French but a lot of other things including African, Latino, Asian and a billion more influences. But I’m also going to listen, in the hope that you will too, and perhaps together we’ll take one awkward, fumbling step toward that place in our collective dreams.

Because I also have a dream, and you’re part of it.*

Step one.



Yes, the leading Katy Perry Geisha image was appropriated from the internet. It’s a common example of Cultural Appropriation. What do you think?

* You know, in a non-creepy way.


  1. Jeanne

    This is exacly how I feel, but explained so so much better! i hope people take this to heart.

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