Cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation

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I don’t know how successful I am when it comes to respecting other cultures, (one of the benefits/downsides of privilege is most people don’t tell you if your screwing it up unless you have someone like my wife who both knows and will tell me) and to be honest I don’t know if I have any right to this blog post or to speak for others. Let me say that I’m am doing the best that I can, I am learning, I speak only for myself and I have no wish to speak louder than those with greater insight. But I would say you need three things to go from cultural appropriation to appreciation/inspiration.

One is expert knowledge in the culture your talking about; Their history, culture, language, religion, and traditions as seen from THEIR perspective. It’s not enough to know the history of another group from the lens of your own socio-cultural values. Ted Nugent sings songs about Native Americans and uses some cultural items in his performance. Why is this appropriation and not inspiration or an homage? Because Nugent knows jack about Native American sacred ceremonies and he’s using the ceremonial objects incorrectly -unless for some reason that the middle of a rock concert has somehow become the proper time and place and Nugent has become a Native American shaman. It’s deeply offensive. It takes a lot of time and research and a connection to the members of that community for someone to have that kind of insight.

A second thing you must have is a respect for that culture that is recognized by that culture. It may seem odd to have to spell this out, but if another culture doesn’t feel respected by your actions you haven’t shown them respect and what you are doing is hurtful and exploitative. For example, if representatives from that culture tell you they are offended by something you’ve done, do you accept that judgment, apologize, and seek to make amends? Or do you say they’re not entitled to their feelings because what you’ve done is a sign of respect and they need to understand that? Do you say that your actions are justified by your traditions and another culture should bow to your traditions? I don’t know what lunacy this is but it’s not respect. Respect also goes deeper than a single instance like a team mascot for example. Have you shown respect not only to the culture your trying to honor or be inspired by but to other cultures too? You can’t claim to respect Native Americans for example and then go on to be offensive to blacks, Jews, political officials with whom you disagree, the LGBT community, etc. If you have made a mistake about another culture, in my experience (which is not authoritative) if you are genuinely open and honest most people will be happy to share with you their culture. However the burden is still on you to learn, grow, and appreciate others. They are under no obligation to teach you anything. There’s a loose criteria in there that I will call depth. No one like to be reduced to their simplest attributes. To trivialize the experience of a minority through simplification is not respect. When Katy Perry “kissed a girl” she did not encapsulate the entirety of the gay and lesbian experience. Some people felt her faux-lesbian act trivialized the complexity and passion of these groups. She turned sexuality into titillation. To the extent that some expected more from a popstar they were offended. Respect for a person or a group means to treat them as multifaceted complex and deep. When Ted Nugent got his concerts canceled did he accept the reasoning of the Tribes? Or did he reflectively seek greater understanding of Native Americans? No. He went in a multiweek rant about his own persecution and compared his critics to Nazis. There might be a lesson in that.

The third thing you must absolutely possess is humility. Your intent doesn’t matter. Your excuses don’t matter. Your friends don’t matter. Saying that you didn’t intend to be offensive is not an apology, or that you were drunk, or that you have black friends, or you’ve done service work, are all non-issues. You will never know what it’s like to be someone else, to fully understand them or how they feel. You must forever understand that even if you are an “expert” omniscience is quite beyond you. And Ignoring your own place and privilege in society is not humility but arrogance. Only once you have a deep understanding of a culture, respect for that culture and all others, and the humility to realize you are still flawed, only then can you be inspired by a culture without appropriating it.


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