On oppressing people of color while appropriating our cultures.

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Blackface. An example of cultural appropriation from a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to study oppression, and to participate in movements that fight against it, in many forms. I am not speaking simply of oppression along white-black lines, since my own life has led me to supporting struggles of people of color in the broader sense—Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, Asian-Americans and Latinos along with issues around gender and sexual identity.

Not all these issues are focused on the direct violence of genocide, slavery, lynching, rape and police violence. We are no longer limited to simple discussions of racism, or sexism after several decades developing critical race and gender theory. We have moved into exploring “intersectionality” as a way to bring race, class, ethnicity and gender together. Our dialogues now include thoughts on “privilege”, but also on “microaggressions“, and examinations of “cultural appropriation.” The push-back, both academic and popular (as always) has been swift, and loud. We are labelled “PC” as an insult and to shut-down discussion, as if there is something wrong with pointing out inequity and exploitation.

This put-down of our objections has gotten a lot of play. For example, “To the new culture cops, everything is appropriation” and a slew of comments, mostly from white people supporting the author. After wading though them all, my favorite response was:

8/21/2015 11:52 PM EST
That was an awful lot of words to say “everything belongs to everybody, and especially to White people, so get over it.”

I’ve bookmarked this article by Maisha Z. Johnson, What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm, and recommend that folks give it a thorough read.

What Cultural Appropriation Is (And Isn’t)

In short: Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own. But that’s only the most basic definition. A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group. That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic.

It’s also not the same as assimilation, when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t. Some say, for instance, that non-Western people who wear jeans and Indigenous people who speak English are taking from dominant cultures, too. But marginalized groups don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun.

When the last living survivors of massacred Indigenous tribes are fighting to save their language before it dies when they do, and Native students are suspended for speaking in their own Indigenous languages, mirroring the abusive US boarding schools that tried to wipe out Native American cultures up until the 1980s, it’s clear that not every person who speaks English does so by choice.

In other words, context matters.

She makes nine major points, and explains each one in detail. Can’t post it all because of copyright restrictions so go take a look.

1. It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression

2. It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People

3. It Makes Things ‘Cool’ for White People – But ‘Too Ethnic’ for People of Color

4. It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor

5. It Lets Some People Get Rewarded for Things the Creators Never Got Credit For

6. It Spreads Mass Lies About Marginalized Cultures

7. It Perpetuates Racist Stereotypes

8. White People Can Freely Do What People of Color Were Actively Punished for Doing

9. It Prioritizes the Feelings of Privileged People Over Justice for Marginalized People

Doctor RJ wrote on Daily Kos, At what point does an exchange of cultures cross the line into appropriation?, and the comments section indicated clearly (to me) that a lot of our friends on the left, don’t get it. Just like some people who should be allies still don’t “get” white privilege.

Included was this primer from a young sister, who breaks it down.

The Hunger Game’s 16-year-old Amandla Stenberg delivers a crash course on black culture with a fellow classmate for their history class.

Amandla Stenberg: Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows

She closes with this question:
What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?

Much of the current discussion around cultural appropriations focuses on American Indians, and a good starting place to explore the issues is Native Appropriations.

Native Appropriations is a forum for discussing representations of Native peoples, including stereotypes, cultural appropriation, news, activism, and more.

The blog was founded by Cherokee scholar and activist Professor Adrienne Keene, who was interviewed by Al Jazeera in the following clip.

Last year there was a social media firestorm around Coachella.

Why So Many American Indians Have an Issue With Coachella

The news: At this point, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has inevitably devolved into a parody of itself. Blinding sunshine, massive crowds, exorbitant ticket prices and rampant teenage drug abuse have bolstered its reputation as the yearly paean to rich kid debauchery you love to hate, and the one most people would inexplicably still commit murder to attend…Needless to say, many Natives are not fans of the trend. But that hasn’t stopped the festival from capitalizing on the “white kids playing Indian” motif and offering tipi rentals for the low weekend price of … $2,200?…

Politics as usual: The appropriation of Native cultural markers as costumes, mascots and fashion accessories has been a hot topic lately. It’s arguably seen its most vocal manifestation in the debate around the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder’s NFL franchise that refuses to change its name despite being an obvious racial slur. The discussion continued with the recent “de-chiefing” protests, where Cleveland Indians fans started removing the Sambo-esque “Chief Wahoo” image from their MLB attire. And finally, even aside from the Alessandria Ambrosio picture, the fashion industry has faced heat for its insensitive use of headdresses and face paint at runway shows and photo shoots.

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Our lives are not someone’s fashion statement.

It isn’t just Native Americans who are pushing back. Read this year’s response to Coachella:

Isha Aran wrote in “Take That Dot Off Your Forehead and Quit Trying to Make Bindis Happen

Another year, another Coachella, another trend mired in cultural appropriation. It’s the true circle of life. You can almost watch the fixed gears of hipster logic grind: Now that Native American headdresses are offensive, we need to snatch some cool novelty from another culture. And so it came to be that bindis were a hit at Coachella.

Selena Gomez was wearing one. The Jenner-Kardashians sported them. Vanessa Hudgens, Duchess of Coachella herself, was wearing one.

Okay, let’s just nip this one right in the bud right now.

The bindi is not your music festival fashion accessory. It’s not something to be integrated into a tribal fringe mosaic of a get-up. Taking a symbol from a culture that is thousands of years old and divorcing it from its meaning — or even embracing its meaning for the express purpose of looking cool (bro, do you even chataranga?) — does not lend you any cred — street, worldly, or otherwise. And wearing a bindi to Coachella certainly is not a genuine celebration of Hindu culture, so please don’t even start with that.

I think you get my point. Few people adopting outward signs of our cultures, that they can shuck in a second are willing to make the internal political commitment to fight for and alongside of Black Americans, Native Americans, Asians, Latinos or immigrants.

There-in lies my problem with cultural appropriation. It does not lead to liberation. It simply makes money for those who are not funding community efforts to make our lives matter.



  1. I have found this discussion – and all the back and forth around it to be very interesting – especially since young people are engaging in it.

    Though I don’t have a lot of contact with pop culture – my students do – and they brought this to my attention.

    • Have also little contact with pop culture but have sometimes gone into one of those Urban Outfitters chain stores and been shocked at the culture appropriation. Talk about being reduced to commodity/fad.

      • I’ve never been to one of those – just looked them up online though – found a “Native Apollo Speckled Moc Sneaker for $75

        Native Apollo?

        heh – very strange

  2. In kids up through maybe early 20s this can be just gormlessness. After that… But then as far as I know, white though I am, I don’t think I ever did it. I have a great respect for symbols, icons, and other representations that are group specific and whole-heartedly disapprove of wearing/using them if not a member of that group. (Doesn’t mean I haven’t borrowed ritual elements from a variety of cultures that seemed to express what I was wanting to express because I have but that was in private for rituals.) But having the choice to wear or otherwise use things of a non-dominant culture is just one more piece of evidence that there really is white privilege. And all I can do about it is try to recognize it/not be gormless myself or support it in others. sigh

    • I was invited to attend a “sweat lodge”. When I got to the event people were naked, mixed sex, getting high and performing spurious “native rituals”. I cursed everyone out (they were bemused by my harsh criticism – they were “honoring Indian ways” – they said. ) There were no native spiritual leaders or guides present.

      I left.

      These type of events continue in my area. The organizers make money. Those who attend think they are doing something good for mother earth and Indians.


          • I’m not even sure about the good intentions – but I am sure about the gormlessness. One of the seriously over-looked privileges of the privileged class is the privilege to be ignorant. And to cherry pick bits and pieces from any tradition they want to, mix it all together in one rather disgusting mess for their hedonistic pleasure- and claim they are honoring somebody or other in the process.

            Folks who truly wanted to “honor Indian ways” would have first done some research at the very least and found a Native American spiritual guide who was willing to work with them at best.

  3. I finally got a chance to circle back and read this (3 days later!!). I admit that the blackface always gives me a start especially when you write about it. :)

    Back in my “searching” years, when I was trying to find a spiritual path that worked for me, many people I knew were embracing the Native American culture and, in my opinion, co-opting it. I was not tapped in enough to know how the native people felt about a bunch of white women dressing up in native garb and cherry picking the “fun” parts of their spiritual traditions. I am 99% certain that those folks never contributed a dime to help pay for propane heat at the reservations or to in any other way help the people whose culture they wrapped themselves in.

    The spirituality of the native people and my own spirituality have a common basis, respect for the earth and our ancestors, so I am drawn instinctively to their ways. But only to learn from them, not to be them.

    Appropriating a peoples culture just to be cool is simply wrong.

    • heh – the hamster piece still has me on certain hate lists ;)

      I refuse to play indian games -and yes I have NA ancestry, which has no meaning since I’m not part of native culture or traditions.

      Like you I recognize shared elements in spirituality.

      • Yes, hamsterites were particularly aggressive in protecting their queen: the comments in that diary make the Bernie v Hillary fights going on now seem mild in comparison. It was always sad for me, when I would see that diary over the years, how many of those who hiderated you are still blogging on that site, some of them reinstated under a policy of whothehellknowswhat (some things are unforgivable, in my mind).

        • Do I want to know about the hamster piece? I already know I don’t want to read the comments. Shared elements in spirituality beautifully describes what I’ve tried to do/be – got that from my momma and did my best to hand it on to my sons. (Although I will admit I was more amused than upset back when I was a practicing R.C. and my sons took a young non-practicing Jewish friend down for communion – just told them not to do it again and for Heaven’s sake don’t let the priest know as that particular priest was rather rigid and had no sense of humor that I every noticed. They were trying to help him get a Cub Scout badge – I found a workaround that didn’t include showing up at mass. heh)

  4. Maybe not exactly on-topic but I think close, I am reminded of a bit some comedian did back in the ’80s when tanning was all the rage about how we white folks were tanning so we’d be dark like black folks. Sort of an irony.

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