Author’s note: names changed to protect confidentiality.
As the anniversary of our country’s founding looms, a conversation I once had with a Lyft passenger is on my mind.
A couple years ago, Esther* got into my car wearing a purple off the shoulder top. Having just left her family’s Chinese New Year gathering, she balanced a cardboard box in her right hand while opening the door with her left. The smell of warm dough and sweet pork immediately filled the car.
Esther shared that her friend Lara*, who was Latinx, had joined her that evening. A few months earlier, Esther had taken part in Lara’s family’s Day of the Dead Celebration, and now Esther wanted to include her in some of her family’s own traditions.
“I used to feel weird about going to hers, because I’m not Latinx,” Esther admitted. “I wasn’t sure what would be considered appropriating.”
By now, the term cultural appropriation is prevalent in societal discourse. What is it though, exactly—and why is it harmful? What’s more, how do we know when we’re engaging in it?
As a white person who has likely done some unintentionally insensitive things herself, I’ve often asked myself where the line between appropriation and respectful consumption lies. Not all enjoyment of other cultures is necessarily appropriative—but how do we tell the difference?
In this entry, drawing from both my conversation with Esther and additional voices, I explore answers to these questions.
Here are some things to keep in mind when gauging where to draw that line:
Is there a two-way exchange?
Checking for the presence of this exchange—between “consumer and consumed”—can be a good litmus test for distinguishing between appropriation and responsible consumption. In other words, are you giving back in addition to taking?
Giving back can take many forms. It can mean paying for the work you’re consuming. It can mean spreading the word about it, sharing it with your social circles, or sparking dialogue about some of of the themes brought up in it.
As rapper Nina Tabios put it in a March 2018 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “I think it’s important that people coming into a culture that wasn’t necessarily started by you or your people, you gotta bring something to the table.”
Or as protest signs at 2021 memorials for Asian victims of violent crimes said: “Don’t just take what we produce and forget about us” (reported by Chronicle editor Soleil Ho in her her May 2021 article about appropriation).
Understand the inescapability.
People often form opinions on experiences that they have only been exposed to in minimal doses—and often with the knowledge that they can leave when the circumstances become challenging. We might momentarily glamorize one aspect of it without taking into account the challenges that accompany the supposed benefit.
Our ability to leave occludes from us an accurate understanding of the experience, whose inescapability may be a large part of what defines it.
As a 2015 article in The Guardian (about poor communities in America) pointed out, “Life in a log cabin buried in the forest from which it was hewed is romantic until you have to collect water by bucket in the dead cold of winter.”
In recounting an art museum exhibit that chronicles what everyday life is like for him, a character in a short story I once wrote describes how it feels to witness museum-goers’ momentary reactions to his inescapable reality. While they glamorize it and view it as a unique or “edgy” experience, he is all too privy to—and imprisoned by—its inherent challenges.
“The people to my right laughed, then walked away. Others smiled, transfixed. Meanwhile I sat shrouded in a somber quiet, because to me this wasn’t art. Rather than offer an experience of transcendence, it was only a mirror reflecting life—daily life, my own life—at turns unremarkable and claustrophobic.”
Reflect honestly over whether you are cherry-picking the glamorous aspects of a more complicated overall experience.
An example similar to the one above comes to mind from the movie “Get Out.” In her article in The Atlantic, Lenika Cruz writes about how the character Jim wants to inhabit character Chris’s black body for what he sees as its superior physical abilities—“But it’s hard to believe that Jim wants, or even fully grasps, any of the specific challenges or complexities that come with actually being black.”
To people like Jim, as Steven Thrasher noted in Esquire, “‘black muscle’ can be useful if separated from its black mind, emotions, and politics.”
Be receptive to learning about some of those difficulties.
Show interest in the group and historical context while cognitively investing. Seek to understand, from the inside out, rather than as an observer peering briefly in from the outside.
An article in the August 2018 issue of Slingshot Magazine recommends “really listening to people of color. I’m not talking about listening to their music or mimicking what they do.” Otherwise it’s akin to “finding pleasure in someone’s labor without giving a damn about the person” (as Ho wrote).
We can ask ourselves if we understand the roots of what we’re wearing, eating, dancing to, or posing with on Instagram—or if they’re just fun, visually engaging props to us. It’s possible we are simply trying on trendy badges and hip identity markers without baring any of their accompanying baggage.
For example, how many casual sporters of cornrows know that slaves once used them to make maps to help them escape from plantations and servitude after being forced to shave their heads in the Transatlantic Slave trade? How many queer allies waving rainbow flags know that the Stonewall riots in 1969 sparked the gay rights movement that continues into the present day?
Establish trust and equal footing with members of the group in question.
In the case of Esther and her Latinx friend Lara, trust had been built, with mutual respect present between Esther and Lara’s family. This allowed Esther to take part in her friend’s customs as an equal.
Esther said Lara encountered similar receptiveness with her family that night at their Chinese New Year gathering. Her parents gave both girls fans to carry to the Chinese New Year Parade (while also giving Lara a red kimono to wear at the smaller, pre-parade dinner).
When Lara asked Esther if this was okay, Esther responded with: “I know you respect me, and I know you see us as human, so yes it is okay.”
Approach the practices from the place of an equal, and you’re less likely to inadvertently appropriate.
Avoid commodifying behavior.
When at the Day of the Dead celebration, both Lara and Esther focused more on the experience itself than on adding to their repertoire of “cool experiences” on display for public consumption. They simply took in, were present with, and respected it.
They did take pictures, though sparingly and intentionally—when something really spoke to them. Even then, their phones only came out after they had sat with it for a few minutes, absorbing and having a quality experience with it before rushing to document it.
Ask yourself how your presence affects it.
Similar to the point above is the question of dilution—when you join with the space, do you conform and accommodate to it? Or do you try to change it and fill it with your own ideas?
Unless you’ve explicitly set out to do this (perhaps as a restaurant owner in a deliberate attempt to create a fusion cuisine or a novel creation that can exist alongside the original, rather than replace it), the latter can be appropriative and disrespectful of the culture.
“You see how whiteness works to replace culture and consume culture,” wrote Oakland resident Okoye in a February 2018 issue of East Bay Express.
This is similar to the “leave no trace” advice when out in the wilderness. Exit Mother Earth the way you found her.
How is the group currently faring on a societal level?
Donning of green and leprechaun impersonation is generally accepted now because Irish-Americans, even though once oppressed back in their home country, are no longer a persecuted group here in the United States. They now enjoy white privilege alongside the dominant class in our American society.
In the U.S. and our world at large, though, racism is still very much at play. In a climate where blacks are racially profiled, denied housing, and face barriers to employment among many other things, it’s easy to understand why cornrows and black face are more offensive and less innocuous than a kilt at a Scottish festival, or a leprechaun hat on St. Patrick’s Day.
“I just do things a little differently now than I used to,” Esther said toward the end of our ride. “I try to go into cultural events as a respectful observer. I don’t paint my face. I don’t take a million selfies in front of the altars. I treat the displays with…almost like a certain quiet reverence, I guess you could call it.”
Like Esther, we can all be more mindful of not participating in harmful appropriation. We can expand our horizons to experience different groups and customs, while also bolstering them.
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