Sunday, November 4, 2012

Am I Appreciating or Appropriating? (Part 2)

Here is part 2 from Ms. Maxine (@SideHustleStory) on the difference between 'appreciation' and 'appropriation':


The fact that minority cultures in the U.S. are much more harmed by these stereotypes is just one of many reasons to remember the next step... 

3. Check your privilege
If you’re white in western culture and borrowing from another culture for your art/life/whatever, know that you are doing it from a position of privilege that colors how you see the other culture and how your use of that culture is perceived.

Your privilege will make your work more likely to be recognized and promoted. This partly why when a white person appropriates from a non-majority* culture, the result is more hurtful and harmful than when someone of any race appropriates from Celtic or Italian culture, for example.

Sometimes, checking your privilege means that you might have to change how you plan to use the culture you’re lifting from to make it more accurate to that culture. In fact, working with or including people from that culture in your depiction may be the only way to borrow from that culture without taking advantage of it.

Let’s say you’re a painter who wants to borrow from a Filipino creation myth in creating one of your works. You research the story and take care to accurately represent the themes of the myth. However, in your painting, you depict the figures as white, not Filipino, even while citing the source of the story that inspired the painting.

Even while providing credit and researching into the myth, depicting the people as white erases the Filipinos from their own culture’s story. Using Filipinos as the models for the painting would have been a way to give homage to the culture being borrowed, instead of staying in the privilege of using the models you may be used to seeing.

Revisiting one example from last week, the popularity of the post about wearing a veil was another example of how minority voices are silenced and those of the majority are elevated. Many veiled Muslim women have written about their experiences and yet not received nearly the same amount of exposure as the non-muslim woman who did so . Also, the idea that wearing a veil for a few hours is the same as a lifetime as living as veiled Muslim woman is an offensive oversimplification.


Similarly, the woman who chose to wear a fro for fun/profit wrote about her adventures in complete ignorance of the problems women who choose to wear their natural hair face. She was able to present her experiences as representative of living with an afro, despite being able to take it off at the end of the day. Thus, this is also an offensive example of appropriation, and has the added bonus of perpetuating negative stereotypes.

Another part of checking your privilege is realizing that if you’re in the majority culture, you have the ability to lift the enjoyable parts of various cultures without experiencing the negative parts of actually being a part of that culture. When it comes to art, acknowledge that your privilege may allow your work to be recognized more than others, and your “borrowing” of others’ culture is taking advantage of this situation.

Having a position of privilege means that sometimes there is no right way to appropriate an element of someone else’s culture. If your form of appreciating another culture only serves to hurt the creators of that culture, are you actually doing any good? Instead of appreciating, you may end up offending those around you and further alienating yourself from the cause of racial reconciliation.


It’s not as simple as saying “you’re white, all other cultures are off limits,” nor can we say “the whole world is available for your use and exploitation”. When fabric we think of as “African” actually has a mixed West African, European and Indonesian history, it’s clear that navigating issues of cultural appropriation is beyond Race Relations 101. It’s important, especially as an artist, musician or leader, to strive to be considerate, fair, and receptive to feedback in our efforts to appreciate other cultures through our creative efforts.

If we’re not willing to avoid wearing a fashion accessory or reconsider our art in order to help foster racial reconciliation, why should we be trusted to fight racism and prejudice in other, more difficult ways? 

* Non-majority in the U.S. and other western countries

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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