Yesterday, I read a fantastic article by a Punjabi-American woman which highlighted the ridiculous ways white people react in discussions about cultural appropriation. Click here to read it. A lot of it hit home as I, too, have acted or thought in many of the ways she described. Right before this article, I had read another on the default racism of even liberal, self-professed progressive white people (click here to read)--a category I also fall into. All this culminated this morning as I stared at a small Chinese Buddha figurine that has been on my work desk for the last two years.
I am not Buddhist or Chinese.
I am part of the problem. And probably you are too.
This is especially concerning for us--the creatives, the artists, the free-thinkers--because we are putting work out into the world that are expressions of our opinions, morals, and thoughts WITH THE EXPRESS INTENT of imprinting those ideals on others. Without examining our own complicity in racism and cultural appropriation, we are most likely recreating it in our own work. And then throwing it out into the world like liberal bullshit candy.
The Buddha figurine has disappeared into my desk drawer. It has joined the fate of a Lucky Brand t-shirt with an unidentified Hindu goddess on it that I couldn't bear to look at myself wearing a few months ago. It will soon be joined by a previously-beloved shirt with the Anglicized word "OM" on it and a pair of beaded earrings shaped like dream-catchers, which I previously defended by saying "But I got them on the Navajo reservation!" As if that made it okay.
I haven't wanted to get rid of these things because I like them. This. Is. Not. The. Point. The mere fact that I thought this was a valid excuse to continue keeping my culturally appropriative items illustrates the extreme preference white people's feelings, lives, and well-beings are given in our society. My desire to have things that I "like" is not in any way greater than the harm that I am doing to anyone of the culture I am appropriating by wearing or displaying these items. Except for the dream-catcher earrings, every single item put money only in the pockets of white people, thus increasing the problem.
I am sharing this story with you, no matter how embarrassing and shameful, because I believe that all of us have something, large or small, which is culturally appropriative. It may be a physical item, or it may be something we have written down. In the past, I have seriously considered having a group of light-skinned people in a fantasy novel practice a Indian-style yoga. I am not Indian and I have learned yoga almost exclusively from white women, so anything I put into my book from that would be cultural appropriation.
Basically, cultural appropriation is anything where an aspect particular to a certain culture is ripped out of its context for the enjoyment of a consumer. It does not matter if you buy it from an real-actual-genuine Navajo bead seller. It does not matter if you studied yoga for a year in India under a master yogi. It does not matter if your friend told you it was fine. There is no "get out of jail free" card for cultural appropriation because it is not about you. It is not about me. It is about a larger history of colonialism, genocide, enslavement, re-education, incarceration, concentration, systematic introduction of drugs, and racism that you literally have to pretend didn't happen to think it's okay to have a Chinese Buddha on your work desk.
Do you have anything in your closet, on your work space, or in your writing that is part of someone else's culture and, worse still, you have only the vaguest ideas about? If so, consider how you can help decrease this problem by donating those items or throwing them out (no need to continue to trend of white people making money off other cultures). Hit "delete" on the sections of your book that have cultural appropriation. Did this just ruin your book? That's okay. There are millions of books out there by white people which insensitively or incorrectly represent other cultures--we don't need another one.
Let's come back to the old adage of "Write what you know." Support the #OwnVoices movement in your words and actions. Prop up someone from the culture you thought you were entitled to represent because you "liked" it and let them tell the real story of their culture. Buy books that are written by people of color about or set in their culture, not so that you can steal their ideas, but so that you can show publishers that these people and their books have worth and should be invested in.
It might feel hard at first to let go of your "stuff," be it items or words. It might. I acknowledge your pain. And I'm here to tell you it really doesn't matter. The world has cared so much about the feelings of the victors that it sometimes feels unfair to have that refuted. The truth is, we're hurting others and only thinking about ourselves. The struggle of deleting words or getting rid of your favorite t-shirt is nothing--NOTHING--to the struggle that people of color have been going through for generations because of white people and their obsessive colonization of lands, goods, and ideas.
Think of it like cleaning, if that helps. You're getting rid of the festering growths in your life and your work. Watch out for them, as they might easily come back. Keep working to see where your racism is--because I can promise you it is there--and dig deep to clean it out again and again.
We are the future, the culture, the voice of art. Let's make sure that voice is adding good things to the world, not perpetuating the bad things.
What experiences have you had with cultural appropriation, either as the one appropriating or having their culture appropriated? Is there something you own or have written and have felt wrong about for a long time, but haven't wanted to give up? Let us know in the comments below!