One of the reasons why I’m such a huge history nerd is because it offers us so much valuable advice on how to not repeat our past mistakes. Because man, do we like to repeat ourselves. And if we don’t initiate change then we just keep on doing the same ole thing. Not only on a collective level, but also on an individual level.
A few months ago, I really screwed up. I went to this one restaurant/bar where, although I didn’t realize it at the time, they had an awful lot of cultural appropriation going on. From their decor to the outfits of their staff members to the face painting (they put a bindi dot on everyone’s forehead as they entered the bar, in addition to some other African face painting styles), there was definitely a lot I should have noticed. But, nope. It honestly didn’t even enter my head… which is what is now really making me question my ethics as a human being. I mean, out of all the Facebook articles I’ve read, how have I managed to learn so little about cultural appropriation?
[insert side note that I should be educating myself in ways other than Facebook articles… but I’m just being real]
I won’t go into all of the specific, historic details on why cultural appropriation is problematic, but thanks to some awesome articles and Youtube videos (I’ve linked them all at the end!), I’ve been able to get a better grasp on why some things qualify as cultural appropriation and others do not (for example, wearing an Indian headdress vs. using chopsticks or making crepes). At any rate, this is the best definition I’ve found of cultural appropriation, as many other definitions were way too simplistic and didn’t help that much with understanding the whole concept:
"cultural appropriation is where people from a group that oppressed or oppresses another group mimics or represents cultural artifacts or manners of the oppressed group in a way that expresses or reinforces psychological elements of the racist ideology inherent in the colonialist project responsible for the oppression.” (Leeuwen 2015)
I had a picture of me wearing the bindi dot from that night out posted on my Facebook page. Even though it happened a few months ago, someone recently called it to my attention that it was cultural appropriation. Which I am very thankful for, because, heck, I was pretty clueless. But then, after I had taken the pic down and taken some time to mull things over, I realized that that was exactly the problem.
We’re all kind of clueless.
[or at least, I am]
When the face painter put a red dot on my forehead, all I thought was, “oh, this looks cool and exotic” - without knowing a single thing about it being a bindi dot worn by Hindu and Jain women (typically, only for married women) and it is an extremely special and sacred part of their religion. Bottom line —> me wearing something from a minority culture simply out of “not thinking” or just to look “exotic” is extremely offensive to that minority culture. Especially when the wearer/user is from a dominant culture.
I wasn’t “appreciating” the cultural significance of anything going on, because really no attempts were being made to highlight anything about the minority cultures in which the bar was exploiting. It was simply all for “fun,” for the visual enjoyment and consumption of the dominant culture. Even if the minority cultures involved (in this case, mostly India, Southeast Asia, and Africa) were being properly respected, it was still a case of cultural appropriation because we (the customers at the bar) as the dominant culture did not have to suffer any racism because of our exhibition of their cultural symbols.
How can you fully appreciate the culture or religion of another when, really, you have no clue what it’s like to go through the discrimination, suffering, and racism that they likely have to deal with on a daily basis?
That being said, I think that there are plenty of respectful, appropriate ways to learn about other cultures and immerse yourself in them without being offensive. ALSO… that being said, me going to that bar was definitely not an attempt to respect or admire other cultures. Context is everything, and our intentions definitely matter.
So, while I openly admit to making a huge cultural appropriation snafu, I also acknowledge that it came from a place not of “not caring,” per se, but of simply “non-awareness.” Which, to me, is equally painful to admit.
I love thinking that I’m one of those super-aware individuals. Always wanting to make the world a better place and all of that jazz. I mean, I think we all do.
But when it comes down to it, sometimes I just don’t think. Maybe because of selfish reasons (I mean, if you started thinking about the ethical implications of every action, your brain may melt into a little puddle of philosophical soup). Maybe because sometimes it’s just easier not to. Maybe because it’s hard to educate yourself on everything, and to stay in a state of hyper-awareness to the needs of everyone around you when your doing your dang hardest to keep your own mental health in check.
But these are all just excuses. Excuses for not taking the time, energy, effort, whatever to pay attention to what’s going on around you and be aware enough to recognize when something isn’t right.
So yeah, I’m a pretty humanish human. I make a big ole mess of things all the time, and unintentionally offending people is bound to be a part of that. The best I can do is use every mistake as an opportunity to learn, admit my mistakes, and give myself some grace.
Cause thankfully, grace goes a long way.
Links to super-informative articles/videos: