Image obtained from New York Post
There is a funny story I remember hearing some years ago by the late David Foster Wallace in a commencement address like this.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
I thought of this joke again after having a conversation about cultural appropriation in a recent podcast I had the pleasure of being a guest. The podcast is Partial Credit and is run by my three close friends Jeff Heil, Jesse Lubinsky, and Donnie Piercey. In the episode, House of Horrors, which can be found here, we talked about Halloween among other things. More specifically, we talked about costumes and cultural appropriation. Note: this was prior to the Megyn Kelly incident regarding blackface.
As a byproduct of that conversation I wanted to share a few ideas and thoughts around cultural appropriation as well as cultural appreciation. I will be posting a few follow ups to this since it is such a complex topic that deserves more than one blog posting. Essentially Cultural Appropriation can be defined as the taking of culture from one group for the benefit, entertainment, profit, and even humor of another. This is usually defined more clearly by the dominant culture doing this at the expense of other cultures. The other cultures usually represent marginalized people, those who have been denied a voice, and in many cases those that are not provided with a platform to speak for themselves. I remember a recent conversation in which I was told that in some schools there are teachers that post signs saying my culture is not a halloween costume. Or schools even posting signs like these around campus.
Appropriation is usually obvious when it comes to costume wearing, but manifests itself in countless other forms. Many have seen it in music, food, clothing, art, and to a slightly lesser degree the vernacular used (these areas will be examined in future posts). It is important for me to share a personal definition of cultural appreciation as well since it is far more complex than a simple definition. I would characterize it as having a genuine or authentic interest in a culture; in learning about the history (the good and bad), the food, the music, the art, the language, the people and its perspectives. Also, taking the genuine time and interest to build relationships with members of that culture on the basis of that understanding. If you have an appreciation for a culture then it makes it much more difficult to appropriate it, because you are more likely able to recognize whether your actions will be taken as disrespectful or embraced/acknowledged positively by the people of that culture. The main thing that I want to do here is identify a clear difference between appropriation and appreciation.
The following is a list of questions or conditions to consider when thinking about the differences:
It is important for me to share that cultural exchange is very different than appropriation as well. An exchange requires the following conditions: each culture is on equal footing i.e. there isn’t a power structure involved. There are many examples in which an exchange has been beneficial to all cultures involved such as pasta, tea, and coffee to name a few. A definitive line can be drawn as well between exchange and assimilation. Assimilation requires a non-dominant or even oppressed culture to adapt/adopt the characteristics of the dominant culture to ensure acceptance and even survival.
There are lots of examples I can share and here are a few that provide further information.
If there are elements of this post that bother you or make you uncomfortable please consider why you feel that way and imagine how it feels to the recipients of cultural appropriation where the feelings/damage are more deeply rooted; where the marginalization is more deeply affective; where the death is by a thousands cuts. This ties in to the story mentioned at the start, if you are part of the dominant culture sometimes things can be so normalized for you that you don’t even notice them. Water is so normalized for the fish, they don’t even notice its existence.
I hope to foster more meaningful conversations around this as well as outline further details in upcoming posts, especially in the area of school/team mascots. Please give a listen to the podcast previously mentioned where we discuss Moana and I share a personal story of appreciation for the Maori culture.