Still Learning

I’ve been reading and learning a lot about cultural appropriation lately. This was another concept I was slow to grab onto. Kinda like the first time someone told me how casual use of the word “retarded” is offensive and I got offended that anyone tell me – A SUPER NICE PERSON – that my words were hurtful.

Turns out, nice people can be hurtful.

I think that the crux of any of these corrections I talk about here – all of us think we are nice people and so to be told we are being racist, or that we might be unaware of our privilege, or that we might be using hurtful words, or that we are using another’s culture for our benefit – we think, “But I am nice!” And nice people don’t do mean things.

When I first started reading and learning about cultural appropriation it was related to white pop singers appropriating black culture and I didn’t quite get the problem. And then I saw people criticizing girls at Burning Man wearing bindis and I didn’t quite get it. And then I saw uproar when Katy Perry (or some Pop idol) dressed in a Native American headdress on stage and I didn’t quite get it.

And then I saw a non-Catholic rosary beads around the mirror in her car and she didn’t even know the prayers associated with the beads and I suddenly got it.

I used to pray the Rosary daily during Lent. That was my go-to challenge to prepare for Easter every year. I also – when feeling really lost – would just pray it for peace. The Rosary was my security blanket and when I wanted to feel close to God, I prayed the Rosary. So, seeing someone who didn’t even know what the beads meant, using it as DECORATION in their CAR? ANGERED ME. And I don’t even believe anymore.

I began to understand.

There’s a gentleman who walks in my neighborhood and he prays the Rosary while he walks. I see him carrying it and I see the way he’s holding it and I know he’s saying the prayers as he walks and I think of the girl with the Rosary beads in her car and think: This guy…this guy gets it. He knows what those beads are for and that they are not just decorations.

And suddenly, it all became clear to me.

There are pieces of cultures that carry weight to the people who live in the culture and when we try to use them because they’re pretty or because they’re cool without paying the price of understanding or living the culture…then we are insulting those who hold those elements as part of their soul.

I still don’t understand it all, and I tend to err on the side of caution when I’m unsure. For example, there was this GREAT wreath at Target with Sugar Skulls and I almost bought it and then I thought: Wait. I know very little about Dia De Los Muertos. And I definitely don’t “celebrate” it in any way. I don’t think I should buy this.

Now, is there an expert on cultural appropriation who could give me a solid “YES” or “NO” about whether or not I should do something? No. But my general rule is that if I have never participated in any celebration or used an item as the original culture intended, or worn an item as the original culture wears it, then I can not use it. I don’t know if that’s too strict or not, but for me that gives me the Peace I spoke of yesterday.

I used to wear a necklace with a pretty tree inside of a circle and I just bought it because it was pretty and someone once referred to it as a Tree of Life and I thought, “That’s lovely!” Then I learned it has religious significance to those of Jewish faith and I never wore it again. I felt like an idiot for donning a religious symbol and not even realizing it’s significance. I had become that girl with the Rosary beads in her car.

This was just something I was thinking about after wanting that Sugar Skull wreath and I thought I’d try to write out my learning process here in case anyone else is struggling with learning about similar concepts. What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation? Have you appropriated culture unintentionally? Do you think I’m being too strict? Does it matter? Isn’t it better to err on the side of caution? I’m still totally embarrassed by the woman who thought I was Jewish when she saw my necklace. I HAD NO IDEA. To me, I need to be even MORE cautious!

11 thoughts on “Still Learning

  1. ALYSON says:

    Hi! I’m very curious about this topic as I feel like avoiding things because they are or could be culturally important is akin to saying “I don’t see color.” As a Catholic, I’d be ok with someone using a rosary as long as they knew it’s origin and treated it respectfully- I think the issues come from when someone blatantly disregards the meaning behind it (think dreads in a white girls hair). For example w the skull wreath, could that have been a missed opportunity to take that piece of someone’s culture and learn/teach others about it? Again, the rules will change for things like dress, hair, etc but I feel like things like a menorah or a skull wreath are good opportunity to show respect and inclusion by giving a chance to learn? Avoiding things because you don’t know about them or only limiting yourself too things you don’t know seems like the path to enforced ignorance (which may be harsh, but…)

    That said, I could be wrong! Just curious as to your thoughts.

    • Zoot says:

      The assumption that I don’t educate myself about it is a little harsh, because that was the whole issue. I educated myself about the Dia de los Meurtos and decided since I don’t celebrated any of it I shouldn’t display the symbolism. The whole point of this was that I educate myself on something, realize I haven’t earned the right to display it and therefore don’t. I’m definitely 100% not refusing to educate myself, I felt like I was saying just the opposite.

      • ALYSON says:

        I didn’t mean to imply you weren’t doing your due diligence! At all! I just meant that if you understand the meaning behind it and try to use it as an opportunity to teach others, does that give you “the right” to use it then? It’s definitely something I’m struggling with too as being white (and very entitled) I have a hard time when the effort to learn and help include the celebration (or cultural meaning) in mainstream culture is taken as offensive.

        But maybe that’s the issue? Maybe the all publicity is good publicity doesn’t apply here….

        • Zoot says:

          Well, but that’s the difference between me hanging a wreath on my door and my daughter’s teacher leading the kids in a sugar skull craft. She’s using it as an opportunity to teach, whereas I’m just displaying something I think is pretty. And even if I did my research (which I did) I’m still really only displaying it because it’s pretty with no greater good intended. So – to me – that’s cultural appropriation.

          Now, if I wanted to have a Dias de los Muertos night at the house where we ate food and talked about the culture, that would be different. But hanging the wreath on my door (it was SO COMPLETELY BEAUTIFUL) was not in the same vein for me personally.

          • ALYSON says:

            Well taken in the context of your comment below (no belief re the afterlife) I can see your point… but what a great conversation you were able to have w your daughter later because of it!

            Genuinely didn’t offend you- I think these conversations are wonderful and necessary. Hard to full express oneself in blog comments!

  2. Carrie says:

    Sugar skulls are definitely becoming popular among white people who have no idea what they mean. I didn’t know this until I started dating my boyfriend, who is Latino. Now I would never paint my face like that or wear one or buy one. It’s concerning, because it’s becoming SO popular, and white people are so resistant to any criticism about it.

    • Zoot says:

      Yeah – my daughter and I discussed this because at our witch ride there was someone and her face was painted BEAUTIFULLY but I wondered if she knew what it meant and understood the symbolism behind it because once I really understood it as related to a celebration and recognition of the afterlife it seemed like something I would be rude to participate in since I have NO belief of any afterlife.

    • Fraulein N says:

      I think that’s just it. It’s the difference between ignorance (“Oh I didn’t realize this was a cultural symbol with significant meaning behind it, I’m sorry for dabbling and won’t make that mistake again”) and willful ignorance (“Well I didn’t know it was a cultural thing but I like it and so what I’m not hurting anyone”). The former is understandable and probably unavoidable (especially in a diverse country like the U.S.) while the latter is shitty and inexcusable.

  3. Lucy McConville says:

    Hi! Just so you know, regarding that Tree of Life necklace… The Tree Of Life symbolism is present in almost every religion on the planet, it is not just a Jewish symbol. So, I think you can keep wearing that one without offending anyone. One of the things it symbolizes is new, fresh start and strength, as well as connection to family…seems really appropriate for you right now, in my opinion!
    Smiles, Lucy

  4. Lucy McConville says:

    Hi Again,
    Ok, first I DO want to say I agree with what you are saying here. One of my own person pet peeves is people who grow dreadlocks just because they are surfers and it is cool. Ha.

    But, I also want to thank you so much for making me think about my own Tree of Life necklace, which I haven’t worn in a long time, and is absolutely PERFECT as a symbol of my current struggles and wanting to overcome them. I will be wearing it every day from now on! I did a BUNCH of research this morning and just absolutely love the symbolism, across the board…It really does seem all of mankind, ancient and modern, and from every corner of the globe, has a reverence for the Tree of Life. Perhaps it could end up being the one thing that brings ALL of us TOGETHER!

    Here is a link with good info. Wear that necklace of yours proudly! https://tree-of-life-meaning.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html

  5. yasmara says:

    This issue has come up repeatedly on a local liberal mom’s Facebook group I participate in, particularly around the area of Halloween costumes (i.e., can my kid wear this?) and the use of cotton plants in decorations.

    See here for an example from everyone’s HGTV favorites Chip & Joanna from Fixer Upper: https://shop.magnoliamarket.com/products/cotton-wreath?utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=googlepla&variant=847634485&gclid=Cj0KCQiAlpDQBRDmARIsAAW6-DMUaxRBPR7pIZdkcuYGUsOlJ7CFLwPoZFs5D6JmTTlz7MtN2XUGpRIaAgziEALw_wcB

    Several Black women pointed out that it’s SUPER problematic to use cotton plants as decoration, especially in the South (where we moved last year, but I’m definitely a Northerner by upbringing) due to its association with slavery and the labor of enslaved people. This NEVER occurred to me before, I’m ashamed to say. I would totally have been one of those white women who said, “But I just thought it was pretty.”

    To me, this is another area of “when you know better, you do better” and I’m also trying to stop and think on these things before purchasing.

    I also find the sugar skulls really appealing decoratively & have stopped myself from buying anything related to them because for me it’s purely decorative, not culturally significant.

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