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!