Cultural appropriation is a sore spot for many people I know. To some extent, that makes sense. No one likes to be told they can’t have something. However, that doesn’t mean that cultural appropriation isn’t a viable issue. Until the people whose cultures are being appropriated by people who don’t belong to those ethnic groups, whose traditions are being turned into products for people outside of that culture to profit from, it will continue to be a major issue. I myself find it difficult to write eloquently on the nuances of why exactly cultural appropriation is an issue. Instead, please check out these varying perspectives: The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation by Jenni Avins and the 7 Myths About Cultural Appropriation Debunked video on Decoded with Francesca Ramsey (those videos are so good!).
Please do read those and do more research into the controversy, it’s a complex subject that I am still grappling with myself. What I do want to touch on today, is how interesting it is to me that often things that are appropriated or commodified are taken for two reasons: they are healing traditions or deep traditions that carry and create meaning and lend a sense of belonging. Some easy examples of appropriated and commodified healing traditions are Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, yoga, and the chakra system. Some examples of meaningful traditions or items that carry meaning include Native American headdresses, Rastafarian dreads, the om symbol, Buddha figurines, and Chinese and Japanese characters (how many non-Chinese [and non-Chinese speaking] people have you seen with a Chinese character tattoo? Just asking~). All of these items or traditions are examples of cultural practices which have been taken from their original cultural contexts, and in many cases, stripped of their rich cultural histories and meanings. I doubt that people at music festivals wearing feather headdresses know which tribes wear them (according to this source, “tribes in the Great Plains region, such as the Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Plains Cree”) or why they do so (another source). Meanwhile, these tribes still suffer extreme discrimination and disrespect at the hands of the U.S. government, as exemplified by the ongoing #NoDAPL conflict.
Here is a plain example of the issue of cultural appropriation – the originators of the appropriated tradition continue to suffer systemic racism while the appropriators know little of the origin. And yet, we appropriate these things for certain reasons. Why? In today’s modernizing and homogenizing world, white people especially often feel a lack of cultural roots. In a recent conversation with my mom about cultural appropriation, she objected by saying, “Well, what culture do we have? We’re just American, we’ve been here forever, we don’t have anything that’s ours.” I would wager that her sentiment mirrors an idea that many white people, and other people who have been removed from their cultural backgrounds, also believe. But I believe this idea that we have no traditions of our own to draw on is partly a lie to keep us dependent on mainstream and popular culture, and its encouraged consumption-based modes of thinking and being. Andi Grace supports a similar point of view: “this false belief in a spiritually-void past leads many european people to feel justified in appropriating the spiritual practices and traditions of indigenous people. and thus, we perpetuate the process of colonization in our spiritual and cultural practices. we see this with yoga, smudge kits sold at trendy hipster clothing stores, twerking and headdresses at music festivals just to name a few examples.”
We are often made to forget that our ancestors, who had real ethnic origins and important spiritual and cultural practices, were forced through discrimination and persecution to lay down their cultures and traditions in favor of assimilation. Scottish, Irish, German, Italian, and other peoples all faced much discrimination, not to mention Eastern Europeans, Jews, and other groups now considered White. Ever heard a derogatory joke about “gingers”? Or a knock against hillbillies? Those comments are somewhat more innocuous today (although the term hillbilly is still a site of controversy and discrimination), but they trace back to anti-Scottish and anti-Irish immigration sentiment during the nineteenth century in the U.S. Today, many of their traditions, like tartan or plaid patterns and St. Patrick’s Day are commodified and de-historicized, signifying a degradation of their original cultural significance. (Some efforts to continue Scottish and Irish traditions specifically do exist, like Irish dance troupes and Scottish bagpipe brigades).
These cultures which comprise our own ethnic roots, along with the cultures and traditions of early American settlers, can provide an answer to the question, “What culture do we have?”. It turns out, we have plenty to draw from. Many of the practices we appropriate because they carry meaning or spiritual significance can be replaced or supplemented by practices from out European roots as well as from not-so-distant pioneer past-times. It has been said that in recent years, America has seen a breakdown in civil society, but building on the traditions of the past can give us practices to re-build the our communities, find and re-create our own meaningful symbols, customs and cultural practices, and essentially find meaning in our own lives, backgrounds, neighborhoods, and cultures. The challenge of avoiding cultural appropriation is inherently creative, asking us to look at our own cultural roots and build off of them to create our own practices that we enjoy and that serve us better than what most people think of American culture today: non-nurturing institutions and customs like WalMart, fast food, the hate-filled sect of the Evangelical church, our increasingly phone-addicted and fast-paced society. If we can create and re-create cultural practices to replace, or at least mitigate, these things, we’ll be well on our way to healing and finding meaning without appropriating other cultures and perpetuating systemic racism.
To that end, I’d like to list a few cultural practices from early settler America that persist in many pockets of the country (including rural Missouri) that might help us rebuild a culture centered on community and meaningful practices:
– Barn-raisings and quilting bees: these were essentially get-togethers that emphasized the principle of “Many hands make light work” – a neighborhood or community would come together to build a structure, make quilts, can foods, or accomplish some other work task, all while surrounded by other community members, turning the work into a social occassion. These work parties were often followed by actual parties, to celebrate the work they had done!
– Traditional food cultures: though the first thing you may think of when asked what American food culture is might be a hamburger, American people have developed traditional foods that are still served around the country. Some of my personal favorite American dishes include cornbread, mashed potatoes, and brussel sprouts. Delving back into these food cultures, which were developed for certain areas and eating with the seasons, can be a way to connect to earlier times, but it’s also a great and healing practice to just enjoy good food together!
– Folk music and folk dance: over the summer I went to a folk music festival in Missouri, where people had come from all over the area to play instruments like the fiddle, banjo, and stand-up bass. The festival was a wonderful social occasion for musicians and spectators alike, but the best part was the square-dancing. One whole side of the square was covered with a wooden platform, which served as a dance floor for square dancing every night of the festival. Square dancing is an inherently community-building form of dance, since it requires you to dance with not one partner, but seven other people. The dancing was extremely fun, and I can see how incorporating dance and music traditions like this could really help to rebuild community.
– European-rooted witchcraft, herbalism, and healing traditions: the Salem witch hunts didn’t quite root out all the witches. Herbalism and herbal healing knowledge are still alive and well today, thanks in part to the New Age movement, which unfortunately de-historicized many of these older healing practices. While healing is now dominated by Western medicine and the medical industrial complex, these traditions are not gone, and they can do as much for as Chinese medicine or Ayurveda.
– Storytelling: Ever heard a story about Davy Crocket? Then you’ve heard an American tall tale, an oral storytelling tradition practiced by settlers. We still do it today when we tell stories that have been passed on to us from others. The power of stories like these helps provide entertainment while also bringing people together and helping formulate the culture of the area, as a culture’s stories have a hand in shaping the mindsets and beliefs of its people.
All of these practices can help us re-build community, re-create meaning and culture of our own, and heal us in the way that appropriated practices also do. If you’re interested in these practices or in this idea itself, definitely research them more deeply, and perhaps delve into your family’s own histories and traditions. Francesca Nicole has a great article on how to do ancestral research. You can also read more about a lot of these practices and how they encourage community and culture-building here, especially under the Community Project Examples heading (this website is amazing, by the way). Finally, there are many books out there on building new cultures, but a few that I have read and that I feel are tied to today’s piece are The Next American Revolution, The Cultural Creatives, and Radical Homemakers. They are certainly not unproblematic and open to interpretation, but definitely hit on the issues I’ve covered today.
Please let me know your thoughts on the issue of cultural appropriation and culture re-creation. Is it necessary? Is it possible? What about cultural appropriation; what’s your definition? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you.
With love and hope for a new culture and old traditions,