Dear White Men,
On Cultural Appropriation: Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light
I’ve noticed that white people often want to make issues of cultural appropriation into an either/or situation. You either can never use anything from another culture or you can use everything.
But what if we looked at it more like traffic.
What we are trying to do is to prevent an accident that could hurt people – and remember, even if you’re the one who plows into someone else, you can still get hurt.
One of the ways, in North America at least, that we try to keep the roads safer is the use of traffic lights.
Red means stop. Yellow means ‘be careful’. Green means go.
Part of the challenge that creates collisions in cultural dialogues is that white men have a different sense of what these colours are than those who are white men.
When white men say, “But I don’t even see colour,” it turns out to be true in this case. Many white men can see is that the light is on or off. When they get to an intersection and everything goes wrong because all they can see is that there’s a light on and it must mean that it’s okay to drive on through.
It’s further complicated because even those who can see the colours would have a different understanding of what it means.
But let me lay out what might be useful guidelines to consider around using things from other cultures.
It must be understood that these aren’t absolutes and I can think of exceptions to each but I share them to give some loose shape to the considerations of how we approach the traffic intersections of cultures meeting.
And, it must be understood that these suggestions are coming from me, a white man living in Edmonton, Alberta in 2017. Another person, in a different time and place, might offer another perspective. All of these suggestions are offered in response to what I see in my corner of the world today. In a year, the landscape may have changed in such a way that it relaxes or strengthens boundaries around cultural sharing.
What I’ve written above speaks largely to North America. In other countries and cultures, the feeling about white people’s involvement may be entirely different. It’s easy to want to generalize that all those who are not white men would feel the same way or that all indigenous people everywhere see it the same way or that, even within their tribes, they all see it the same way.
There are no hard rules on this. If there are rules they are these: Pay attention; It depends.
What follows must be considered more as seeds to plant and consider rather than a series of strictures that are correct and never subject to change.
– Ethnic food, textiles, jewelry or art made and sold by people of that culture. You’re giving them money. This is a good thing. And… there will likely still be those who have a reaction to your wearing them.
– Attending an art festival for non-white cultures. Again, you’re giving them money.
– Indigenous ceremonies led by qualified indigenous people.
– Learning indigenous crafting skills.
– Buying books or movies created by those who aren’t white men.
– Digging into your own ancestral lineages and culture. Learning your ancestral language, history, wearing those styles or modern versions, getting Celtic tattoos, learning and sharing the small and easy stories from your ancestry.
– Knowing the larger history of any piece of ethnic art you have in your home, any pieces of music you play, the food you eat, and the clothing you wear and how it came to be with you now.
– Learn all you can about the First Nations whose territories you are living on. This understanding of their culture, spiritual traditions, and contemporary issues is the basis of any real and genuine reconciliation, remediation or peaceful co-existence.
– Indigenous ceremonies led by white people. Could be fine. Some of them learned it from elders who gave them permission and encouragement to do them to help white people heal. Upon reading this, the good Pegi Eyers wrote:
I personally don’t believe that there are ANY circumstances where it is cool for white people to offer First Nations ceremonies. Even if one First Nations person is offering to share, chances are the rest of his/her community is NOT in agreement (and would be critiquing the situation you can be sure). Having a well-developed ethical code would require us to say ‘Thank you for your kind offer, and I would be happy to support your work in reviving your traditions, but I am occupied with the reclamation of my own European Indigenous Knowledge.’
This is the kind of complication I am speaking of. Consider that even if an elder offers to teach you ceremony and asks you to lead them that this will have implications for him and his standing in the community. I’ve heard of elders being killed for doing such things. It’s not a small thing. And that doesn’t mean don’t do it. It just means that it is consequential in ways that are difficult to imagine initially. It means that there are many difficult and honest conversations to be had before proceeding and many reasons not to do it that must be contended with head on. To imagine that because one member of the community said it was okay that everyone else will be cool with it is deeply naive.
– Ethnic food made and sold by white people. This is trickier as there is fusion food and some cooks have deep training in food from other traditions. I would find myself wondering: does this chef has a relationship to these communities? Do they, in any way, benefit from his business succeeding? How authentic is his connection here or is it a money grab? A big question to me also is, what’s the historical relationship between white people and the culture whose food is being served. If the power relationship is more equal, the issue is not as large (e.g. a white man selling mainstream Japanese street food) vs. if the power relationship is big and the abuse continues (e.g. a white man opening up a restaurant selling traditional Native American food and keeping all the money).
– Are you trying to make money from selling something that was created by people your ancestors historically oppressed with no recognition of the larger context? (e.g. white people making money from hip-hop music and dance).
– White people doing yoga. Let’s be clear. Yoga was brought to the west by people from India. And yet… it’s so much more than the poses.
– Dreadlocks on white people. There’s no clear agreement here. Some black people don’t mind. There’s a history of dreads in most cultures (including Europe).
– White people taking Ayahuasca and other traditional medicines. Who is leading it? Does it benefit a community? How are the medicines harvested? Is the teacher respected and how would you even know?
– Making money teaching indigenous crafting skills. But why do this when Europeans had their own versions of this that could do with some reviving. Why teach Blackfoot basketweaving when you could teaching English styles instead?
– Tourism to other cultures. Yes, it brings money to struggling communities but tourism destroys these cultures too. There are many different approaches to doing tours.
– Learning and sharing the big stories from your ancestry. Some stories, even from your own ancestry, might not want to be told away from the places from which they come. Other stories are very big and you wouldn’t have been allowed to touch them for years if you’d grown up in a traditional European culture. They would have been for the storytellers, Druids and medicine people to tell. Approach these with caution. The same goes for traditional European ceremonies (or what remains of them). Proceed with caution.
– Using ethnic slangs and lingo. I suppose we all do it. We all absorb pop culture to some degree and it’s impossible to parse it out. But it’s something to be mindful of. I catch myself often going to say something and realizing that that particular lingo comes from black culture and that there’s another way I can say the same thing.
– Telling the stories of other cultures. Again, were you asked to do this by the community? Are you making money from the telling? Are you gaining social status? Does the community benefit from your telling these stories in any way? To whom are you accountable in sharing the final versions of these stories to make sure they represent the situation well?
– Tribal tattoos. Do you have a personal or ancestral connection to the tribe this is from? Do you even know what tribe it’s from?
– Indian headdresses and traditional regalia that are reserved for particular people of status in particular cultures. If you wouldn’t dress up like a police officer when you aren’t one, don’t pull this shit.
– Ethnic textiles, jewelry or art made and sold by white people. Does the community make any money on this? Do they have permission from respected tradition bearers to do this? White people making money off the cultures of those cultures who’ve been most oppressed by white people is a huge red light. I can think of very few situations in which this would be okay.
– The gawdamn Washington Redskins. Native mascots have got to go.
– Fucking blackface.
– White people using the ‘n’ word or other racial epithets.
– A white person wearing native regalia with a native name offering native ceremonies for thousands of dollars. Bah. It’s 2017.
Something worth noticing: Most of the suggestions above are yellow lights.
Remember: Yellow doesn’t mean stop but it means slow down. It means pay attention. It means you might not get to go. It means, “It depends.”
Stated another way: It means that, unless you’re a very skillful driver and traffic is slow… why bother trying to rush the intersection? Do you really need to do it? Are you in such a hurry?
What’s being called for is not an easy morality but a deep sensitivity to the times and places in which one finds one’s self.
If you feel unsure about how to proceed in these matters you could do much worse than treating yellow lights as red lights until you gain more cultural chops in the nuance of what is appropriate where.
If you’re unwilling to learn how the traffic light system works then you shouldn’t be on the road in the first place.
If you can’t tell the difference between the three colours of these traffic lights and think that any light means go, then you are a danger to everyone on the road.
I welcome additions to this list or thoughts on what might be changed.
You can read my extended essay on Cultural Appropriation here: http://bit.ly/1oyPFvO
This post originally appeared on the author’s Facebook timeline and is republished here with his permission.
This post was revised after publication here on GMP.