CONTENT WARNING: LABELS, SPEAKING TRUTH to POWER
Cultural appropriation happens when a person outside of a culture
assumes an aspect of that culture without fully comprehending what it is
they are doing. Typically, this is when a member of a dominant culture takes on something that is considered to be unique of a marginalized culture.
For instance, I’ve been watching The Great Food Truck race. One of
the food trucks involved was called Spice It Up. The theme of this truck
was curry and Indian-inspired flavors. However, the three women who ran
this truck are white. It could be argued that they had appropriated
Indian culture for the purposes of making a profit. But for all I know,
these women could have loved ones who have “adopted” them into this
culture and shared it with them.
And therein lies one of the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.
I’ve heard it said that non-binary, gender expansive white persons
should not use the phrase “two-spirit” to describe themselves as this is
appropriating Native American culture. Yet a two-spirit Cherokee
medicine person who had been designated female at birth once described
me as two-spirit. This was exchange from their part, but I do not take
this title for myself. Similarly, at Gender Spectrum in 2012 I met a
bigender white person who had been designated male at birth who also
called themself two-spirit. This was because they had been adopted into
the Navajo nation and had been consecrated as a medicine person. Again,
this was cultural exchange on behalf of the Navajo who adopted this
person and conveyed this title open them.
Where it can get a little muddied is with white persons such as
myself who are of mixed European ancestry. I’m half Italian, a quarter
Irish, and the remaining quarter a mixture of English, Welsh, Scottish,
and Dutch. It has been suggested to me that it would be wrong for me to
adopt aspects of Irish culture for myself as it’s been too long since my
familial ancestors had actually lived in Ireland. On my mother’s side,
my great-grandparents were born in Italy. They immigrated to the US in
the early 1900s, and that’s more recent than when my other European
ancestors arrived here.
In some ways, I feel it might not be proper for me to write on this
topic. What might seem like cultural appropriation from the point of
view of a casual observer might in fact be cultural exchange, depending
on the life experiences and ancestry of the person being observed. It’s
not so uncommon to encounter persons who are multi-racial and,