Appreciation or Appropriation?

One of the questions considered by the fifty-seven attendees at last night’s Continuing Conversation on Race and White Privilege was ” When does cultural appreciation become cultural appropriation?”  Not in Our Town facilitator, John Steele, contributed the following response:

“As a white man who is relatively new to interrogating how my social identity affects the way I act and think, this question is one I have spent a lot of time mulling over recently. I have come to believe that there is no way to know for certain that I am not appropriating, when I believe myself to be appreciating. I do firmly believe in the value of exposing myself to other cultures, by listening to music, attending (when invited) events devoted to discussing issues in various communities, reading history or contemporary literature from other perspectives, and other such things. As an outsider, I am by definition not familiar with the ins and outs of the norms and rules of that culture. I need people who are members of that community to let me know if I step “out of bounds”. People who have lived experience and who know more intimately the history of that culture, and particularly the history of how people like me (white men) have engaged with that community. I have many times wanted to say, or wear, or post something, but had to ask myself, and more importantly have had to ask members of that community, the question “Am I doing this for the right reasons?” When I am doing it for me (either to make myself seem “cooler”, or more knowledgeable, or more of an ally), I am almost always “out of bounds.” But as we all know, the road to a very hot and not fun place is paved with good intentions. Even if I believe myself to be doing it in service of the community, or to show my appreciation for an aspect of the community that resonates with me, there have been times that I have unknowingly reproduced historical traumas by unknowingly asserting ownership over something that is not mine, or some other blind blunder.

So where does that leave us? Well, for me there are a few things. First, know that you are going to make mistakes. Rather than focusing on never making a mistake, or never letting anyone know that you’ve made a mistake, focus on trying to minimize the impact of your mistakes. In other words, find safe spaces to make those mistakes. This leads to the second important lesson. Find friends who know more about the community than you do, and run your ideas by them (preferably beforehand, but debriefing after an event can be just as important). This won’t work every time (because even knowledgeable people do not and cannot speak for everyone in a community, whether they are members of the community or not). But, it can help you avoid some of the mistakes, and can clue you into how to try to make up for your mistakes when you make them.

The best analogy I can think of, is to think of yourself as a guest in someone else’s home. You can’t know how this person would or would not like you to act in their home. You may have been there several times, or been in the houses of their friends. But that doesn’t mean that you can do what you want as if you were in your own home or even in those friends’ homes. Maybe some of the things that you think of as respectful when guests visit your house (like taking off shoes) are disrespectful here. You don’t know. And you can’t know without asking. So follow their lead. If they offer you on a tour of their house, humbly accept, knowing that it is a privilege for you to be let in on this intimate experience. There may be parts of the house your host is not ready to share with you, and that’s their right. After all, it’s their home.

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3 Comments on “Appreciation or Appropriation?

  1. Thank you John. A very thoughtful and sensitive response.

  2. Thanks for breaking the concept down into familiar language and with cultural humility. This was the question I was most intrigued with and yet it seems to have been the one least discussion in the large group setting. I wonder if that points to a need to single it out for a future evening of discussion?

    • I’ve had that thought, too, Debbie. We’ll certainly have it on the list of topics for future Continuing Conversations.

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