Grappling with Cultural Appropriation

25 Sep

Rewind to two Sundays ago. I was walking down Clifton Ave to the Edge House, as I do every week. All of the sorority houses along that row were flying banners and the sorority members were wearing costumes that went with the banner’s theme. I saw a circus-themed sorority and one about striking gold. The whole thing seemed sort of cheesy, which I’m sure is part of the charm. I really don’t know a lot about sororities and fraternities, but as far as I could tell it was Rush week for the sororities (at least the white sororities). Then I saw that one of the sororities had a dream catcher on their banner. Huh! I said to myself. There is a real-life instance of The Textbook Example of Cultural Appropriation. Which was funny to me, because I was just explaining what “cultural appropriation” is to my friend Charles, and I used the example of the dream catcher.

It’s very difficult for me to define cultural appropriation succinctly, but I’ll try: cultural appropriation is when something that is important to a subordinated culture is taken by the dominant culture. The dominant culture does not fully understand the nature of the thing they are taking. The dominant culture does not ask permission. Because the dominant culture has more power, they do this very hurtful thing, often without even realizing what they’re doing. They don’t mean to be hurtful, but their actions cause harm. It’s important to consider power, history and colonialism when we’re thinking about cultural appropriation.

So I saw the dream catcher on the banner, noted to myself that cultural appropriation was alive and well in my life, and went about my day.

Fast forward to this Monday. I went to the WILL meeting and we started talking about how we can have group discussions during the week, about hurtful and oppressive things we find in our lives and communities. We decided that we would have group discussions on Blackboard. I’m blown away that the WILL community is willing to go out of their way to have discussion on Blackboard, rather than Facebook, in order to include me. I was also blown away to discover that Sara had posted about the dream catcher banner on the WILL Facebook page and my WILL groupmates had been having a passionate conversation about cultural appropriation! Recall that I simply noticed and dismissed that example of cultural appropriation. I thought my only other option was to complain to my friend Taylor. “Ugggghhhh,” I’d say. “Cultural Appropriation!” She’d agree with “Uggggghhhhhhhhh!” And that would be that. But I’m a part of a community that wants to have conversation about oppression in our lives! I’m so excited for WILL. J

Now it’s Tuesday, and I’m doing research. Jack very kindly sent me a transcript of the Facebook conversation and the links that they posted to the WILL Facebook group. I’ve been reading blog posts and articles about cultural oppression. I’ve been trying to educate myself. This was the post powerful and informative one I read, I highly recommend it: http://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/01/the-dos-donts-maybes-i-dont-knows-of-cultural-appropriation/

I felt challenged by the author to examine my own perpetration of cultural appropriation.

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(Photo credits to my lovely brother, Andrew Kutcher.)

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(Photo credits to me.)

These are some pictures of me wearing a necklace I bought when I was in high school. The pendant is a tree with the branches and roots woven together, so they completely encircle the trunk of the tree. It looks like a Celtic knot made out of a tree. It appealed to me because I love trees and tree symbolism is very important to me. I’ve had this necklace for more than four years and last year it occurred to me that I could be participating in cultural appropriation by wearing this necklace. I felt conflicted, and I made a half-hearted attempt to do some research into the matter. I stopped wearing it as frequently, but I didn’t get rid of it. I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t want to confront the situation further.

I knew that now was a perfect time to confront the matter. So I did a bit of googling. I wanted to find the history of the Celtic tree-knot symbol, and a couple of opinions about the cultural appropriation of it. It was much harder than I expected. (I should probably say, at this point, that I don’t feel I am very good at research. None of my conclusions are Truth, they’re an attempt to find some truth.) I couldn’t find anything about the history of this symbol. I found a Wikipedia article about the significance of different kinds of trees in Celtic spirituality, I found another Wikipedia article about the Tree of Life in different cultures around the world, but nothing about the Celtic version of the Tree of Life. I did find this very interesting blog post about the cultural appropriation of ancient Irish spirituality by neo paganism. http://theirishatheist.wordpress.com/tag/culture-appropriation/

Neo Paganism and cultural appropriation is a subject I know almost nothing about, but I’m certain this one facet of the issue is not enough to understand what’s going on. However, this blog post suggested to me that at least some of the neo pagan things claiming to be part of ancient traditions are actually made up. “Most of the pagans left little, if any record of their religious practises. One can find the odd fragment of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, but other religious traditions left no trace of themselves in our histories. The druids of Britain and Ireland never wrote down their practises. So how do the pagans and Wiccans carry on the traditions that they claim?” After reading that, I thought about the fact that I couldn’t find any pictures of historical examples of this tree-knot symbol. There are pictures of historical Celtic crosses, and other Celtic knots. Is it possible that Americans (or someone) had taken the idea that trees were sacred in Celtic culture and the Celtic knot design and just pasted them together? Is it possible that this symbol has no historic basis at all?

It seems likely to me.

And now I feel like a stupid white person. I didn’t just take something without asking, I participated in the fetishization of a culture without understanding that culture. But it’s not about me. The blogs and articles I’ve been reading, courtesy of Jack, have helped to make that clear to me: cultural appropriation is not about me seeming cool or stupid. Cultural appropriation is about how my actions can hurt the people around me, even without my knowledge of it. By wearing this necklace and promoting this symbol, I’ve helped build an inaccurate picture of Celtic culture. I’ve said that it’s okay for Americans and others to create a fictional version of Celtic culture, and make money off that fictional version, and own that fictional version.

And that’s shitty of me. And I’m sorry.

What can I do to help build a world where we seek to understand other cultures first, and then ask permission before we borrow from them?

Hannah Kutcher is a junior in Liberal Arts, minoring in Fine Arts and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, with a certificate in Creative Writing: Poetry. This is hir first year in WILL.

 

THE CLIMB

4 Apr

To be honest, writing this just seemed like another thing to check off of my to do list. I have been dreading the idea of writing a blog post…coming up with a good topic and conveying a message worth listening to. Then, in an instant, I new exactly what I wanted to write about.

This past summer I spent my time working as a camp counselor at a camp for kids with special needs. That experience is something I will never forget. This camp atmosphere is hard to put into words…magical, inspiring, amazing…life changing. This past weekend I went back to my home away from home and instantly felt reconnected to the place I had fallen in love with.

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Recently I have been feeling disconnected with those around me and with myself. The ins and outs of life have me feeling like a robot on repeat. And I felt as if I was running out of power. But upon my arrival at camp I began to feel recharged. The new and old faces around me, the laughter and the smiles, and the seclusion from the outside world, gave me the energy to feel inspired again. These kids do not have all the advantages that I have. They all have health issues ranging from mild to severe, some come from underprivileged homes, and others are unable to attend school because of their health. Yet, when they arrive at camp none of that matters anymore. Everyone is a family, the people you have known for years and the people you just met. Race, religion, sexuality, politics…none of that matters, and for 48 hours we all focus on just letting kids be kids.

Now, of course, this didn’t happen instantly when I arrived at camp. We arrive, get settled in, and meet the family we will be paired with for the weekend. At first, its awkward small talk, but by the end of the weekend you are best friends. The young girl in my family is ten years old, finally old enough to climb the rock wall at camp. However there is a slight problem…she is afraid of heights! Yet she grabbed a helmet, learned the rules, and got set to climb. As soon as she heard the words “climb on” up she began to climb without hesitation, taking the first steps into unknown territory. I am sure there were plenty of terrifying thoughts running through her head…she could fall, she could miss a rock, she could get scared…ultimately she could fail. Yet she kept pushing on and what happened next sent chills up my spine.

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When she would stop and think about coming down, her belayer would urge her on and tell her the next move to make. And when that didn’t seem to be enough encouragement, the ENTIRE gym began giving her words of encouragement, shouting out to her. This went on for awhile and people kept up the support, they didn’t get bored, tired, or move on to other activities. Twice, the young girl came down, took a break, and then tried again. And in the end she didn’t make it to the top, but she sure was very close!

She was supported, encouraged, and loved by those who knew her and by those who didn’t. I think everyone in the gym that night got a glimpse of a better world that could be…a world in which everyone is lifted up to higher places. No one rushed to the other ropes in attempt to race her to the top, no one told her to just give up, and no one talked down to her. Everyone gave her the strength of words to push herself to new heights.

If a world like this can exist between strangers in a new place, why can’t our lives and the world around us look more like this? Everyone who watched her climb that night made a special connection with each other and with her. Life isn’t a race or a competition; there is no first place winner. Instead of getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of life, we all need to remember what matters to us. And while we are at it we need to consider others and what they need from us. Without the support and love she received, she probably wouldn’t have made it as high up as she did. Just think about those around us who need an extra lift – imagine what they could do if they were supported in the way this young girl was.

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Stacey Masur is a third-year Nursing and Spanish double major and a second-year WILLer.

Our Feminism Is Not The Same, but Our Feminism Is Important

28 Mar

I’m scared because I think I might be a “white feminist”. I mean, my flesh says “I’m white” and I identify as “feminist”, so logistically speaking, I’m a white feminist. But that’s not really what this is about.

I think I might practice white feminism, a branch of heavily criticized feminism that focuses on mainstream issues such as abortion rights, equal representation in the workplace, and 77 cents to every dollar. Issues that, at their core, have good intentions but primarily represent the voices of privileged white women. Not to say I don’t recognize and condemn the exclusion of important groups of people in white feminism, however, my personal activism seems to fall into this mainstream feminist category and I’m equally conflicted and unapologetic about that. Let me explain…

I will dedicate my life’s work for the equal representation of women in politics. Right now, that work involves encouraging university women to take on leadership roles. When I graduate, I want to work for an organization that fundraises and campaigns for pro-choice, democratic female candidates. Someday, I might run for office. What I know to be true is that (1) I am woman and (2) women are underrepresented in politics and (3) I have the ability to change that. In my activism, I truly want to support and work for movements I don’t personally identify with. As an activist, I will do everything I can to be inclusive of all regardless of race, ability, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, all of the intersections and you name it. But what I know to be true is that I cannot be the face of every cause. I feel called upon and compelled to encourage women to run for office, and that’s what I’ll do.

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In countless ways, I connected with and learned from Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In, a manifesto that asks women in business/politics to be fearless while navigating their careers. Many of my WILL peers denounced Sandburg’s work for being a privileged white woman’s handbook and their anger stuck with me. Truth be told, I agree, but I’m also scared. I’d be lying if I said Sandburg’s success wasn’t an inspiration to me and that I still admired her strength. So does my WILL family believe that I too am fake, uneducated, privileged, and awful?

If I’m going to be criticized for reinforcing patriarchy or for being a fake feminist, whatever that means, then I ask my critics to trust that I know my patriarchal peers and colleagues. I know the system. I know their beliefs and ideals are just as strong as yours and mine. And in politics and economics, preachy revolution just doesn’t work. It’s not fair, it’s not all right, it’s demeaning, it’s disheartening, it will make you want to scream, but I know the way to change the system is to work from within the system. I recognize I am able to do this from a place of extreme privilege, but still, this is something I am capable of doing. This is something I know.

There is a reason the word “feminism” evokes such strong feelings in our society. I blame most of this on patriarchy, let’s be real. Yet, when I read feminist blogs and critiques sometimes I find myself thinking, “This is violent. This is ugly. I don’t want to be a part of this. Who would?” I know I am not alone in feeling dismissed by the feminist community. Since being introduced to feminism, I have experienced cycles of learning and growth and have molded my feminism into what it is today, but I don’t feel like the proud feminist that I used to be. Feminism is an essential part of my being, but when even I feel unwelcome, how can I realistically change the hearts of nonbelievers, so to speak?  (Side note: the only synonym for feminism, according to Word, is radicalism)

I don’t want to be a so-called “white feminist”, but I also refuse to believe that my work is “fucking things up for the movement”. My feminism is not the same as your feminism or your feminism or your feminism, but it is important.

Emily Imhoff is a second-year WILLer and Junior International Affairs major with a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

I must admit: I am guilty…

7 Mar

I must admit I am guilty of not recognizing my own privilege.

I also must admit that sometimes I use my privilege to my advantage.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person. Not one to judge people based on their looks, clothes, skin color, family, education, etc. And up until I started working at a restaurant, I would say that was pretty true.

Then everything changed.

At my workplace, it is commonplace to have people ask not to be sat certain tables or even pay someone off so they do not get a certain party or type of people. One time I had someone pay me $20 so I wouldn’t seat them with a specific table. At first, this really bothered me.

And it still should.

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But being surrounded by something for so long, you get used to it. I started to realize these comments no longer bothered me as much, and I eventually got to a point where they wouldn’t bother me at all. Sometimes, as much as I hate to admit it, I would find myself thinking things about people because of their appearance. It had become so engrained in me as part of a job that this happened, and I am upset that I allowed myself to get to that point. While I had never been vocal about my thoughts, as so many others had, they were still there. Until I joined WILL, I never realized that my actions were causing privilege, and that the actions stemmed from my privilege.

This group has opened my eyes to the actions that occur in everyday life due to privilege. And these actions are not just racially based. People can have privilege for many things. Women lack privilege because they are women. Some people who are disabled lack privilege because they are not able-bodied, and some immigrants lack privilege in this country because they cannot speak the language or do not know the cultural customs. Many people lack privilege in one way or another. As a female, I lack privilege. Knowing this, I am upset that I let myself discriminate against others because of their lack of privilege.

This group has held me accountable. They have given me so much information and they are always there to catch me when I fall but to also let me know that I was wrong. This group has made me grow in ways that I never thought possible and in things that I never realized I could grow in. WILL has taught me about privilege, leadership, feminism, and friendship, and I am so happy I have shared this life-changing experience with these beautiful people.

So thank you WILL and all the lovely people involved for changing me.

Stephanie Sollanek is a junior majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Criminal Justice. She is in her first year in WILL.

Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem, or use my “_________ “ as a steam to power my dreams

28 Feb

With six classes, two jobs, three student organizations, and an almost four-year-old daughter running around, life can get hectic. I make sure that every night I strategically plan out my next day, because I can’t afford to get off track with my busy schedule. People always ask me, “Oh gee, it must be hard for you? Having a daughter? Right? With school and everything?” and for some strange reason I never know how to quite respond to that.

See, I knew for me school was always very important. It was the only place that offered a quiet sanctuary away from my madness of a household as a child. In fact, school was the only thing I was really good at, because the whole sports thing never really fully worked out well for me. Lets not even begin to discuss my lack of musical talent. Therefore, going to college and obtaining my degree has always been my goal. I knew that getting my degree would allow me to change the future.

When I had my daughter I knew would still continue to get my degree; I never planned on taking a break. But, I came across many challenges that made the process almost unbearable, such as being told by a Dean, “I don’t think that you would be a successful student here at The University of Cincinnati,” after being placed on academic suspension due to my grades falling. When in reality, as a new parent I just needed the support to get me on the right path so I could adjust.

Therefore, I set out to prove everyone wrong. I got involved on campus, I applied for awards, I went to conferences, and I wanted to pour my heart and soul out proving how worthy of a student I could be. I busted my behind to pull my grades up and get into the School of Social Work. Every goal I set out, I accomplished. I obtained my Associates degree, which for some isn’t much of anything, but for me it was a milestone.  I was doing everything “right.”

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Now I’m in my last semester of my junior year, majoring in social work and minoring in political science, and I begin to question the way we view things in society. Whenever I go to events on campus or talk to co-workers and tell them about my busy life and mention how I have a daughter, I always get two responses: 1. “Are you sure you can commit to this because you have a daughter?” or 2., my favorite, “Do you ever spend time with your daughter?”

I’m just wondering when will the time come when women can be supported for going to school or work and having a family? I’m shunned by stay-at-home mothers who think that I’m “too busy” and that “day care centers are an awful thing for young children.”  Those in the workforce who are afraid that I can’t balance work and being a mother also look down on me.

The ability to have a family and balance a work schedule or school schedule is a beautiful thing. For so long I was allowing patriarchal society to make me feel as if I was not being successful. Patriarchal society has taught us that the only way we are seen as important or valuable to this world is if we work hard and get to the top. Patriarchal society has taught us that, as women, you should stay at home with your child. Let us not forget that if you are a minority and decide to stay at home and raise your child then you are deemed “lazy,” “why don’t you work?”  I allowed this mentality of achieving outward success to run my life. I felt that if I wasn’t overly-involved in school or receiving awards and obtaining higher titles or positions, then I wasn’t succeeding.

When in reality, the best position I have is “Mom.” Everyday I am leader; I don’t need outside awards or achievements to prove that.  All I need is support and a clear path that will allow me to share my leadership skills with the world, and WILL allows me to do that.

WILL has been the most supportive and inclusive organization I’ve found on campus. I was never asked if I would be able to balance my family and school life. They saw my passion for activism and cleared the way for me to lay my footprints.

There should never be any complication when it comes to balancing work, school, and having a family. Schools and workplaces should allow and support those who have families, as well as those who some day may want to have a family. It’s not that some young mothers are choosing to not go to college and further their education, it just may be that they don’t have the support from higher institutions that they need to flourish.

Algeria Wilson is a Junior and first-year WILLer with a major in Social Work and a minor in Political Science.

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