Grappling with Cultural Appropriation

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.

 

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