Appreciation or Appropriation

It’s possible that I have a smidgen of Irish blood coursing through my otherwise American-English body.  Therefore, I feel that I am qualified to pontificate about shenanigans, or not.

My ancestry chart identifies me as having one percent Native American DNA, with one direct descendant being full blooded Native American.  Mind you, according to Native rules, this definitely does not qualify me for benefits on the reservation, or anywhere else for that matter, I’m just sayin’.

I, a white Karen by all woke descriptions, found myself “encouraged” many years ago, by the college administration where I was teaching part-time in the Sociology department, to teach a course in New Mexico, just off the Navajo Reservation, entitled Contemporary Native Americans.  It was a conundrum.

I revamped the syllabus from a “fluff” course of day trips from one trading post to another and mandatory attendance at local pow-wow’s, to a credit-worthy and genuine Sociology course with study of dominant and minority group dynamics, prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping, racism, cultural bias, atop current-events-type weekly student presentations, all focusing on the backdrop of Native culture.

The first week of class I was rigorously and somewhat humiliatingly put through my paces, then ultimately given the go-ahead by the newly appointed Hispanic Student Services Vice President, to reluctantly teach that class.  I should have said the first day, by way of a disclaimer, “I did not appropriate your culture in the teaching of this sociology course.  It’s an ‘appreciation,’ not an ‘appropriation,’ course.  I appreciate Native Americans and your culture.”

Cultural Appropriation is sort of new to pop culture.  It seems to be a part of the universally offended woke subculture, and their agenda.  It’s also associated with the Internet, in that anybody can publicly criticize anybody else for hurting their feelings.  But they don’t stop at criticism or an attempt to educate.   They demean, terrorize, and attempt to destroy someone for offending them.

Let me share a fact or two.  I have a fair to middling academic understanding of cultural anthropology.  I have taught more than a couple of cultural anthropology courses.  Secondly, we can appreciate many cultures outside of our own; even wearing their hairstyles, their jewelry, and clothing, dancing their special way, listening to and singing their music, and eating food of many varied cultures.  There is nothing inherently wrong with mimicking a cool way of life, one which we were not born into.

There is something called empathy which allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s place, attempting to feel what they might be feeling so as to show kindness toward them in a genuine way.  There is such a thing as cultural empathy also, where we try to understand, through lifestyle, “where people from another culture are coming from.”  

Do we have to be Irish to participate in shenanigans, or use the word, shenanigans?  Do you have to be Native American to wear turquoise jewelry or purchase their artwork to display in your home?   The difference between appropriation and appreciation is a matter of intent.  I would submit that nobody knows the intent of one’s heart in its entirety, but God, our Creator.

However, some self-appointed guardians of culture have intimidated us into the fear of being multi-cultural.  After all we’re all hybrids.  But this fear of saying the wrong thing, making a joke in poor taste, and constant sensitivity and courteousness is exhausting.  Somebody called it a “comedy of manners.”

My husband directed a jazz band in a traditionally black land grant college in Kentucky, early in his career.  He’s white, by the way.  But, because of his skills, he helped some young African-American musicians grow in their own tradition.  Funnily, his ancestry attributes one percent African DNA from one full-blooded African ancestor.  He also lived in Congo.

Does the Native American rug hanging in our dining room and the African busts, drums, and figures in our living room, constitute Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation?  I would submit it is the latter, as we have attained these artifacts out of respect and appreciation of these cultures with whom we have had contact.  We want to share our multi-cultural experiences with others, toward a broader understanding of all cultures.

But then I’m not wearing a Native headdress, Kente cloth stoles, Japanese Geisha garb, or cornrows in my hair, to a Halloween party, either.  It’s a matter of respectful borrowing and an appreciation for the historical and cultural context of other cultures, when we don the garb or exercise the use of the cultural mores of a non-dominant culture. 

So, let’s have some Mexican food for breakfast, Soul Food for lunch, Chili relleno for dinner, and some white boy Tums before bed.  Don’t be afraid to borrow respectfully from other cultures, but give credit where credit is due and blend, blend, blend.

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