I’m white and while I have been educating myself about racism I still have a lot of things to learn. So please don’t consider this post a “this is the be-all and end-all of what cultural appropriation means”; this is just my current understanding of cultural appropriation, which I am presenting in the hopes that someone will tell me where I’ve wandered off into the wrong direction. (Also, I’m going to be using the abbreviation “POC,” which stands for “people of color.”) 

The definitions of cultural appropriation I’ve found are usually something like this: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This is a bit difficult to understand to me, because I find it hard to grasp how you could get permission from a culture. You can only get permission from people in that culture, some of whom will be all “dude, whatever, don’t give a fuck” and some of whom will be all “the fuck? Why are you doing that? Give that back!” (Even the Seminoles, who have an actual tribal government the Florida State University Seminoles talked to to clear their mascot with, have dissenting Seminoles who are pissed as fuck about the whole matter.)

I think that part of the problem might be that when people use the term “cultural appropriation” they mean one of about four different things:

1) Dressing up as or incorporating in your art or naming your sports team after an offensive stereotype of POC. This is the definition that comes up every Halloween when people insist on dressing up as Pocahotties and Injun Braves, and when Victoria’s Secret decides to put Native American headdresses on their models. I am not sure why people think this is okay. Do not dress up as an oversexualized stereotype of the people your culture fucking committed genocide against. Similarly, this point covers Native American sports team mascots, Urban Outfitters “Navajo” bracelets, etc.

I’m… also not really sure why people call this cultural appropriation, because to me it seems like a pretty cut-and-dried case of “offensive stereotypes are bad.”

2) Do not use sacred shit from religions you don’t belong to. This is basic respect. People take their sacred shit very seriously, and it greatly upsets them when you use their sacred shit in ways other than the approved-of one. Do not upset people for no reason. (This guideline also applies to non-POC religions, of course, but very few people put on Mormon temple garments because they look cool.)

3) Do not use things associated with POC in ways that reinforce stereotypes of POC. For instance, do not do Tantra because it is spiritual and exotic and ancient and totally sexy. It is a common Orientalizing stereotype that Asian people are exotic, spiritual, and the heirs to ancient wisdom; thinking that Tantra is awesome because it is exotic ancient spiritual wisdom from the East is playing into that exact stereotype.

Similarly, white-people dreadlocks are problematic. Black people still face all kinds of racist shit– from white people trying to touch their hair to losing out on jobs– if they style their hair the way it naturally grows instead of making it look like white hair; it is incredibly fucked that black people having their hair the way it naturally grows is considered “rebellious.” Many black people are, understandably, somewhat irritated when white people decide that it is cool and countercultural to have dreadlocks. For black people, dreadlocks are a rebellion against a racist society and a statement of pride in their race; for white people they’re… um, cool because, like, black people, man.

4) Don’t steal POC’s ideas and cultural artifacts without credit. See also: the entire history of rock music. Rock music was deeply influenced by black musicians– blues, gospel, vocal groups. So of course white men like Elvis and Bill Haley ran off with their ideas and got all the credit for being musical fucking geniuses. Because, y’know, white. Similar things happen with everything from nail art to feminist theory.

It’s difficult to figure out a way to deal with this toxic dynamic. “White people, you don’t get to wear nail art or listen to rock music” is a suboptimal solution. I think ultimately the solution is to be very intentional about pointing out your influences and promoting the careers of talented POC within your field and seeking out POC’s work instead of assuming that what white people are doing is the only interesting culture that’s going on. (For instance, it would be incredibly dishonest and fucked of me to pretend that my thoughts on class and race within feminism and polyamory aren’t influenced by Audre Lorde, or that my thoughts on masculinity or love don’t come straight from bell hooks. I am not original.) But I’m not sure if that’s enough to end that dynamic.

So. That’s what I have. Your thoughts?