Saturday, August 31, 2019

Cultural Misappropriation Is A Better Term: Some Thoughts Part 1

Understanding People Means Understanding How They Live

The question of cultural appropriation regularly roils the storytelling community.

I had planned to do one post about this, but it got long. This will be a series.

What is cultural appropriation?

To begin with, let us acknowledge the elephant in the room for the United States...

We appropriated the architecture of the Greeks


American Christmas? 
 Christmas has gone through some serious changes over the course of American history!  Click on this link to find some fun facts about Christmas                                   

Even when we are celebrating lovely American things we tend to have culturally diverse elements like fireworks. The world has China to thank for those.

Most of our cuisine is Americanized food from other parts of the world. Our language is a compilation of grammatical structures and words that we have taken wholesale from other languages.

Culture is fluid. It moves and changes. Ideas that apply across large swaths of people get incorporated into the main culture. We see something we like that someone else is doing and we start doing it. Influencers make a living getting the people of the world to follow them around and behave as they behave.

  1. a person or thing that influences another.

      a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media.

That is just how it works. That is how it has always worked. There is no other way to explain this outfit.

Nobody just had this look in the closet. Someone purposely did this.
What, you might wonder, does any of that have to do with cultural misappropriation?

Why, if we live in a world where we are constantly bumping up against ideas, cultures, images, and thoughts are some of them not up for grabs?

Easy. It has to do with how those images or ideas interact with our history.

There are two different stories of The United States of America. One is patriotic, it makes your heart swell, and it is the tale of a scrappy nation that built itself on the foundations of liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness!

Then there is the other story of America. The history that makes some people upset if you start trying to tell it. The history that gets people accused of being unAmerican if they want to learn about it or share it. 

America is a country founded by people who came from other places, dispossessed the people who were already here, butchered them, and appropriated whatever they wanted.

America is a country founded by people who imported people from other lands, enslaved them, reaped the benefit and wealth from them for generations without any compensation, and then systematically oppressed them for generations after the practice of enslavement ended. BTW, this is still an ongoing problem.

America is a country that is built off of the blood, sweat, and tears of immigrants with the promise that if they work really hard and struggle, they too can become part of the American collective. In the process of letting them work really hard, some of the richest families in our country exploited them to a criminal degree. BTW, this is still an ongoing problem.

The history of the practical effects of what the country has done to minority cultures has had a profound effect on how we think about, treat, and represent images in the mainstream of our culture.

Because we are a multi-colored, multi-cultural nation we tend to have a very privileged view of other people's stuff.

In other words, we don't have a good idea about what constitutes "not mine". This translates into all sorts of really inappropriate things.

Americans be like:

How come we can do this?

Oktoberfest America!

But not this.

Really Victoria Secret? Really?

This is perfectly fine.

St. Patrick's Day Fun!

This? Absolutely not!

This image comes from an interesting post worth the read: The Al Jolson Story Click here
What is wrong with Blackface? Click the link.

To me, the answer to why some of these images are perfectly fine and some are not is obvious.

What I have discovered is that for some folks it is not.

Ask yourself some simple questions.

Is the image honoring the culture in question or completely divorced from the culture out of which it comes?

Is the image in question celebrating the culture or mocking it?

What significance does the image have to the culture out of which it comes?

Are there any ramifications about this particular image in our culture? Why or why not?

What does the person who is in the image know about the culture they are presenting?

What is the purpose of using the cultural elements in this image? Why was it picked?

Cultural Misappropriation? Storytelling questions:
Where did I get this story?

What do I know about the culture out of which this story came?

What is the significance of this story in that culture?

What other sources for this story do I have?

Is this story sacred to someone?

Is this story so culturally specific that it will lose meaning if it is taken out of its cultural context?

First Rule Of Thumb:

If you are using an item or portraying a cultural image, and you are completely divorced from the actual people for whom that item or image means something such that you might very well be presenting that item or image in a way that is not only inappropriate but bone shakingly insulting to the people for whom it does have meaning...stop. Do not pass go. Do not collect 100$. Stop.

You don't get to decide what another culture finds offensive. You get to learn what is offensive and adjust yourself accordingly. That is your job as a storyteller.


The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation:

Yeah, it might hurt someone's feelings, but it doesn't actually hurt anyone right! That is absolutely wrong.

Happy Telling!


  1. Thanks for an important essay. Clear and direct. I look forward to the rest of your series. I also love the collection of images you've assembled, although I do wonder about how OK the leprechauns really are. There's very little understanding of or appreciation for the Irish that comes out of St. Patrick's Day.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree with you about the leprechauns. I also have some issues with the Oktoberfest costumes. Still, people look at these presentations as socially acceptable. Who knows what the future will hold for images we accept.

  2. Great points and well thought out!There is so much context that needs to be understood before some stories are told. Intent as you point out must be paramount in determining if we should tell something.

  3. Both the Germans and Irish have become part of the dominant American culture, so having fun with them is 'punching up', an acceptable form of teasing (yes, it wasn't always getting there and many of us strongly object to the drunken stereotypes--that's another essay's worth!). But when you 'punch down', when you have fun with the struggling cultures... Good job, Donna!

  4. I'd like to share this with my middlw school storytelling students. I'm looking forward to reading more.

  5. Example of what is offensive: as a Jew whose history is comprised of loss and murder, it feels like pillage for a non-Jew to tell a Yiddish tale. You took our very lives, now you want our stories too? I don't want your Scottish ballads,
    Enlarge your story portfolio elsewhere.
    Thank you Donna Washington for this prescient statement.

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  7. Well done Miss Donna! I believe context and intent have so much to do with telling a story. I am a Jew. The native American tales of mass massacre, forced movement and marches have many similarities to the Jewish culture. Do thin it would be misappropriation for me to tell the story of the Apache Trail of Tears? This question interests me. When does it become a similar historical tale as opposed to misappropriation? What if a Jew were to preface the tale with a statement like, "This story has similarities and connections to the lives off many Jews. Are there connections to other cultures?" Could a Native American tell a story from the European holocaust? Again, context and intent. - Mark Goldman