Friday, September 27, 2019

Cultural Misappropriation is a Continuous, Evolving Battlefield: Being An Ally


There are no easy answers here. That should be obvious.

There isn't any easy way to talk about this subject.

Over the last five weeks, I've realized that covering cultural appropriation in five posts is pretty foolish.

Still, you work with what you've got.

I've tried to start this post for several days, and each time it has gotten too long and I didn't get to the point.

So, I'm going to put the point of the post at the beginning. I know, that's backward. That way if the post gets long, I'll just cut the rambling nonsense.

How To Be An Ally In Your Own Work!

1. Do the research. Find out what you can about a story.

2. If your story comes out of a marginalized culture, find storytellers - you notice I have suggested going to more than one person - and find out whether or not it is okay for you to tell that story. They might be fine with it so long as you give proper context or credit. They might not.

3. Pay attention to how you introduce the story. Are there elements of the story that seem odd or unusual. Find out more about them.

4. Find variants of the story. Compare them.

5. Be aware of the language. How are you talking about the story? How are you describing the people? Are you offering context by the people who told the story or the people who told about the people who told the story?

6. If you are working with a story from history, find the story's origin. There are historical anecdotes and references that were made up by the "victors" but do not come out of the cultures about which they are told. Don't spread colonializing, degrading nonsense in the guise of history.


For instance: How many people actually know who Pocahantas was? How much of what we were taught about her is accurate and how much of it comes out of John Smith's complete misunderstanding of what was going on around him?

I was trying to find images of this young woman. She died at the age of twenty or twenty-one. This is supposedly a good likeness of her. I don't know.

As for the other images I've seen, they are either romanticized images of her or images of other women who people thought were her.

How do you tell this story? What exactly do you tell?

Are there more rules of thumb for dealing with this difficult subject?

I have no doubt.

Do I have any idea what they might be?

Not a bit. I suppose I could keep coming up with them, but I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be helpful to anyone. Myself included.

Was I an idiot to try to tackle this huge topic in five blog posts?

Yes, most assuredly.

As I talk to people do I realize that there is so much more to say, learn, and do??

Yes. Definitely.

Could I write posts about this for the next couple of months and expand on the topic in never-ending spirals?


Do I have any interest in doing that?

Absolutely not.

You might ask:

If this is such a difficult subject, you didn't want to write it, and it involves a never-ending conversation, why did you do this?

Good question.

I've had some conversations with other people from marginalized cultures and discovered many of us have the same thought about this subject:

We Are Tired!

We feel like we keep coming up against people who get upset when we don't tell them what they want to hear about cultural appropriation. What they want to hear seems to be, "Do what you want."
If you don't say that, they argue you blue trying to tell you why they can do whatever they want.

We need allies. We need people to care enough to do the work themselves. We need people to understand why it is important.

All of us, whether or not we are from marginalized cultures, can learn to be better in the way we use language and images to share thoughts and stories.

My blinders are as debilitating as yours. I am as unable to see what I can't see as you are unable to see what you can't see. In so many ways we are the semi-blind leading the semi-blind. If we work at this together, all of us will see better.

This gets into another topic that could take months: Privilege.

I'm not even going to touch that.

To everyone who is an ally out there, thank you! 
To everyone who wants to be an ally, thank you!
Let us keep on keeping on.

Talk to me.
I'll talk to you.
Let's learn this as a community.

Happy Telling!

Part 1 - Cultural Misapproriationis A Better Term: Some Thoughts
Part 2 The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility
Part 3 - Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator
Part 4 - How Do You Know If You Don't Know Enough?
Part 5 - What Does It Look Like to be an Ally in Your Own Work?

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Cultural Misappropriation Through Ignorance: How Do You Know If You Don't Know Enough? Part 4

This is the classic version of the Ants and the Grasshopper. The grasshopper mocks the ants and plays and has a good time while they work. When the winter comes, the grasshopper is cold. He goes to the ants and asks for help.

They say, "You spent all summer playing and singing. You should have worked. Go find somewhere else if anyone will let you in!"

The grasshopper is left to die in the winter.

The moral: If you do not work, you will not eat.

That is not quite the story I grew up with. I had a version on a record. It was a long story about a single ant and a grasshopper who become friends despite the grasshopper's negligent ways. At the end of the story, Andy, our rogue ant, convinces the ant colony to allow the grasshopper to enter, and the queen gives up her throne and lets Andy run the colony.

I have no idea what the moral of that story was, but it always rubbed me the wrong way.

I'm not a fan of changing the point of a story. When it comes to this tale, however, I have no trouble changing the nature of what it means to "work".

In the version I tell, the grasshopper spends the summer perfecting his music skills. He shares that music with everyone and they enjoy it - all except the ants. They berate him for being lazy. The grasshopper shrugs it off and says, "I'll work later."

It gets cold. All of the animals the grasshopper has played for are either gone or hibernating. He goes to the ants. They bring him into the anthill.

The queen is amused. She reminds him that he has always said he will work "later". She announces that later has come and sets him to work while the ants enjoy a leisurely winter

In the evenings, the grasshopper plays for everyone. They soon discover a love of the grasshopper's work.

In the spring he leaves. The ants request that he return in the winter. His music was the delight of their colony.

Why did I change it like this? Easy. Anyone who has ever mastered an instrument will tell you that is VERY hard work. Aside from that, art is an important part of life. We need to remember that.

I have a vested interest in looking at the arts as work. It is a totally selfish reworking of that story and I don't apologize for it!

Is this cultural appropriation?

I don't think so. The heart of the story remains the same. If you don't work, you don't eat. The Grasshopper works hard during the winter, and he also sings for his supper. That is work, as any artist will tell you.

We know a great deal about Aesop's Fables. They are African tales that were brought to the western world through an enslaved man named Aesop via Ancient Greece.

We understand the background for these stories, and we get what these fables are for and what they are meant to do. We know their origin, and we can discuss them as well as the changes we make and why.

I tell stories from cultures from all over the world. That doesn't mean I tell all the stories I've heard or all the ones I know.

If I don't know enough, I stay away from a tale.

There is this one story I heard years ago. It is called Pambe Delish. I have no idea if that is the best way to spell it.

 I love it. It is hysterical. It has an "oh my gosh!" at the end of it, and it is participatory. It is everything I love in a great folktale.

I don't perform it. In fact, the only place I do tell it is in workshops as an example of a story that I don't tell.

Why not?

1) I have no idea where this story came from - somewhere in Africa doesn't tell me near enough!

2) I have no idea if this story has been altered in some way before I heard it such that it doesn't accurately reflect some original story

3) I have no idea if this story is exemplary of its place, or if it is a tale retold by someone else

4) I don't know exactly what this story means in the culture out of which it came

5) I think I would have to give way too much background about the tale and put the audience in a particular mood or place in order to receive the story.

6) I have no idea why the main character would do this thing that she does. I don't quite get how the relationships are supposed to work.

7) The images, ideas, moral judgements, and choices an audience would have to make in order to digest this story are framed not by the people in the story, but by our own eyes, ears and experiences. I cannot offer a different way to look at it because I don't know what that would be.

There are a number of stories like this in my repertoire.

Sometimes I never learn enough to tell a story.

How did I come up with the list of why I will or won't tell a story? It is a combination of feeling uncomfortable with some tales combined with an encounter I had with the fabulous Anne Shimojima.

Anne Shimojima

Anne was in a workshop I was conducting about crafting. I gave everyone a copy of a story and I had them read it. Afterward, I did some inappropriate editing.


"She has a beloved pig, but this animal isn't a pet in the way we understand it, so let's change it to a dog."

I went through the story taking it apart and swapping out different images and ideas. Finally, Anne couldn't take it anymore.

"You can't do that!" She was outraged. "You can't just change this story! That was her beloved pig! How can you decide to just yank the heart out of this tale?"

It was her emotion that struck me. It wasn't just that what I was doing was wrong, it struck at the very heart of WHY it was wrong.

Up to that point in my new career, I always looked at this process as an intellectual exercise. My rule of thumb at that point was simply - If you have to rearrange a story drastically in order to convey it to your audience, pick a different tale or just write one of your own.

This rule of thumb came about because I encountered a piece of theatre where someone rewrote the Little Red Hen to be something that was completely antithetical to the point of the tale. I was uncomfortable, but couldn't pinpoint why. After seeing the play, I made sure that as I crafted, I always kept the point of the story front and center.

Anne's response to my rework revealed what I couldn't quite articulate about the process. It wasn't just about misusing the story, It was committing a kind of cultural sin against the tale.

It made me think: Where is the line? When does the story get so skewed it is no longer true to the spirit of the tale? How do you know if you have reached that line? Crossed it?

Rule Of Thumb: If you have to alter a story drastically in order to share it with an audience...find something else to tell. You are on shaky ground and most likely engaging in appropriation. What may seem like an unimportant detail in a story may very well mean something to the people who created it. Removing signposts is a huge problem.

but, but, but stories are supposed to be able to grow and change! Right?

Many folktales are universal. In other words, they could happen anywhere to anyone in any place. That's why you can slip characters in and out of the tales and nobody has any idea where they originated. Some tales, however, have universal themes, but they are very indicative of the culture out of which they come.

If you are not a part of that culture, don't get some elements of the tale, or you don't really understand some of the things in the tale...You probably shouldn't be telling it.

So, how do you know?

It comes back to that annoying word: RESEARCH

1) How many versions of this tale can you find?
2) How are they similar?
3) What elements carry over from tale to tale?
4) What elements are different?
5) What do the differences tell you about the fluid parts of the tale?
6) Do all of the versions have the same ultimate point? Why or why not?

One last thing to consider.

There is a difference between stories outsiders tell about a people as opposed to the stories people tell about themselves.

Make sure that the tale you are telling is actually a story of those people as opposed to about them.

If it is about them, you should be careful. It means that someone else filtered that story through their own eyes and biases. The only way to know this is to do the work.

Happy Telling!

Part 1 - Cultural Misapproriationis A Better Term: Some Thoughts
Part 2 The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility
Part 3 - Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator
Part 4 - How Do You Know If You Don't Know Enough?
Part 5 - What Does It Look Like to be an Ally in Your Own Work?

Friday, September 13, 2019

Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator Part 3

Helen Bannerman
In  1899, a Scottish woman named Helen Bannerman published a little book for her children. Her husband was a physician and officer who worked in the Indian Medical Services. At that time, India was part of the British Empire. Helen's book was set in India and involved a fantasy about a child overcoming a dangerous situation. In 1900, the book was published in America.

The story concerned a boy who was out walking in his fine clothes when he was accosted by a team of tigers. The little boy climbs a tree, but the tigers will not go away. The boy ends up throwing his fine clothes and parasol down to the tigers. The tigers fight amongst themselves and then run around the tree until they turn into ghee - which is clarified butter. The boy climbs down, gets dressed, and takes the delicious ghee home to his mother. She makes pancakes for everyone.

That's a fun story.

When it was first published, the western world praised the tale as a positive book for children about black people. Most children's books of the time showed black people as brutish, violent, and stupid.

This black child defeated tigers.

The name of the book? Little Black Sambo.

Sambo is depicted as a pickaninny. This is a racial stereotype of a black child who is associated with idiocy and violence. It was a dehumanizing way to think of black children. The fact that he defeated tigers was considered a step forward.

Why did Bannerman pick the name "Sambo"?

It would surprise nobody to know that the word "sambo" is an ethnic slur that means you have "Indian Blood". That's how the English referred to this group of "lesser" people in their empire.

"Black Sambo" was also a slur. It meant that not only was your blood of Indian origin, there was also some African somewhere in you.

Anyone reading the book at the time understood that the hero of the tale was an "other" in the way the white Europeans thought of others. The idea that somebody black would either read this book or have some thought about how they were being depicted didn't cross anybody's mind.

Most people in the dominant culture of the western world had absolutely no problem with ethnic slurs. In fact, they didn't think of them as slurs. They thought of them as the truth. The language was created to make sure that those who deserved to be held higher in esteem got to determine what the lesser people were going to be called. Otherwise, how could you make sure they knew they were lesser?

In the late 1800s, none of this was problematic. It was an accepted way to think about this story, those people, and how society worked. It was lauded as a more humanizing depiction of blacks.

I spent a morning learning about Little Black Sambo. I had no interest in it before I started my research, but now I am fascinated!

1) I was told Little Black Sambo was based on an Indian Folktale. It is not. It came fully formed from Bannerman's head.

2) Bannerman misappropriated things from two different cultures to create this tale.

3) People have been trying to save this story for some reason for a couple of generations. I'm not really sure why.

4) Bannerman wrote a number of these little stories, and except for one, all of them start with "Little Black" and then a name. I am almost interested in finding out more about these other "Little Black" books.

5) Why was she so hot to write these odd books with African Americans engaging with animals and items native to India? Did she know any black children? What was her motivation other than amusing her children? Did she have any motivation?

6) This story should be used not to talk about the racist pictures (they are really bad), but to talk about what happens when you just throw things together without giving the slightest thought to the people or cultures from which they are misappropriated.

7) To be fair to the society that spawned Little Black Sambo, what did a white, privileged woman know about black people? Besides, she was championing a better image of black folks, right? She didn't mean any harm, right?

Cultural appropriation was not a thing in the 1800s. If you doubt it, go into a British museum. They spent the 1800s pillaging every culture they came across without a shred of concern!

The Great Maya Angelou

How many Little Black Sambo moments have you had? How many times have you blithely walked down a road and into a buzz saw you didn't even know was there?

Add caption

I was lucky enough to see Dovie Thomason tell when I was still in my tender years as a storyteller. I don't recall just where, but I know it was in the first five years. She said something that set me back on my heels.

"I am telling these tales, but you do not have permission to tell these tales."

I sat there in confusion for a handful of minutes before she started telling the stories. As she told them, I saw them as they were; beautiful, powerful, personal, and hers. They belonged to her at some level that they could not belong to me. I was fascinated.

So, I insinuated myself next to her at some meal and proceeded to ask about her stories. I received what has got to be the most eye-opening lecture about stories I had ever had. That woman took me to school. By the time she was done with me that afternoon, everything looked very different.

I made some decisions about what I would and would not incorporate in my work. I made some decisions about how I would go about collecting stories, and I would be really careful about stories that were an active part of any religion whether I belonged to it or not.

So. All solved, right?  No.

I keep learning more about cultures, ideas, people, and subjects. I discover that there are tales I should purge or learn something about before I go further. I learn that some words no longer work or apply. I learn that often I have had a backward idea about a thing in history and I have to rethink a whole bunch of ideas and assumptions.

I learn, and learn, and learn and re-imagine, and re-imagine, and re-imagine.

What have I learned?

1) You are human. You can't know everything, so learn when someone points something out to you. They could be right. They could be wrong. Look into it.

2) When you encounter new information, consider it. Look into it. It might be right. It might be wrong. You won't know until you investigate.

3) You are human, failable and forgivable. If you get it wrong, correct it. Don't keep committing the same foul over and over.

4) Don't be afraid to learn. Don't be afraid to be wrong.

5) Adjust. The best thing about folklore is that it travels and speaks to people. See how many versions of the story you can find. If you discover that this tale comes in many versions, either create your own based on the elements of the story or pick a version that does not have serious cultural issues.

You have only the language you know in which to tell a story. When you are telling it, you could be using images and language to talk about a culture that is insulting, belittling, and damaging.

You wouldn't be doing this on purpose. The language you are using was created by the dominant culture. That culture often uses language to discriminate against the surrounding cultures by naming and categorizing the people.

It is a difference so slight you might not even realize it.

For instance -

When referring to the state of bondage African Americans lived in prior to the abolishment of slavery, it is more accurate to refer to the people as "enslaved"  as opposed to "slaves"

Enslaved is something someone has wrongly done to you.
Slave is a thing you are.

When referring to the state of people who are here in America without paperwork it is more accurate to call them "undocumented" than "illegal"

Undocumented refers to the status of your paperwork. There are all sorts of people in this country who were invited to America who are undocumented. Migrant workers are a good example of that.

Illegal suggests that there are two types of people: Legal and illegal. If you are illegal, you are lesser. You deserve less. You can be treated as less. Your needs and concerns are less.

What about this story?

Welfare Queen!

Think about the way our society tells stories about people. What language do we use when we want to dehumanize? What language do we use when we want to make people sound scary or dangerous? What language do we use to throw blame away from ourselves and onto victims or oppressed people?

Language is a tricky thing.

Stories can always be used to spread darkness. Sometimes this happens completely by accident.

Our presuppositions are invisible to us unless we hunt them down.

Happy Hunting

Part 1 - Cultural Misapproriationis A Better Term: Some Thoughts
Part 2 The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility
Part 3 - Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator
Part 4 - How Do You Know If You Don't Know Enough?
Part 5 - What Does It Look Like to be an Ally in Your Own Work?

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility - Part 2

In 1946, Walt Disney released Song of The South.

Apparently, Disney paid Joel Chandler Harris' family ten thousand dollars for the rights to the Brer Rabbit stories in 1939.

This movie with the Zip-a-dee-doo-dah song has gone missing from the American landscape.

I can honestly say that I do not recall much about this movie. I remember this song. I remember some of the animated stories, but I don't recall anything of the plot.

I read the plot of this movie on Wikipedia and I was really amused.

This movie was about a little white boy who is helped by the black characters in the movie both animated and real to deal with his problems on the plantation. This is not shocking. Who was making movies for and about black folks in 1946? Most films that had black characters were full of racial stereotypes and very specific images of what white people thought black people were like. How many black screenwriters were around in 1946? Heck. A big chunk of the nation was still segregated.

All the same, I can see why Disney was attracted to the Brer Rabbit tales.

Folktales exist because the folk need them. Their messages are universal and they run through our lives and touch us in lots of ways.

I have no doubt you have heard a story from another culture that touches you or moves you. You've read books or watched films from other cultures that touch you or move you. You've encountered festivals, practices, or celebrations that speak to you.

If I had my way, Jolabokaflod would be a major American tradition and we would do it four times a year.
The Christmas Eve Book Flood

Come to think of it, my family members often end up spending part of Christmas Day like this because one thing my family definitely does is give each other books.

I am considering instituting this in our household officially now that I am no longer dealing with really little children from various siblings.

That's neither here nor there.

The point is, there are stories and traditions that appeal to all of us for different reasons.

The issue with the Song of The South is not that Disney decided to use the stories that Joel Chandler Harris heard in his childhood to make that movie. The issue is that Disney had absolutely no idea what those stories were about or what they were used for in their own culture. Joel Chandler Harris probably didn't know either. Not because he didn't know the stories, but it is unlikely any of the black folks who told them to him would have let him into the deeper secrets behind the stories.

In the first clip, Brer Fox and Brer Bear are shown as lumbering, foolish stereotypical sounding African Americans. If Disney had any understanding of what these stories were about, that fox and bear would have been presented as extremely foolish southern white characters.

All of Brer Rabbit's stories were about how important it was for enslaved Africans to be smarter, more resilient, stronger, and more determined than the enslavers all around them. Brer Rabbit is the only trickster who cannot be ultimately caught and punished. He is the only one who always walks free after thinking his way out of trouble. Fighting makes things worse. Thinking solves everything. Being cunning keeps you alive.

One would not guess that is the point of the Brer tales from Song of The South.

When you remove the people who created the stories from the equation of sharing the stories, tales can lose their purpose and power. It can even make the characters who are behaving in certain ways seem immoral, stupid, or mean. If the question, "Why are they doing that?" comes up at the end of a tale, and you don't know the answer, then something has gone awry in the telling.

Even though the stories can mean different things to different people, it is important to understand why they were told.

When you take a story out of its context, tell it without understanding the why of the tale, you make the people who told that tale invisible.

You mask the purpose of those tales.

You make their voices silent.

You cover up their need.

You ignore their truth.

You transfer potential wealth out of a community. Wealth in the form of both money and cultural richness.

Defining a group of people based on your lack of understanding of who they actually are will create misunderstandings.

When Disney took those tales, repurposed them, profited from them to the tune of millions of dollars, and at no point gave any voice to the people who originated those stories, they silenced Brer Rabbit in an odd way.

Nobody has put out another big national Bruh Rabbit project. Why?

Because Disney tainted the idea of Bruh Rabbit. The images they used, the language, the whole plot of the tale is considered racist and insensitive.

Instead of thinking, "Disney did it the wrong way," the Bruh Rabbit tales themselves are now somehow racist and insensitive!

I've seen librarians and teachers get nervous when they realize I'm about to tell one!

I get these questions from people:

Is it okay to tell them?
Is it okay to share them?

I was working with a business that was interested in southern folklore, but they were leery about using even a generic rabbit for fear someone would think it was Brer Rabbit and they would get "in trouble".

There is nothing wrong with telling Brer Rabbit tales.

I go into schools all over the country. I sometimes ask if anyone has ever heard of Brer Rabbit. Hardly any of the children have. Most of the adults haven't heard of him either.

I give the explanation for who he is and what he did. The audiences love the tales. Who wouldn't? They are fabulous!

Here is a good place to start

The reason why Bruh Rabbit stories were told is uncomfortable for some people.

The reason why they persist is that they are wonderful fun and speak to the downtrodden or those treated unjustly. They can certainly be used for that.

Just don't forget why they were told and where they came from. When you are telling these stories, don't let that part of it go. It speaks to a time in our cultural history that still shapes policies and procedures in our nation.

I know there are those reading these words and thinking that I am making too much of this. How can you make a culture invisible by misappropriating their stories? Honestly, one would think stories are everything!

What happens if you effectively misappropriate? Well, you get things like this.

Steve King, a representative of Iowa in 2016 had this to say about non-white non-Christian people.

“I would ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people you are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

I would like to say that this man is alone in this foolishness, but he is not.

The misappropriation of stories and images and ideas distorts them. If the people who have worked to disinherit "others" define how those "others" think, feel, behave, and look at the world, they control how that group can be treated.

This is where stereotypes are born.

What are the images we have gotten historically of people we don't want to think of as decent or worthy human beings? How have we defined them? I won't post any of those images here. You can find them if you like. Distorted images of the Irish, Italians, Jewish people, African Americans, Polish people, Muslims, Hispanics, people from Asia, and homosexuals are still with us and are still being passed around in some communities.

The way we tell stories about people matters.
The way we think about them...or don't think about them also matters.

Ask yourself some questions:

 Are you living on land that was appropriated from an earlier nation?

What First Nation People used to inhabit the lands around where you are now living?

How did those First Nation People live?

Where are their descendants today if there are any?

What are the circumstances around which your land was transferred from First Nation People?

To not see someone's stories is to not see their contributions.

To appropriate their stories is to make them invisible.

To make them invisible can impoverish them in the mainstream culture and drive them further away from either being seen or appreciated.

The Storytelling Component:

Why are you telling this story?

Do you know where this story originated or why it originated?

Who are the people behind this tale?

Have you changed the tale to fit a thing you want to say despite the tale saying nothing of the sort? Do you know if you have done this?

Can you truly tell this story and honor the people who told it?

Not every story has a strong cultural lens that needs to be confronted, but some do. Doing your homework helps.

 Next Up: I only know this because I've stepped into wasps nests: Learning From Our Mistakes

Part 2 - The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility 

Happy Telling!