Why I’m done nail-biting about cultural appropriation

Peace out and go home, Internet outrage party. You’re drunk, and I’ve got a house to clean.

First, I feel it’s necessary to make the disclaimer that this post is NOT about denying that cultural appropriation is a thing that exists, and is wrong. I think we can all agree that things like this are not ok:

At least, I certainly do (WTF even is going on with the pattern on that bikini? Is it like Squanto-meets-Tarzan? No, you know what — don’t tell me. I don’t want to know). Moving on.

A Facebook group I belong to was recently discussing the latest in the internet’s short but robust history of trainwreck arguments over cultural appropriation. This particular topic had a fun twist: a picture of a white girl dressed in traditional Japanese attire and makeup posing proudly for her Janapese tea ceremony-style birthday party got posted to Tumblr with the comment “teach children that this is not ok.” The twist came when a Japanese woman shut the commentors crying cultural appropriation down, pointing out how many parts of Japanese culture are “borrowed,” and turning the racist label back on the commentors.

My Facebook group’s prompt: “Discuss.”

Oh boy.

As I read through the thread, processing this dizzying ping-pong of what constitutes cultural appropriation, and how a white person like me should navigate it responsibly, I felt that familiar dead-end sensation.

One (also white) commenter said something that really struck me:

Ask yourself, is this something that I can personally identify with being part of my lived experience? Is this a part of someone else’s? If your answers were no, and then yes. Don’t do it. Pretty damn simple.

I can almost see myself saying something like this, five to ten years ago. But I’ve gained more life experience since then, and increasingly more nuanced challenges, and today I understand that there is nothing simple about the guidelines this commenter presents — let alone feasible, or even just.

If I applied this simple two-question standard to how I educate my daughter, who is 50% Filipino, about her heritage, I’d fail doing just about anything. At the same time, completely ignoring her ancestry wouldn’t be right, either — would it?

It’s a dead end. It always is. Because the cultural appropriation debate — at least the vast majority of those that rage online — isn’t actually about helping people have respect for other cultures. It’s about ego. It’s about cutting other people down to make yourself look higher.

This story has been moved to the creativeonion network, where members support my work through a monthly subscription.

poet, educator, hillbilly gnostic druid. indie publisher and creator of COSGRRRL magazine, teaching business @KCADofFSU.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store