Opinion: What is cultural appropriation?

Opinion: What is cultural appropriation?


Let’s talk about you stealing from me just kidding Not kidding. Hello my name is Ryan McMahon I’m an Anishinaabe writer and comedian based out of Treaty 1 territory. How do I talk about this very uncomfortable subject? Cultural appropriation… what is it? Alright I’m going to get to that because there are some good definitions that people can agree on, but first I’m going to take you through a little scenario. Picture yourself at home and picture your neighbor. You like your neighbour, you get along fine but you slowly start to notice that they’re copying you. The way you dress, the way you talk, the way you walk, the car you drive, whatever, all the things that make you you. It’s weird. But when does it cross the line? When does it become wrong? Well, your neighbour likes you car so much that they start to sneak in for drives. They start coming into your house to use your sofa and TV. They put on your clothes. Even your favourite t-shirt! Yeah, they put it on. That’s clearly wrong and there are laws against that. Culture isn’t so easy. Culture is messy. Culture is shareable. Culture is personal and deep. And being careless with culture can ruin relationships and shatter trust. Cultural appropriation is theft theft period. But it’s so hard to see it in action so here is a definition of cultural appropriation: it’s when a person picks aspects of a culture they don’t belong to and they use it for themselves, out of context. This whole controversy around cultural appropriation just keeps coming up, and it seems like people really want a list of do’s and dont’s. This is cultural appropriation, this isn’t. But it just doesn’t work that way. They want permission to be able to do certain things like wear dreadlocks in certain situations, or to wear a sari in certain situations, or to make sushi and open a sushi restaurant. But it’s not cut and dry like that because every situation is unique and that’s what makes this topic really difficult, and in fact, when you talk about freedom of speech as a response to a conversation about cultural appropriation, really all you’re doing is shutting down the hard conversation. So stop making distractions And replacing it with something reactionary and very easy and kind of dichotomous. Stop “Free speech versus censorship!” making distractions. Why not try and settle in to that tougher conversation? And let’s be clear censorship is the state censoring the people. No one in Indian country is trying to take away your right for you to write whatever you want. If there are people on the margins maybe we need to think about how to bring them toward the center, rather than taking the platform you already have and trying to imagine what it’s like to be on the margins. So does this mean that white writers can’t or shouldn’t write the experiences of people who are not white? White writers can write about whatever they choose. But what you have to do is be prepared to be scrutinized for it Don’t be surprised when people from diverse communities step up to you and say “hey what was that about?” Because if you haven’t done your homework or if you haven’t given that platform you have to somebody who might be more informed and can speak from their own experience, you’re going to hear about it. So how do people avoid cultural appropriation? If you’re thinking about doing something and you have this little kernel of an idea that you might be appropriating someone else’s culture, think simply about the privilege that you have and the power and privilege that this culture you’re borrowing from has and the people that belong to it. If you see an imbalance in your favour, maybe stop and think about what you’re doing. And think about other ways to elevate those other people and those other ideas and voices that you say that you appreciate. That’s the best way to find a solution to your problem. I think for Indigenous people, the way that we are governed to live has put us in boxes, has put our lives in boxes. So when we have the chance through the calls for reconciliation and Canada 150 to be heard and seen authentically, for the first time. Think about that, for the first time in this last 150 years, I think it’s integral we get it right. That’s why we are quick to jump, that’s why we want to have this conversation, that’s why representations matter. Because when we make those connections and we see people as full-fledged 3D humans, rather than a representation of group X, that’s when we have this kind of understanding and it becomes sort of second nature knowing if we’ve stepped out of line or not. Culture is very messy and it’s very difficult to draw lines and to know what’s proper and what really isn’t, but if we go back to that analogy, you being at home with your neighbour. If you opened your door to your neighbour you can ask to borrow my t-shirt That’s what it’s really about, have you been given permission to use these things or not? We need to center relationships, so personalize to decolonize, get to know each other on a first-name basis, get to know we’re all about. Centering Indigenous voices today will make this country better, it’ll make this country stronger, it’ll make generations coming behind us that much smarter. And if we celebrated the diversity right here in our own backyard, man, that would be a cool country to live in.

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