Learning about this issue really did open up my eyes to the level of subtle racism in Western culture–I mean, I knew that racism still existed, but I hadn’t fully grasped how prevalent it was. (I suppose it’s not because I’ve got white privilege, but because people don’t really know enough about my culture to appropriate it. And there is not as much to appropriate from Filipino culture, since a lot of it has assimilated into Western culture already.) I was researching the issue more deeply and I felt that the content in my first post was incomplete, so this post is a continuation of my other post on cultural appropriation.
Recently, I saw a post on the web of these blonde girls prancing around in headdresses and imitation Native wear, saying how “liberating” it was to be free spirits in touch with the earth (by the way, they had some Marlboro cigs lighted up) and how cool it was they were honing their inner Native American. I will not link to the post because the post is now labeled private.
To those girls: first off, the headdress is actually for men to wear. From what I’ve read, headdresses are restricted accessories. They’re not simply fashion accessories among Natives, and only certain tribes have them; not all tribes have headdresses. (Please correct me if I am wrong, if you’re Native and you know about this stuff. I am not the leading authority on it. I am just echoing what I’ve seen on the Internet.) Secondly, for many Native Americans, it is not liberating to be who they are, to embrace their culture. Only in 1978 were Native Americans granted freedom to practice their religions–the indigenous religions. Today, in general, Native Americans tend to have higher rates of poverty. Many reservations are some of the poorest communities in America. And a lot of Natives describe the struggles they and their families had to face in the past and present: forced assimilation, being picked on at school by staff and peers for speaking their native languages. Social institutions doing all they can to erase Native cultures. Land taken away. Genocide.
You say you love being Native American, with your Urban Outfitters smudge kits and your cheap headdresses and moccasins; you say you love anything that has to do with Native Americans. Do you want to be Native American now that I have told you of the hardships they face?
What if I tell you one of the things Natives face is cultural appropriation, which is an act you are participating in right now? Bastardizing their customs with your fake powwow regalia and smudge ceremonies. I really hate to break it to you. I’m sorry, but it is the truth. You know what happens in the Nightmare Before Christmas, when Jack Skellington tries in vain to adopt Christmas and the kerfuffle that happens afterwards? It’s a similar situation.
But I’m honoring Natives and their culture! If a lot of Natives are saying that you’re disrespecting their culture, and you bet they are, you should take note. They should know better. Also, there are many different Native cultures. Cultural appropriation erases those differences and lumps them all into one.
But I thought we should all be united; isn’t this dividing us? In fact, cultural appropriation puts barriers between people. It romanticizes and exoticizes cultures. It puts them in the past; it does not look at cultures in the modern context and therefore makes people see cultures as something they’re not. Because of that, cultural appropriation decreases awareness and understanding of others.
What if my Native friend says it’s fine? It doesn’t mean that everyone else will be okay with imitation Native garb too. If some other people take offense with it, I like to play it safe and not meddle with what they wear. Unless I was invited to take part in something that required me to wear a certain accessory.
The tone of the complaints was not very polite. When I write posts, I always try to communicate politely. I’m sorry if this post comes out as rude. Frankly, I see so many posts on cultural appropriation and I am not exactly in favor of the way they communicate. But please don’t let the tone stop you from considering the actual message. If you realize you’ve made a mistake, the best thing to do is apologize and find ways to honor the culture and help its people. It isn’t a call to pit people against each other–it is a call to respect everyone’s backgrounds and identities.
How can I honor cultures, then? This doesn’t just go for Native cultures; it goes for all cultures. If someone invites you to do something, then you can go for it. Buy stuff made by the people of the culture, because you’re much more likely to use it properly and you’re helping the people.
What if I’m biracial/look white? This also goes for other cultures. I think you’d still have to go about your customs properly, but it is your culture, so you can participate. For example, I know some biracial folks that are half white half black. They look extremely white, but they happen to have hair that dreads naturally. That’s fine and it is not appropriation because it’s just the way they are. So if you see a white person like that, always, always, always look at the context. Do not immediately call them out.
Some posts for further reading: