Cultural appropriation is such a confusing and sensitive topic, and it has been for a number of years, and becoming more so. Anyone that knows me knows that the number one thing I do my very best to instill in my children is respect for everyone. Everyone is different and what a boring place Earth would be if we were all the same, or all had the same opinion. We may not agree with everyone, and that’s okay, but try to understand why they have their beliefs and you will learn something, too.
Sometimes I really feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Over the years a couple of people have said we are are guilty of appropriation with the crafts and activities my children do, some of which are on this blog, while others are not.
Issues with cultural appropriation
Last summer I was watching a Facebook Live event for a book launch by a Métis man who used to teach at my elementary school and is now a successful author and speaker. During this event people were typing in their questions and more than one teacher asked if it was okay to use the book in their classrooms or would that be considered appropriation because they were not First Nations people themselves.
I suppose you could say I was raised ‘cultureless’ for the most part, just being me, without family traditions steeped in prior generations’ history.
So….those who say you cannot teach or speak about a culture that is not your own….where does that leave me, and more importantly, my children?
I should not then teach my children about Canada, because I am not of First Nations decent, and now the country mainly consists of people from other cultures, be it back to the Norsemen, British, French, etc., or later one of the dark periods of Chinese immigration and the way they were treated as no more than slaves to build the railways, or more recently people from Syria, Banladesh, Chili, or Mongolia?
I’m raising my children in Northern Ireland (which is weird place having both the cultures of Britain and Ireland, yet is very different from both places), but I should not teach my children about Northern Ireland, Ireland, or the rest of the United Kingdom because I was not raised here (I do have citizenship through a grandparent, but his family moved to Canada when he was young).
I should not teach my children about Japan and what I learned and experienced there first-hand because it is not my native culture (and I am fully aware that my experience and ways of seeing things are framed completely different than those who were born and raised in Japan).
What, then, am I actually ‘qualified’ to teach my children? Although it was never my intention to raise children here where there the population is 98.2% Caucasian, this is the way life has happened.
Should my children grow up only to know white people of the same religion as their grandparents, as has been done for decades, even centuries here? Yes, a ‘mixed marriage’ here is the term for when a Protestant and a Catholic (or any two different religions) marry, and is still quite rare. In fact, only 7% of children go to ‘integrated’ schools.
If this is the way life should be, then I think that explains a lot about why people are afraid of ‘foreigners’ or those who look, sound, behave, or believe differently than them. They may not have had the opportunity to meet, or at least learn about people who are not the same as them.
Not everyone has the privilege of living abroad or going on lavish vacations to new places, or perhaps not even to visit a local museum or art gallery, due to financial constraints.
Not everyone has friends of various cultural backgrounds to teach their children.
Personally, I think it is better that I do everything I can to help my children learn about the wider world outside of the town we live in so they can be knowledgeable and not be afraid (fear is the main factor behind racism, or any other ‘ism’).
Learning about history, so as to not repeat it, I think is important. Not turning a blind eye. Yes, my children know that history has mainly been written from the male perspective, and that those who once lived in the UK, where they’re residing, were sent out to ‘claim’ foreign lands. The way this was done in the USA and Canada were very different, but both have had lasting consequences on the people who once lived off the land and were at one with nature. I’m very open about that – that every event has many perspectives.
No one is perfect, and the norms of societies have changed over time, and will continue to change. What was once acceptable may no longer be. But that also doesn’t mean sweeping it under the carpet.
Cultural appropriation shouldn’t mean that I mustn’t teach my children about other world cultures, religions, languages, and so on. I will obviously have my own experiences and ‘accent’ on what I teach, but if I make that clear, and also teach that books are painted in the tint of the authors and publishers, as well. I hope that my children are learning to take perspectives into consideration with anything they read as nothing can be completely objective.
So…that’s general culture. But what about crafts? One big way for people to connect with their own or others’ culture is through crafts. I have come across a site that said you cannot make crafts without the original, traditional items. And certainly not if you aren’t of that culture.
I would say that for many, if not most crafts, one would be hard-pressed to use traditional materials. Plastic beads have replaced those of glass, porcelain, porcupine quills, shells, teeth, and other materials, for example. This is not realistic.
And learning the skills and techniques involved in a traditional craft, along with its history, is very enriching. Making things more simplistic for young children to be able to do is bringing things to a level and ability they can understand. Making craft models of traditional housing, for example, doesn’t mean we’re out to be offensive, but rather showing interest and a yearning for deeper understanding. Seeing a 2D model in a book is very different from building (even a very simplistic) 3D version that children can touch and move and pretend that they’re a part of it, as they have become it while making it.
And food…imagine if Americans only ate hot dogs and apple pie! Or Brits only fish and chips! My goodness, there’s literally a whole world of flavours out there, just waiting to be tried! I may not make Bombay potatoes in a traditional way, with the correct potatoes or pans, but my family appreciates the flavours none the less.
I do know that my experience of food in China is absolutely nothing like the awful, greasy, tasteless, and mangled meals that are passed off as being Chinese locally, even when made by people with Chinese ancestry. The local palettes simply could not manage it so the recipes are changed to be what people ‘think’ Chinese food is.
I’ve even been to a TexMex restaurant in Belfast where the only ‘authentic’ item on the menu was Mexican rice – but the waiter told me not to have it because it wasn’t good. I asked why the restaurant had the name, the stereotypical sombreros (used only for Instagram pictures), and no Tex or Mex food…the place had only been open a few months, but the menu had to be changed to be the same as every other restaurant because that’s what people wanted – they didn’t want to actually eat ‘foreign’ food and it wasn’t selling.
Media & Culture
Here’s an example of the madness that surrounds this issue. This news story features an African-American girl in the United States who is amazing at Irish dancing. Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging the time, effort, and talent she has, she’s been openly criticised for it because she is not ‘Irish.’
This week, I’m sure the whole world is aware of the Oprah interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and some of the fallout that is happening because of it. Being from North America and moving to the United Kingdom one wouldn’t think would be a big deal as they both have English as the main language. But the local cultures are very different indeed, and I personally know people who made the move and quickly moved back because they couldn’t manage the differences. I won’t speak about any particular individual, but I can say there are definitely subtle (and not so subtle) undertones of prejudiceness, not only dealing with race, but also religion (particularly here in Northern Ireland), as well as class.
The media over here is also, for the most-part, biased, unlike the objective journalism that was taught in schools and university in the ’80s and ’90s in Saskatchewan. They are also a lot more aggressive and opinionated, which leads to division and the sectioning of society. It’s rare to have piece that is wholly objective and tells things taking all sides into consideration. These outlets have their place, and can be useful to help one understand the prevailing points of view of different areas, but I’m glad there is one outlet that is bound by regulations to remain neutral.
Context is important
Of course, there definitely are times when appropriation is the case, when dressing up or such is done in a derogatory or disrespectful way, slang or reginal words are used with a particular tone of voice. But I believe that it should be dealt with in a gentle way as the offending person may not even realise what they are doing is wrong (a perfect example of what can happen when people aren’t taught about other cultures or ways of life).
There are different contexts which must also be considered. An example of this was back in Regina when the children and I were able to go into and photograph a tipi. At this time it was in the front yard of a home within walking distance from where I grew up. We spoke with the ‘owners’ of it and had their permission. At this point it was okay. However, because it had been used in a ceremonial way during a protest, it had to be clarified that at that time it wouldn’t be possible, but because it was not being used for that purpose when we were in town, it wasn’t seen as a sacred object. It’s an experience my children still talk about, and they now can relate much better when they are learning about First Nations in their Canadian history classes.
Still Confused About Cultural Appropriation
Perhaps because I try my best to see things from different points of view and be respectful, this topic always ends up with me in a bad frame of mind as I try not to offend anyone, but yet feel the need to share my love of cultures (I’m sure at least half of this blog contains posts about culture through books, travel, food, and other topics) with my family.
If you don’t agree with me, that’s your perspective, and that’s okay; you needn’t follow me as you have that free choice. However, I will continue to introduce my children to the cultures of the world and share them here as well. For I do have the responsibility to teach my children to be understanding, empathetic, and appreciative of those who do no live the same lives they do.