One of the questions considered by the fifty-seven attendees at last night’s Continuing Conversation on Race and White Privilege was ” When does cultural appreciation become cultural appropriation?” Not in Our Town facilitator, John Steele, contributed the following response:
“As a white man who is relatively new to interrogating how my social identity affects the way I act and think, this question is one I have spent a lot of time mulling over recently. I have come to believe that there is no way to know for certain that I am not appropriating, when I believe myself to be appreciating. I do firmly believe in the value of exposing myself to other cultures, by listening to music, attending (when invited) events devoted to discussing issues in various communities, reading history or contemporary literature from other perspectives, and other such things. As an outsider, I am by definition not familiar with the ins and outs of the norms and rules of that culture. I need people who are members of that community to let me know if I step “out of bounds”. People who have lived experience and who know more intimately the history of that culture, and particularly the history of how people like me (white men) have engaged with that community. I have many times wanted to say, or wear, or post something, but had to ask myself, and more importantly have had to ask members of that community, the question “Am I doing this for the right reasons?” When I am doing it for me (either to make myself seem “cooler”, or more knowledgeable, or more of an ally), I am almost always “out of bounds.” But as we all know, the road to a very hot and not fun place is paved with good intentions. Even if I believe myself to be doing it in service of the community, or to show my appreciation for an aspect of the community that resonates with me, there have been times that I have unknowingly reproduced historical traumas by unknowingly asserting ownership over something that is not mine, or some other blind blunder.