Writing during such a troubling time is both easy and difficult. Easy to express concerns about COVID, about economic difficulties, about racist concerns, about violent protests and last but not least, political craziness; I have strong feelings about all five. Strong feelings make writing difficult. I want to make sure my concerns are correct. I want to state them clearly, I want to be fair to all sides, Emotions make clear thinking and fair treatment difficult, but for me, writing leads to clearer thinking than speaking my mind. When I talk it is too easy to convince myself I am correct.
Last week I presented the concept of cultural appropriation with arguments for and arguments against the idea. Just this week I read two claims about cultural appropriation being a racist activity. Obviously anything related to race is a sensitive topic in our toxic environment. I will attempt to write in a careful, clear manner.
Why do I care so deeply about this topic?
My high school is a key.
I am a proud graduate of Wichita High School North in Wichita Kansas. The building is shown in the following pictures.
Everyone agrees the building is beautiful. Obviously it has many depictions and references to Native Americans and their culture. From its beginning in 1929 we have been known as the Redskins. When I played sports, we had a powerful pep song called “War Cry.” It inspired us and according to opponents, it was not a song they wanted to hear. We had a person dressed in Native American dress lead the pep song. In my senior year he was an African American who went on to great success.
Today, the theme song is gone the pep leader is gone, but the school remains the Redskins. Obviously, some believe the school is a racist example of cultural appropriation.
The topic has many parts. I will just address three.
My first thought is — misuse of another culture is wrong, no matter whether it is a minority or a majority culture. If people are mocking another culture then appropriation is misappropriation. Blackface to mock African Americans is wrong. Wearing Indian regalia to mock them is wrong.
For me the key is intent. If the action is meant as respect for another culture, I struggle to understand how appropriation is wrong. Good intentions can be misperceived causing miscommunication. We cannot go through life, trying to please every body in every situation that can be misperceived. Even among Native Americans in Wichita, some object to North High as racist while others see the school as honoring Native American culture.
I know in my heart my intent was and is respect. I am certain my respect and concerns for Native American issues is much greater because of my school. My love for Native American art, my distaste for Andrew Jackson and his policies, my sorrow for Wounded Knee, Sand Creek and other massacres, my respect for Chief Joseph and other leaders and much more is undoubtedly grounded in my high school experiences.
In many of cultural conflicts we see complaints about the lack of understanding between cultures. People want to be understood, to be heard. I think well meaningful cultural sharing (some would call appropriation) is an excellent way to hear and learn as well as gain respect for another culture. Some Native Americans agree with me others want exclusive control of their culture.
I tried to think of a good example to ponder, I came up with this question — if two little girls (one black, one white) were best friends and the white girl wanted to put her hair in dreads, would this be cultural appropriation and racist, or a show of love, building understanding and unity between cultures?
My second concern is the claim that if a majority culture borrows (appropriates) an idea from another culture without the experiences of the minority culture then colonialism has occurred. At the extreme that implies you would have to be born into a culture to have a shared value. The values of the Irish, the American, the Christian, the Jew, the African American, the Native American and other cultures would be exclusively theirs. You would have to be born into those values. Unless you have their experiences you cannot share their culture.
I disagree. To me, Colonialism is when a majority culture forces its influence on a minority culture. If Christians in America decreed that Muslim call to prayer (the adhan) could no longer be made by a muezzin but must be signaled by carillon, or Jews could not use the shofar and had to ring bells—that would be Colonialism. If a country has complete control over another country that is Colonialism
Remember, I said, if you borrow in a disrespectful manner you are wrong, but borrowing with respect and good intentions does not seem to be wrong to me.
When we entered athletic competition, the pep song and pep leader were inspired by the strength of Native Americans. We saw them as strong warriors not as savages. They were very capable in competition and we wanted to be likewise. In my opinion, to share values with respect is not colonialism.
My final concern is my biggest concern. The idea that aspects of a culture are not to be shared by others is elitism, people wanting to put themselves before others. I think it is okay to celebrate your roots but to hold that your cultures values are not to be shared by other heightens the “us- them” divisions, reduces the ability to have understanding across cultures.
Rather than seeking to have a separate culture that makes us distinct I would like us to rise above individual cultures an find the best values that “we” can share, values that bring us together values that unite us. I have always looked to the Fruit of the Spirit given in the book of Galatians for values that all cultures should share.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, tolerance, generosity, strength of character and self control are values that cannot be misappropriated and I would like all to share.
My concern for cultural values that unite cultures is expressed in the following poem:
Us versus them will be the end of us
unless we learn to think we
Neither gender, nor race
should give bigotry a face.
Above male or female be human;
Above black … or brown … or white be human.
Christian verses atheist, Muslim versus Jew
straights versus gays , red versus blue;
too many divisions of me versus you.
In the race to celebrate diversity,
we’ve lost focus on what we can share;
our hearts and minds, our love, our being.
Matters that truly matter – rise above and lie within.
Us versus them will be the end of us
unless we learn to think we
Let me know what you think.