random robin

cultural appropriation

My mom makes corned beef and cabbage every year for St. Patrick’s. My mom is partly Irish, and just your general mix of Anglo-Saxon, like good white folk tend to be. Therefore, I am Anglo-Saxon.

Those of you who know me just smiled or chuckled quietly, but for the benefit of those who don’t, I am adopted. I am very much Korean. Though I used to fantasize as a kid that my father was a white Army dude with a big crooked nose who knocked my mother up. Why, you may ask, did I wish this to be? Because (a) I liked the idea that I was of mixed race, even though I am pretty sure I’m not, and (b) it gave a believable back story to why my parents had to give me up. But I digress. (This fantasy and its subsequent analysis will be in my forthcoming book, published in… well dont hold your breath.)

Truth is that I grew up feeling more white than “yellow” but when I am seen being fairly celebratory over something like St. Patty’s, I feel like a fraud. Never mind that I grew up eating corned beef and potatoes on March 17th. It really doesn’t count.

Or does it?

One of the touchstones of culture and ethnic diversity, especially drawn out (and quartered?) in the late 90s, is the act of cultural appropriation. If you weren’t in the educational process of diversity training during the 90s you may have missed this concept. To appropriate something is to claim it for a specific purpose, or to set it aside, like funds, for specific purposes. Someone decided that the idea of appropriation in terms of culture meant that people who did not necessarily belong to that culture could be given a kind of “pass” to engage in it, even to the point of incorporating it into their own.

For example,  in Denver, for several years now, they have celebrated the Dragon Boat Festival. It’s an awesome fest involving Buddhist monks and boat races. Everyone comes out and they are “asian” for a day. It has become a ritual that people have embraced as their own. It’s cool.

But there are some who would argue it’s abusive. They would say that there should be a distinct line between those who are appreciative of a culture and those who are “allowed” to engage in it.

Personally, I have come to understand that appreciation IS engagement, that you have to DO something to truly understand it and experience the meaning on whatever level you need to. But I also would add that in appreciating and experiencing the joys and beauty of a culture, it is necessary to understand the hardships and the context of that culture.

A good example of this, I think, is Jamestown Island. yes, the one that I live near. I think they do a good job of setting up the environment so you can truly get a feel for just how difficult it was to live back then and how strong these men and women had to be to survive at all. There is also a greater appreciation for the native peoples who had achieved a harmony and natural balance here, long before the nasty Europeans got here. Now we can go around with our Native American Festivals and wear our feather headdresses and animal hide skirts, but the fact remains, these things will never MAKE us Native Americans. We can learn from them and even appropriate certain lifestyle choices of theirs, ie. living off the land, not overstepping our bounds by nature, etc., but that stops just short of calling ourselves Powhatans.

The question then becomes what can you call yourself and get away with it? It isn’t like religions where you can actually adopt yourself into one. But even with religion it isn’t nominal. I can say I’m a Buddhist but spend any time with me and you would smell fraud. I own a couple books and I used to read random stuff by the Dalai Lama, but then again, I read that book by Gene Roddenberry. Doesn’t make me a Trekkie.

Point is that I have no idea really what my point is. The right to a culture is a sketchy thing really. Where the lines and rules are no one really knows and any one group that says they know are in fact creating a hierarchy that is not intrinsically placed in the human collective. Yea, ok, that sounded trek-like. But I guess what I’m saying is there is no quick answer to what culture you can call your own with any authority. So when I say I’m more Irish than Korean, I don’t mean just on March 17th. Though it’s the one day no one looks at me funny.

Slainte!  Tiocfaidh ar la!

(Those mean “Health” and “Our day will come”… a political expression from Bobby Sands, but let’s not discuss the IRA.)



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