oh look a handy guide

to my fellow white people

“But white people don’t have culture!”

A- that doesn’t mean you get to take others. Were we allowed to take ice cream from other kids because we didn’t have any? No. so why would it be okay to take important cultural and religious symbols? And b- YES YOU DO. Just because you are too lazy to learn about it is not anyone else’s problem.

I love my culture, my symbols and my heritage. And it’s because I went out of my way to learn about it. Even if my family tartan looks like someone took a perfectly good tartan and puked on it- it is mine. I learned the old Celtic symbols and stories of my ancestors. I joined a re-enacting group and lived the history of Canadians in 1812, I learned to play an instrument of my culture, and I learned the songs. I learned about pagan influences on the christen holidays I celebrate with my family. We have culture! Heaps of it! And it is as interesting and diverse and steeped in symbolism as any other.

“This symbol/design/idea/ect. Really speaks to me!”

Now, there are ways to incorporate beliefs from other cultures into our own without appropriating them. However, the symbols people often claimed they associate with are not the deep, spiritual understandings, but rather things they think are pretty with a (barely) basic understanding of what they mean. (This does not include gifts or anything like that. situations like those are special and about the individual and are a different discussion than this one).

I can bet that, as humans are rather consistent creatures even when they don’t interact, that there is a symbol in your own history that will work just fine. Could I go and buy a native Canadian symbol of strength? Oh probably. Or, I can wear my Celtic knot of strength. Same meaning, just as pretty and I’m not disrespecting someone else’s culture. Seriously. Every culture has symbols like “the dog is loyalty!” because dogs are loyal everywhere you go. Or the bear is ferocious. Or the eagle/falcon/big ass bird of prey is proud. The owl is wise. Ect. you can find a symbol in the culture of your ancestors. Any they are really cool looking.

“It’s just art.”

Nothing is “just art”. Art is one of the most basic parts of our cultures. They reflect who we are as a society, the have messages in them that can only be understood by those who live and breathe it. Art is part of who we are as people. I mean, theatre is art, and I know a fair few white people who get tied in knots when Shakespeare is performed by anyone who isn’t white. Unless it’s Othello. So it’s not “just art.” If you are going to display art from a culture not your own, you better be damn sure you know what it means. Case in point- I have an Iroquois beaded patch on my backpack. I bought it from an Iroquois craftswoman and she flat out told me it didn’t have any special meaning, it was just a pretty design. So I wear it proudly because it is decoration, created for the intent of decoration. Is it still art? Yes! But unlike people who buy say, Native funeral masks to put on their walls it is intended as decoration, something pretty to be shared. Funeral masks, religious imagery, faux religious imagery, ect. are not something pretty for you to put up and admire. I means something, you have no right to take that meaning.

“I’m just showing appreciation for that culture!”

No you’re not! That there, is a load of self-justifying bollocks. Appreciation is not shown by taking symbols you know nothing about and using them like a purse- a nice tie in to an outfit. Cultures are not to be appreciated, they are not well behaved children in a restaurant or pretty works of art in a gallery. They are literally the way in which people have lived their lives for hundreds of years. They are the product of environment, struggle, happiness and human endeavours. Cultures aren’t there for the shits and giggles! And when you say this, I’m going to pretty much guarantee you are wearing some half researched bastardisation of a stereotype. This is not appreciation.

“So because I’m white, it’s racist?”

No. It’s because you are ignorant. I saw a video once of a group a modern Zulu dancers. They were part of a community that had no money to support them so they worked their asses off to book studio time, get costumes and get too contests and shows. There was one white guy in the group who worked and danced with them. This is not cultural appropriation, even though he was white. He was part of that group, he knew the meaning, knew the purpose. These were his friends and his brothers and he did everything they did and not a fuck was given. However, this is likely not you. You are likely wearing, celebrating, doing it, ect. because you think it’s neat, or pretty, or exotic.

And you know what, I think I would be rather put out if I saw a black girl sporting a great kilt with my family’s tartan on it. She would likely have no idea what it meant and probably just thought it was cool. That has a symbol to me, and I’d be upset. And I’d have every right too! Much of psudo-scots culture is already in our society- such as the catholic school kilts. These are not a problem because they are just part of living in our society. But my symbols are my symbols. However, I really wouldn’t have the same right to be as offended. Because there is no time in history I can think of where it was super fashionable for rich POC’s to get together in twisted imperialistic parody’s of white cultural clothing and call it a party. I could be put out, and I could think she was silly- but it’s not a common racist epidemic where in everyone will totally misrepresent my culture and get upset when I am offended. Also, I’m not kidding, my family tartan is the ugliest thing, and unless it is yours you really don’t want it.

”Other cultures appropriate things from North America.”

“American” culture is literally a weird mashup of lots of different cultures. Really, things we consider to be “American” and just things immigrants brought over with them and we forgot where they came from. Hotdogs is kinda the big example. Also, it doesn’t count as cultural appropriation when we literally go to other places and try to force it on them. I can tell you right now, there are not a lot of places jumping at the chance to appropriate cowboys or the American Dream. Most of this also applies to Canada too.

“Modern” clothing like suits do not count. We don’t place the same cultural value on a suit or jeans or a t-shirt. They are not “traditional” clothing. And really, we force people to make these things in piss poor conditions for no money so we can have them cheap- and you want to say wearing it is cultural appropriation? Really?

”I lived in [country] for years.”

See, this is a tricky one. If you live in a place for a long time, you will pick up on their culture in it. So let’s say I lived in Tokyo for the first 10 years of my life, there are things that would just be part of who I was that are distinctly Japanese. Does this mean I can wander about the streets of Toronto in a full kimono? Nope! It’s not my ancestral culture. There are people in Japan who are mixing traditional clothing with modern, and that is there right to do so. They know the culture and the meaning. And even if you do, it may be okay there around people who know you in that place you grew up- it’s different here. And it will always be different. However, if your saying this what you are doing is probably not a part of a cultural shift in the country who’s culture you are appropriating- you probably picked it up with no understanding of what it means. Saying this means you can’t discuss it, you can’t explain the attachment or knowledge you have of it. This makes it appropriation.

”If you don’t like it, don’t consume it”

This one is concerning books or movies or other media. Yea, this is not how the world works. While we do have a choice in what we consume, there is also a responsibility not to put out works that are racist. Now, you can enjoy a story outside of your culture- that’s totally cool and a part of understanding other people. However, if it IS racist then it should not exists, and people have every right to demand it be pulled off the shelves. It is misrepresenting the culture, the people, the stories and the history and just saying “well if you don’t like it…” makes you racist. Racist movies, books whatever do not get to exist just because you are not offended.

”So if I wear [item of clothing] I am a racist.”

Probably. Often when you say this shit you aren’t talking about a pair of shoes. You are talking about something with some pretty deep cultural significance that you know nothing about and don’t care to know anything about. Scratch the probably- yes. Yes this makes you ignorant and a racist. If people are actually pissed off enough to call you out on it- you have crossed some major boundaries and are racist. Even if you don’t mean to be, you still are. How to not be racist? Say sorry and stop it. Not say sorry and keep doing it- stop it. Learn. (Obviously if it involves getting naked on the subway you can get home and change. Then stop it. People want you to not appropriate their culture, not sit uncomfortably exposed on public transit.)

”That isn’t cultural! It’s iconic!”

This is the kind of statement you make to make a robots head explode. To be iconic, it has to be cultural. All culture, even sub cultures like punk or geek, have icons. They are icons because they hold meaning to that culture. It it’s an icon like a feather in a head band often used in racist white portrayals of Native culture it is a racist, imperialistic icon. These icons are not okay. Like, I don’t even understand how this is an argument. Honestly, if you use this argument how do you get pants on in the morning?

”I’m filling a niche- if I don’t someone else will.”

This is a business owner thing. Now, I could use this opportunity to make a joke about how people in business are heartless, but I won’t. They are just looking to support themselves. However, this is another one of those things I am super confused as to why people say this. There are already people filling that niche, craftspeople and business owners from that culture- WHO DO IT RIGHT. And since when did other people being incorrect mean that we could? This is something people complain about ALL the time. Just because someone else MIGHT be racist doesn’t mean you should. It’s not a race. There is not a prize for being an ignorant insensitive ass before anyone else.

”White people experience racism too!”

Kinda touched on this one already. Now, is it possible to be racist towards white people? Yes. Is it a wide spread epidemic that affects our lives and keeps us from living in safety and comfort? No. Seriously, someone calling you a “cracker” is in no way the same as the years of abuse and institutional racism still felt by other human beings right now. On a few occasions it has been remarked that I have a huge ass for a white girl- this is stereotyping but I’m not going to be seeing large assed white girls playing out outdated jokes and stereotypes on tv near constantly. If in our lives white people experience racism even once it is an oddity and for that we should all count ourselves damn lucky. Also, someone being racist is no excuse for you to be racist back. Like, just because that was said to me does not give me the right to walk around in psudo bastardised traditional African clothing.

”Art always borrows from other art.”

Or any other variation of this idea. And, at its more simple and pure, this is true. Art does borrow and steal and change other ideas and art into something new. However, wearing a sacred symbol as a fashion accessory, or a racist design is not art. If you were to create a theatre piece that mixes traditional native performances with garrison theatre style of staging to weave the story of a half native half white child finding their place in the world of Upper Canada circa 1792 this would be art. This would not be cultural appropriation, so long as you did the proper research and discussed what parts of these traditional performances are okay to share and perform with people so as not to break cultural rules. Otherwise, it is still cultural appropriation and racist.

”I’m doing it respectfully!”/”I’m not offended.”

I’m going to discuss these two together because they go hand in hand. So one, if someone is pointing out what you are doing is disrespectful and offensive, then you are not doing it respectfully and its offensive. And it doesn’t matter if you thought you were being respectful or if you weren’t offended- it really isn’t your call. It’s not your culture and it’s not your symbols so you have no right to decide how offended a person can be. If someone came as said the patch on my bag was offensive, I would apologize and explain where I got it and why I have it. If they then said it did have a meaning, and I had been misinformed by the woman who made it (though I can’t imagine why) I would remove it. Often times though, if you are doing something respectfully people leave you be. Because, you know, you’re being respectful and they don’t care.

”This is promoting unity between cultures!”

Yeeeeeeeeeea- no. Just no. No, nope, nadda and no. You live in some weird Disney land where cultures can be boiled down to “Steady as the Beating Drum” and “Virginia Company”. Appropriation does not create unity. It creates rifts and hatred and misunderstanding through misinformation.

”I asked a person from that culture and they said it was okay.”

Let’s got back to that patch- as far as I know from the woman who created it there is no meaning to the pattern. Like painting a picture of someone you think is pretty for no other reason that its pretty and hanging it on a wall, it is something to be admired for its beauty. When you are saying this, you’re not talking about patches and paintings meant to be pretty. You are talking about symbols and clothing that has a deep cultural meaning and has rules and ideas and history surrounding it. One person does not get to speak for everyone. No one elected them cultural ambassador to the middle class white people of North America. There are designs and objects that don’t have any more cultural significance than a floral pattern table cloth- so long as you understand this there isn’t really a problem- UNLESS OTHER PEOPLE SAY THERE IS. You can be misinformed, and if someone points out you have, you don’t argue. You stop. And you apologize. Just because the mistake wasn’t intentional doesn’t mean you can ignore the offense. If you punch someone in the face, even by accident to apologize because it still wasn’t okay, even if all you were doing was being exited while turning abruptly.

”Stereotypes exist because there is truth in them.”

And yet, you will be the first to crown “Not all white people are racist!” when someone is upset because a bunch of white people are being racist. Wearing something offensive, or taking a symbol you don’t understand cannot be justified with “sometimes Asians ARE bad drivers!” Their assumed poor automobile operating skills do not allow you to do whatever you want with their traditional clothing or run around with fake bombs strapped to your chest and a towel wrapped around your head because there are suicide bombers from a particular part of the world.

”It’s a parody! It’s funny!”

To do a parody you and your audience must understand what is being parodied. I can parody Anglican families because I lived in one- and people who grew up in other protestant or catholic families will find it funny because it’s likely their experiences were similar. However, someone who grew up in a very Buddhist family would look at me like I was stupid because it’s not an experience they know. And that’s why I couldn’t parody their lives because I DON’T UNDERSTAND IT. Using a bunch of outdated and racist stereotypes and calling it a parody don’t count.

”But you are always so upset about things being Anglo-centric!”

Appropriating culture is still Anglo-centric. It demeans important parts of culture as nothing more than pretty bobbles to go with your shoes and are not really important. Helping things be not Anglo-centric would be changing how history is taught in schools to not just include, but properly portray the history of POC’s apart from “and then they traded beads with the natives!” and “there was a black piloting regiment” for a paragraph before going back to the English men. Or French men, if its Canadian history.

”White culture is boring.”

No it’s not. You just don’t care enough to look into it. I have already had a point about people like this being lazy, so I’ll bring up a different point.

White culture and history is not “exotic” or “special” to you. It’s not about being boring, it’s about it being mundane. All we ever hear about are these super awesome white guys who blew shit up with gun powder in varying forms. Or we don’t like the concrete plastic world that is urban North America (I cannot speak for other urban centers around the world). So we take these “peaceful nature respecting cultures” full of spirits and gods dedicated to nature and make them our own by imposing Anglo-Saxon ideals on them. Guys, Anglo-Saxon culture has nature spirits and peaceful belief systems and these cultures you are demeaning cannot be smooshed into that lens. The cultures, though there are universal things which connect all people, going back to the dog is loyal, they are different and cannot be used interchangeably.

“Don’t you have something more important to worry about?”/”You’re just telling everyone what to think.”/ any of this crap.

If you say this you are an asshole. People can worry about whatever they god damn please and if they are upset about it, they have every right to be. Also if you say this, you are admitting you are wrong and just don’t want to change. This makes you a double asshole with a side salad.

Gifts are totally different things. In our world, as it is today we make friends with people from other cultures, religions and races. A good friend is like family, and we want to share things that are important to us with our friends or our significant others. A Vietnamese friend and I do a thing where we go to different restaurants of our respective cultures and share those things with each other- and its awesome. When it comes to a gift, the person giving it knows the rules, and the meaning and will likely explain it too you. If you are wearing a bracelet with a particular symbol on it and it gets called out, calmly explain what it is. If you get moody and defensive because how dare someone not know this was a gift then you are as bad as all these people. A gift from a friend should mean something, and if it doesn’t why do you wear it?

I am a wasp (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), who grew up in a home that always managed to have food on the table no matter what financial troubles my family came into. For this, I am blessed. I grew up with prejudice parents who grew up not getting that some things are not okay or that you don’t have to respect other cultures because they weren’t Christin. My father was especially bad for this. When I was like, 12 I was super into Japanese culture and appropriated the shit out of the kimono- not realizing what I was doing. I have literally been the person who says this shit. I’ve been lucky in that my father loves our family history, and so was encouraged to learn about it, and about my own culture. But relative to my life, it only stuck recently. I have LEARNED what is okay and what isn’t. There is seriously no excuse. I am not some paragon of social justice and equality, I wasn’t raised in a manner that fostered understanding of cultural difference- there is no reason you cannot learn what is and isn’t okay.

This is mostly for wasps because we are the ones with the best financial and social standing within our disgustingly racist North American society. I can really only speak about wasps, as I am one and therefor know it best. I can’t speak for other people of European descent. If you happen to be from a different European group- stop it. It not cool for you either. And, if I have been seriously incorrect in anything I have said I would be grateful for you to tell me. Being wrong is part of learning and understanding. I have had my ingrained values challenged and torn down because I was told I was wrong. Otherwise, I hope this helps people understand this, because apparently a human explaining it isn’t enough- if it’s not a human just like them people don’t seem to get shit. Though that may be a discussion for another day.