Cultural Appropriation is Like Crashing a Party?

Before I begin… This metaphor might be too lighthearted for a serious subject matter. It is my privilege* to be able to talk “lightly” of cultural appropriation. I intend to leverage my privilege (for justice, I hope!) in this instance; I have the emotional energy to write on this subject without deep personal distress and I can offer a blog post that is easy enough to read and a might be place to get the conversation started with newbies, etc.

Still, since I’m always thinking about partying and I also “sometimes” think about important social issues, I thought to myself: Cultural Appropriation Is Like Crashing A Party…!

This birb of Australian descent appropriates "Christian" culture which originally appropriated pagan culture..?

This birb of Australian descent appropriates “Christian” culture which originally appropriated pagan culture..?

Maybe this makes sense to me because of the almost holy respect I have for crashing parties the right way. It is an honor to be a stranger at someone else’s party (and an honor I certainly don’t want to fuck up by being an asshole). Some party crashers choose the “nothing to lose” mentality and swoop on all the drinks and food with no consideration for their hosts, and to them I say, you are ungrateful and terrible. Let’s pretend we don’t want to be ungrateful and terrible, and move on to being appreciative and thoughtful…

How do you know you are crashing a party? Easy, you were not invited. How do you know you’re crashing a culture? Same answer. Is it always bad to crash parties? No, there’s some situations where it’s acceptable, or even welcome. Is it always bad to borrow from other cultures? Refer to previous.

Imagine I’ve crashed a party. My senses are heightened. I observe the local party customs. Do people freely reach into the cooler, or do they ask around before opening a beer that might not be theirs? Where are cigarettes smoked? Who’s allowed to change the music? Since I’m not invited, what extra etiquette precautions must I take to demonstrate I am willing to be a respectful and easygoing guest?

This ordinary keffiyeh is worn for comfort and fashion and (as far as I can tell) is fine to borrow, as opposed to the Palestinian keffiyeh which holds significant political meaning and should probably be researched before choosing to wear.

This ordinary keffiyeh is worn for comfort and fashion and (as far as I can tell) is fine to borrow, as opposed to the Palestinian keffiyeh which holds significant political meaning and should probably be researched before choosing to wear.

Sometimes party etiquette is not about what you don’t do, but how you do participate. If I’m the only one not dancing, I might be making the dancers feel vulnerable, judged. Being a respectful party crasher means trying to defer to the way others do the party thing. You must find the appropriate spot on the spectrum between hot mess and party pooper. You can’t be the only drunken disaster, because you’re stepping all over someone else’s party (and being oppressive), but you also can’t be a total wallflower in a room full of rockstars because you’re going to come across as lazy or stifling or a cop or worse.

And you know what you do when you really don’t fit in at a party you’re crashing and you might be making others uncomfortable? You leave.

Here’s where I’m reaching, but I think cultural appropriation suffers from the same inappropriate levels of participation. People will put on a war bonnet (or a “feather headdress”) because they think it looks cool, but they won’t bother to learn about the meaning of the bonnet (low participation = disrespectful). Or, in the other direction, you might be invited to partake in a customary food, but then you go too far and put on all the makeup and try to lead the sermon (overbearing participation = oppressive).

I think borrowing from other cultures primarily begs one to ask, “Am I invited?” Or, more deeply, “In what ways am I invited (or not)?”

If you choose to ignore your lack of invitation, then how far are you willing to crash? To what consequences? Now, if the cultural item is religious, to what extent am I willing to apply my personal ideology that nothing is sacred? If I’m rebelling against an institution? What if my actions hurt someone’s feelings? What if I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about? Is it really that important to me to wear a white keffiyeh with a black fishnet pattern, or could I choose a more neutral gray one because I really have no personal connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

So, at the end of the day, I would ask my friends and others to remember that they might be culture crashers. Being actively aware that you’re crashing a party you weren’t invited to is the first step to being a better guest.

*As a white person & as a person comprised mostly of cultures that tend to do the appropriating rather than be appropriated from, I acknowledge my privilege and my lack of personal insight. My heritage is a bit Swedish, for example, of the Viking variety. Vikings pillaged and stole (and raped) so much that they are actually known for it. That’s pretty shitty, and it’s shitty that assumption tends to raise a hand to the mouth to stifle a yawn rather than red flags or even a single eyebrow.

I do subscribe to some aspects of “gay culture,” so I guess I have felt some stings of appropriation in that regard (Macklemore = pls stop). It’s an intersectional issue, for sure.

Why share my thanks?

I grapple with making the expression of my gratefulness palatable. It is too dulcet to say trees are pretty, or I’m all full of glowy stuff, or whatever. I think what such effusions lack is empathy. People who gush without context freak me out a little and I want to ignore them.Thanks drawing

Still, to not be grateful is to dismiss the privileges of my life. I give myself permission to feel joy, solemn appreciation, and contentment, not despite of a cruel, hard world, but because in the face of a cruel, hard, world, not recognizing that I am lucky means I am blind. It is a strange vow of hedonism — a bargain that taking pleasure is compassionate.

And I am imperfect. I am too afraid to join conversations when I imagine a response that will overwhelm me (Ferguson). I fantasized about posting a “cheat sheet” today for avoiding cultural appropriation, with cute drawings, timely for Thanksgiving, and posturing as if I have a clue. I am not an expert, but I am a writer with some talent for understanding and some bravery for thinking my thoughts merit sharing (or really, that I am at all able to organize words in a helpful way for others). I have to believe that is enough. But, for this subject, I can’t just create something that I know will get me Google search hits.

Thanksgiving represents cognitive dissonance for me. I cringe at its public celebration, but find peace in my private participation. I think, it is similar to how I feel about the words:  “Merry Christmas.” I have no problem with people celebrating Christmas in their homes (except the occasional worry that they’re raising their children to be toy-obsessed, which is none of my business until they are 18 and obsessed consumers). It is when they say, “Merry Christmas,” in a way that they show their badge of assumption — that they project their rituals onto us all because they assume their holiday is everyone’s holiday — that I taste bile.

There is knowledge I do not yet have about the inappropriateness of Thanksgiving. I am not familiar with how different people of Native American decent feel about Thanksgiving. I am not aware enough of the historical nuances. I sense it is problematic, and I sense it is a colonizing holiday designed with colonizing intentions, to protect colonizing behavior (read: to overtake and destroy other cultures). I know I have research to do, history talks to have with those better educated, moments of listening to those with less privilege than me.

Yet, my political dissatisfaction does not move me to boycott the occasion. Perhaps my lack of disillusionment is a failing after all, but I think I might be doing okay. The way my family does the whole turkey-feast-football thing is still special to me. My grandfather is the grandchild of Swedish immigrants. There’s a lot of stereotypically Swedish non-spiritual, non-showy, non-sacred handling of Thanksgiving. We make a feast, with traditional things like cranberry relish and whatever, but also with our own weird food staples (some sort of jello monstrosity made with cubes of cream cheese, chopped-celery, and a can of coke). We gather, we eat, we don’t all go around and say our thanks. I think, what makes this holiday so peaceful is that my family leaves my gratefulness up to me. We all know we are reflecting on the subject, and it comes out in our words, ever so slightly, but it is private and real.

I don’t want to say, “Shut up about giving thanks.” Perhaps, at least sometimes, “thanks” begets “thanks.” I know it comforts me to read about gratefulness in the face of great trauma. But in this culture of defensive and duplicitous over-sharing, I want to ask, what are you really doing when you publicly/semi-publicly give thanks? And what do you ignore?

That is what I think matters: you must own your own gratefulness. You cannot pressure others to “say thanks,” — you don’t know them and you don’t know what they are suffering. You cannot expect them to inspire you, to give you a hint about how to feel, to lead you. You cannot feel good about patting yourself on the back when you do “thanks” right and others do “thanks” wrong. You cannot judge those who are not thankful, because you don’t know how much hell they are taking while all the while being told to be “grateful” for it. Similarly, you cannot boast gratefulness and expect reward. You cannot thrive on those “likes” and you cannot feel brave for simply saying the trees are pretty, or you’re glowy and stuff or whatever. Gratefulness is an intimate expression, perhaps better offered to yourself, your family, and to those who deserve your trust and whose trust you have earned.

Why do you share your thankfulness? Do you?