Cultural appropriation: aligning intention and impact.

Creativity and Cultural Imagination Part 1

Some of us are trying to return to an interdependant, interconnected, holistic way of being, as a part of the paradigm shift needed to heal violence, ecocide, racism and colonialism and restore the earth. 

If we are not indigenous, we are often tempted to use the cultural forms and traditions of indigenous cultures to do that, mistakenly thinking that we are extending and signal-boosting and learning from and leading with those forms of insight and wisdom. 

In fact, in appropriating indigenous culture, we are participating in cultural genocide of native people, no matter how loving our intentions may feel. This is one of the ways the racism works through us, distorting our best intentions desires to do its work. "But I respect and honor the indigenous culture from which the eagle feather comes" is the excuse we make, to show our appropriation is done in the name of good.

The intention is good but misdirected, and the impact is actual harm - not abstract, theoretical harm, but actual harm.

How to know if your work appropriates: Does using the cultural form you want to use give you more credibility, income, respect, coolness points, style, brand power, and recognition that it does for the original culture? If the originator culture is erased, supressed, oppressed, abused, forced into assimilation, humilated, or discriminiated against for using these cultural forms, and then you are given more power by using it, you are engaging in appropriation. Your work is not a part of signal-boosting the original meaning of the cultural form - your work is a part of diluting and erasing the power of that cultural form in its original community. It is a part of a long cycle of theft and erasure.

Make a commitment never to appropriate indigenous culture, no matter how much you long for something you see in it that you desperately want (and white people: we do have desperate longings here. They are good information for us: what if they were directed towards a tearing down of the construct of whiteness, and a return to the earth all all its people with humility, creativity, courage).

If you want to support indigenous world views and leadership and expand that leadership in the world, don't make brand images with feathers in your hair and face paint. Find out how to fight the oppression of indigenous people and listen deeply to what is needed of you as an ally.

And as for your own images?
This is an opportunity for you to reclaim your own true radical imagination, which is better for your goals, your business, your soul, and the world. The world wants your imagination alive, undistorted by the cultural and colonial urge to appropriate.

In making the choice not to appropriate as a strict rule in your life, you are not limiting anything. You are opening the potential for true radical imagination and creative liberation in your world as a co-creator of culture.

Cultural Appropriation as a Failure of the Imagination

On Creativity and Cultural Appropriation Part 2

From a series of Facebook posts in May 2018.

Since posting a piece about cultural appropriation last week, I have been getting a lot of personal questions from people who seem to be looking for permission from me to keep doing the work they are doing (work that possibly appropriates based on the definition I ventured.)

Thought I appreciate the desire to do good from those who are asking, I'm definitely not here to grant permission; Im not qualified and it misses the point!

My dear friend Sarah Sentilles who has done deep work writing and studying the construction of whiteness reminded me that part of whiteness is a continuous attachment to feeling central and at home in the world (regardless of any individual circumstances that may disrupt that feeling personally, on a cultural level, its a characteristic of white identity). Part of that feeling of being at home in the world is the idea that the world (including the world of art, ideas, culture) is there for the taking. When we are told that something is not there for the taking: our sense of home and centrality is disrupted. It feels unfair. It feels unbearable in some way. It feels like we cannot be whole. We seek an out. We defend, Or we justify. Or we seek permission. Instead of hanging out in the uncomfortable space of not knowing. Of disorientation.

That uncomfortable space is the space of learning, growing, and reclaiming our radical imaginations. Its a space of deep listening, of coming into consciousness about our own identities and the contexts we live in; and its the space where real respect for the experiences of others grows. To develop a kind of creativity that does not perpetuate cultural violence is a big task and its not clean, or easy.

But Its actually a BIGGER creative space than the one you were in when you wanted to appropriate. Its actually MORE whole and promises a way of building an earth that is true home for all beings. Don't look for a free pass...just sit in the discomfort and possibility.

If you could never appropriate, what would you make?

Also: think about this relationship to the idea of home against the backdrop of a culture which, right now, locks people up for driving, sitting in coffee shops, sleeping on dorm chairs, walking, driving. Against people being rounded up by ICE. Against people being punished by poverty and violence for staying connected to indigenous identity.

We can handle a little discomfort.

Cultural appropriation, combinatory thinking and collage

On Creativity and Cultural Appropriation: Part 3

In the conversation about cultural appropriation, it seems like there is some confusion for us about the difference between a cultural appropriation that is damaging, and the idea of appropriation as a neutral tool in the artist's toolkit.

You can appropriate without being oppressive, if you are not appropriating the cultural forms of people and communities that aren’t already fighting for cultural survival in the face of the groups and identities you belong to.

Human creativity is combinatory: there is no pure “blank slate” place within us out of which images and music and movements arise (the “blank slate” is a myth of empire and has become part of the ideology of cultural approiation - maybe I’ll write more about that later).

So: no blank slate. What is outside of us is also inside of us. We are always working with internal and external raw materials. Ancestral. Material. Cultural. Emotional. Visual. Sensual. Collective. Political. Social. There is no neutral image, no neutral work of art. 

Basically every continually evolving art form on earth has contained within in a dance between the continuation and protection of tradition, and the insatiably curious and creative integration of influences from the environment around it. Human cultural evolution is MADE of appropriation, in the sense that it continually changes as it incorporates inspiration, information, and intelligence from all it comes into contact with. Culture is a continual conversation that changes all parties.


-- Dada artists who pioneered the art of collage in the European fine art traditions appropriated a lot of the design and typographic forms emerging from mass reproduction (the invention of photography and the printing press) in their collages, which created whole new visual language that responded to and exploited (in a both critical and exciting way) the new visual culture of industrialization. It explored how how ways of seeing and receiving and perceiving were changing as a result of the mechanical “eye” of technology. 

(But here’s the complexity: Dada artists also engaged in appropriation of African art images which helped perpetuate the cultural erasure of African art and tradition. Can you see the difference between those two modes within Dadaism?) (Also: Western folks often credit the Dada Artists, or worse, Picasso, for “inventing” collage which is hilarious - because collage thinking and methods have been used throughout human history all over the world.)

-- The entire history of American music as pioneered by black artists, from gospel to jazz to rock to rap and hip hop (and many other forms). Jazz for instance was influenced by gospel, bluegrass, Latin music, and musical forms from Africa and the diaspora, European orchestral music, etc etc. The undeniably GIANT contribution of this music to the world had in part to do with the creative genius of COMBINATORY thinking. And doing it in a way that resisted white cooptation by continually getting more complex, impossible to copy, and full of specific cultural references and musical language. (I am SO NOT a music historian, so I’m hoping someone will hop on this and point us to awesome resources that outlines this in better detail, because its beautiful).

Combinatory thinking, COLLAGE thinking: using the world around you and influences around you as raw material, and combining it to create whole new forms. There’s something really essential about this to human creativity. Something essential about it to our natures. I'm not challenging that.

So much of the pushback to the cultural appropriation critique has to do with a failure to see the difference between appropriation as a life-giving, built in superpower of creativity and creative evolution, and appropriation as a tool of cultural genocide. But there is a difference.

What does it mean to reclaim MORE fully your creative process of combinatory and collage-like thinking and making - and to do so in a way that is deeply sensitive to the ways in which this creative skill is manipulated into becoming a vehicle for creating destructive culture, rather than generative culture?

Put your combinatorial creativity in service of creating liberating culture - not in service of perpetuating destructive culture.

When we are UNaware of how it works, the dominant culture’s values operate through our work. When we become aware, we can use images and words to create new culture that refuses to do the work of empire and proposes new ways of looking and making.

Let’s do that.

On getting comfortable with pictures of ourselves: we contain multitudes!

I’m so uncomfortable with candid photographs of myself that appear online. They actually sometimes make me physically recoil. The little voices rise up, the ones I’m embarrassed to have and to share: I look strange to myself. Why is my lip doing that, so much of my gums are visible! The shape of my nose/cheek/chin/belly/hand/shoulder is weird. I look weird. Not totally human somehow.

I’m a solid feminist, and I know it's all BS -- so I stand before the image and battle with my feelings.

I know we are all just fine, all beautiful, in our own unique way. “And I am too,” I whisper.

 In business drag, assessing my toolkit.

In business drag, assessing my toolkit.

We are all worthy, we are all whole, we are all wholly human: so what's happening here?

I start this post with these personal moments, because of how common this experience is to those in my world and in my community of business builders who are making images to market our brands.

Almost everyone I am close to reports similar discomfort with our own images, whether candid or posed.

I know that a large part of it is about our relation to the “norm” - that giant, specific, cumulative visual narrative, informed by layers of oppression in an economic system that is driven by marketing that manipulates our fears, relies on our awareness of ourselves as packaged objects in a consumer culture, triggers our survival instincts in a system that uses specific but arbitrary physical attributes and conditions as an excuse to separate, oppress, discriminate, assign worth.

John Berger, the art historian and writer, describes the situation in these terms, while discussing the impacts of male domination in society on women’s self perception:

"A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the *surveyor* and the *surveyed* within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."

When I see a photo of myself, the surveyor in me as activated. The surveyed in me gazes back.

The eye of the culture, of the “norm,” informed by the billions of images I have seen in my life that comprise this mythical “norm” - is inside of me, looking at me. I am, in that moment, divided from myself. Berger again:

"One might simplify this by saying: *men act* and *women appear.* Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight."

What Berger is describing here is what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey coined as the male gaze.  Similar dynamics are at play in every case of oppression and culture: the colonial gaze. The white gaze. The oppressive gaze objectifies, and “others” the one being seen. The one being seen then sees other, and object.

  The South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Making visible South African LGBTQ realities on a global scale. Here, confronting her own gaze; challenging the colonial, heterosexist gaze, through her body of work.

The South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Making visible South African LGBTQ realities on a global scale. Here, confronting her own gaze; challenging the colonial, heterosexist gaze, through her body of work.


We all carry the surveyor, and the surveyed, within.

And this is a big reason why it’s complicated for us to feel comfortable with selfies.

Especially when we are using our images to sell - our message, our brand, our work. We are participating on our own packaging: the positioning of our value for the market.

For many of us, the conflicted emotions and even contrasting belief systems inside of us leave us only this: to either attempt to conform to the “norm” and find acceptance there, to whatever degree is possible (depending on our privilege in the matrix of identities and oppressions), or to avoid the thicket altogether and be invisible.

Conform, or disappear. Those are the default options. ANd they are both devastating for your business and brand (not to mention the culture at large).

I’ve got some alternatives, and I offer them all in my business. But since I started personal, I am going to talk about the one that I personally use here. The one that suits me best.

Here’s my new default option:

To perform my identities and realities. The method: PLAY.

 Bjork is a master of fluid identity play.

Bjork is a master of fluid identity play.

I see my branding photographs as both a place to be the business owner I am and to be “in drag” as a business owner: suit, tie, and cardboard briefcase included.

A child playing dress-ups with the world is, in a very real way, a cultural agent. The cultural forms around her (the stories, movies, packages, songs, picture books, toys) become raw material. She is the producer of her identity and her story. She is the one with agency. She is both a princess and an astronaut. She is a teacher, a horse, a nice doctor and a mean cat. All of these identities and characters are parts of her being expressed through story and metaphor.

 Frida Kahlo. In every shapeshifting painting, she crafts a fuller picture of her complex reality.

Frida Kahlo. In every shapeshifting painting, she crafts a fuller picture of her complex reality.

That's what we do, from a very young age. We relate to culture, we understand our lives, and we learn the world: through story, imagination, fiction, poetry, play. We relate to the world as flexible, creative authors of our story.

When we are children we know this: we contain multitudes.

The reality of our imagination IS the reality of our existence. We know we each have inside of us a rock star and a nerd. A mystic and a clown. We are small and delicate, we are epic and unstoppable.

Rather than see performance and dressing-up (in all its forms) as some kind of contradiction to the idea of authenticity in our business communications, why not recognize that we are more vast, more complex, more genius and beautiful than one photo of us with our laptop on the beach can ever show?

 Beyonce: performance, or communication of mythical and personal and collective identity? Both.

Beyonce: performance, or communication of mythical and personal and collective identity? Both.

Performance, drag, dressups, composing, posing and constructing - these are all the tools of the artist and visionary, using multiple languages to express the complexity and emotional range of their visions.

When we take the tools of world making and culture building into our own hands and play --

When we recognize that while we may be the faces of our brands, we are not branded, our identities are not fixed --

We recognize ourselves as the authors of our lives and our images.

We replace surveyed and surveyor with CREATOR.

Your own unique genius, your unlimited creativity is what is most authentic to you.

So go play dress-ups!

Yours in re-imagining reality,





This post and all writings on this site are copyright Amy Walsh 2017.