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.