Cultural Appropriation: What It Is, And How to Avoid It

There is a video currently being shared on social media of a white teacher wearing a headdress, dancing around her classroom, and chopping her arms in the air. She is chanting “SohCahToa” as she does so, a mnemonic device used in math for recalling trigonometric functions. It is not my practice to shame teachers, and I don’t want to dwell on this specific incident, but it is definitely an example of cultural appropriation.

For those of us who are white and want to be sensitive to and embrace diversity, we may find ourselves second-guessing our actions. As I wrote yesterday’s post about Dia de Los Muertos, I thought carefully about how I would approach this holiday in my own classroom, and whether or not the way I would have done it ten or fifteen years ago would be different than the way I would do it now. Like doctors, teachers have an obligation to “first, do no harm.” But there is always the chance that we may act on what we believe to be good intentions which are actually quite harmful. I won’t pretend to know the intentions of the teacher in the headdress, but here is how she and the rest of us can recognize the difference between appreciation and appropriation: “Appreciating a culture involves sharing knowledge with permission and crediting people who belong to that culture, while appropriating a culture entails exploiting a culture in any way, whether that be reinforcing stereotypes or taking credit from original creators.” This quote was taken from “Teaching About Cultural Appropriation” by Educators 4 Social Change. There are several recommended links in the article, but one that found especially helpful is from The Ed Advocate. It tell us that we can ask three questions to determine if we are guilty of cultural appropriation: Am I denigrating another culture? Am I exploiting it for material gain? Am I embarrassing that culture?

To find out why cultural appropriation is so detrimental in our society, I recommend this article from Everyday Feminism. This isn’t a matter of hurt feelings, but a deeper, more systemic problem of dominance benefiting from lies and stereotypes. Does this mean that white people must avoid anything that may have originated with another culture? No, the author states, “But I am encouraging you to be thoughtful about using things from other cultures, to consider the context, and learn about the best practices to show respect.”

In the classroom, if you are coming from a position of respect and a desire to learn, then you will create an environment where the students will feel free to share their cultural traditions and everyone can gain a deeper understanding. But taking on the guise of a group of people different from yourself to gain a laugh or pretend you are including them will only harm your students and perpetuate racism.

For more Anti-Racist posts, click here.

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