I started this as an email to my dad, who said to me last week that everyone steals from the Irish. Why isn’t that cultural appropriation? But as I wrote, I realized others might find it interesting. This is a look at cultural appropriation as a third-culture kid.
I have neither the history nor perspective people assume from the color of my skin. For example, I was a racial minority in most of the cultures I lived in as a child and worked in several offices as a teenager where I was the only white person doing that job. Again, before assumptions are made, I found these situations more comfortable than the “like me” environments I ended up in later. My childhood and black culture in D.C. fit better with my sense of culture from the diplomatic and ex-pat community than white culture, which felt more Bell Helicopter for those of you who understand the reference.
This is neither right nor wrong; it just is. Culture is a collection of markers that act like a secret handshake if you aren’t raised to recognize and respond appropriately to them. These kinds of realizations made me aware I had a worthwhile perspective to share.
Cultural appropriation is not a simple topic (as the length of this essay demonstrates), and previously I’ve handed off the heavy lifting to other sources. The issue may seem obvious at first, and at the extreme ends, it is, but when you mix in multiculturalism and cultural borrowing (rather than stealing) then put us third-culture kids into the pot, whether because of mixed parentage or cross-cultural upbringing, things can quickly become muddled.
The melting pot that is the US (at least as taught in schools) is a perfect example of the problem. On the one hand, it is people from all parts of the world coming together to create a land where all are welcomed (yeah right). On the other, it’s a warning to anyone not part of the original thirteen colonies, whether here before the European invasion or who came after. Those cultures are thrown into the pot and stirred until they have nothing left to call their own. Yet, they are surrounded by the abuse of sacred elements they may not even recognize anymore depending on what acculturation efforts were employed.
I mention this below twice, but it’s important enough to begin with. My essay is a ponder on the issue, both philosophically and personally. It does not provide definitive answers or make a complex topic simple. We need to think about and discuss the problematic nature of cultural appropriation. It’s an ongoing conversation. The moment it is declared solved is when the crimes of the past resurface in the present because we are not looking. Ignorance is not innocence if we have the opportunity to become aware and choose not to take it.
That’s exactly what happened to the native culture in Ireland starting with the Romans. It was not an innocent snagging of some cultural elements out of context, though even that can bring the sacred into view and desecrate it. What the Romans attempted was to “civilize barbaric tribes” and elevate them into “modern” culture. If that sounds familiar, it should.
The Catholic Church made a deliberate attempt to bring the Irish under their wing, absorbing certain traditions like the Easter Bunny, while leaving the original meanings behind, and destroying others. The most well known Irish celebration is literally celebrating the Roman priest, Saint Patrick, chasing out the last of the native religion and imposing Catholicism using all the traditional methods of enticement, enforcement, or extermination.
Look into the Native American history in the U.S., and you can see the exact parallel of stealing sacred elements by observing sacred rituals often under false pretenses and converting those rituals into caricatures, fashion statements, or other uses that devalue the sacred. It is rarely as innocent as it appears, either by the person performing the theft or by the system that trained them doing so is a good thing.
No one is complaining about tortillas, though they are rich with native history, because they are food and food is meant to be shared. The natives initiated those cultural transfers in many cases (think Thanksgiving when the local tribes saved the Europeans from starvation). It’s that both modern and early non-native culture in the U.S. goes in and takes whatever suits their fancy, just as the Romans did in Ireland, and uses it in a way contrary to its, often sacred, meaning.
This is true with the native tribes in first “The Colonies” and then the U.S. because of the policy of integration and acculturation that attempted to remove all memory of the original meaning to these cultural elements. This is one reason the discussion is fraught with pitfalls and emotional outbursts. Imagine what you would experience if your family history, along with its members, had been murdered. The Jews who survived the Holocaust should relate.
No one beyond the natives stood up for the Irish culture when this was happening. No one said destroying a culture from within was morally wrong even when children were beaten for speaking Gaelic. Original Irish culture exists in fragments now, caught in song, story, and archeological discoveries. There are people working actively to revive it, along with the Gaelic language, another thing the Irish have in common with Native Americans, but some of the context may have been lost. Guesses and assumptions are filling in the gaps as best as possible, but compare that to the Vatican Library where you can learn the history of the Catholic Church from contemporary sources (and intuit beneath the conqueror’s language some elements of the cultures destroyed in the process).
The “Own Voices” movement came too late for the Irish creators. Their history is a cliche and their mythology the same. It has been stripped, used, warped, and taken advantage of so much that readers think they already know the traditions, even though they’ve been raised on the watered-down or Disney-fied versions. Other cultures are fighting not to lose their own voices in a time when multiculturalism is an important quest but a difficult balance.
Bringing other cultures into the mainstream as part of multiculturalism and overwriting the false narrative of a whitewashed society prior to the present is critical, but taking history and stories out of context and warping them to fit a Caucasian narrative is just as damaging. It takes the culture from the mouths of its people and gives back a corrupted version that earns more popularity than the original because already popular authors (who are usually not of those cultures) gain higher visibility and acceptance by nature of them already having an audience.
This is something I have struggled with in my writing. I draw inspiration from many sources. My blood is 5/8ths Irish, my passport is issued by the United States, and I spent my formative years in the international diplomatic community stationed largely in the Middle East. These are my cultures, and they are steeped into my bones.
I first wanted to be an anthropologist, haunted archeology sites. My fascination with cultural elements I do not know, especially the stories told to teach young folks how to interact with the world and how to protect themselves from it, has not dimmed. I am a mixing bowl of cultural elements.
How I try to address this issue is by borrowing concepts more than narratives and elements. I make the setting my own so as not to accidentally misuse a sacred element, an easy thing to do when the sacred have been stolen and misused so much already. It’s not enough to say “well, I didn’t steal it.” As much as I am able, I try to avoid perpetuating a wrongdoing that’s already been done.
I’m not always successful, I’m sure. I could stumble on something I know, but don’t know how I know it. To do otherwise, though, would eliminate my own voice. If I restrict myself to an Irish narrative, a U.S. narrative, or a Caucasian narrative would be to pretend to be what I am not in order to conform to the appearance of respect based on what others assume of me rather than the reality of my experience. If people want to make assumptions, they have only to read my bio, which lays out the various spices in my bowl, to understand my influences and roots are a bit different than most would expect.
There is one more piece to this puzzle that makes everything more complicated. I’m not saying this is easy, nor that I’m particularly good at it, but awareness is the first step. I’ll tell this one through a recent example I encountered.
My husband and I recently started watching an older series set in Ireland (yeah, yeah) in the early days of the Roman invasion called Roar. It’s low budget and has issues, but it has some fascinating stories as well as a strong understanding of Celtic history (at least as anthropology has uncovered it as far as I know). One element I can’t remember seeing before, though, is the dreads.
There have been several uproars about the mainstream adoption of dreads as a cool hair look. Match that to blacks who can’t be hired or promoted unless they fight their natural hair to conform to Caucasian standards. Or those who are written up for using a hair style appropriate to their cultural background. Even without a sacred element being mainstreamed, it’s a complex topic.
But it gets even more so when you learn dreads were a part of the Celtic heritage as well, one wiped out almost entirely by the Roman influence and its fascination with oils. Not only does this point to the commonalities between the genetic code for hair, but the pressure to conform to another culture’s standards until your own no longer exists. I do not know if all people’s hair converts to dreads or if it’s limited to certain genetic lines, but like the Jewish curls both my sons’ inherited from my husband, the dreads are a natural expression of their genetics. Dreads are not taken from the sacred traditions of another culture, but rather a resurrection of their own genetic history.
So, where is the line drawn? Do you have to suppress little known elements of your own history because someone might assume they are taken from a different tradition out of ignorance? I don’t know the answers. I have only questions, and many of them, but the line between respect and expression is not as simple as many would hope.
One thing I incorporate into my stories is the broader narratives that underlie not one, but many cultures, including ones I have been exposed to in my childhood. Where this can give the appearance of sacred theft is if the other cultures are not as well known so readers assume I’ve drawn the element from a culture not my own and used it for my benefit. What I’m attempting to do in this technique is bring attention to the common things that underlie the human existence in my small way. The pieces that draw us together. I find it sad that the intent can sometimes become what draws us apart when misunderstood.
Offhand, communing with ancestors is something that has shown up in a few of my stories that I can think of. Because of movies like Mulan, people might associate it with Chinese culture when it appears across the globe even to the degree of ancestral altars. Even in mainstream America, the fascination with family trees and genetic testing show the voices of those who came before still influence us.
I have an unpublished story set in a small village high in the mountains on a critical trade route, so elements of Far East blend with Middle East, but it is deliberately neither. To Walk on Alien Sands, released in a Books Go Social anthology that is no longer available was originally written for a themed anthology inspired by Japanese ghost stories (the one time I will draw more closely on a specific culture) but if you don’t know that, few will identify the source material. I’m sure there are many more, but these came to mind.
We like to know, as a people, where we came from to inform where we are headed next. The modern shorthand is “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but connection to your ancestors is also a cultural element being wiped out to create a false and unstable economic system. I’ve tried to make sure my kids know their grandparents and explore their histories, but that’s in part an influence again of my non-US upbringing that many find strange.
Whether communing with their spirits at an altar, exploring their histories through listening to their tales, or reading old letters as I did this past week, ancestors are a part of my experience and often show up in my stories. To those who look for surface similarities, it might seem as though I plucked a convenient element from a culture I have no connection to, but these are the stories that live in me, and the sacred elements are my own for all they might on occasion have similarities to others.
As I said before, I have no answers. I have only questions. This is my attempt to explore the complexity and talk about how I interact with the question of cultural appropriation and respect for the sacred spaces of cultures that are not part of my jumbled makeup, and even those that are. I’d love to hear your perspectives to help grow my own understanding and keep the conversation going.