Stray Thoughts About Cultural Appropriation from a Third-Culture Kid

Hands Around the WorldI 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.

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6 Responses to Stray Thoughts About Cultural Appropriation from a Third-Culture Kid

  1. David C. McGaffey says:

    Interesting thoughts, but I think hey it is based on a fundamental error, a misdefinition of culture.. I note that you never try to define ‘culture’ or ‘sacred’. Let me give you my own random thoughts
    Culture is not things, clothing, names or rituals, despite the fact that people reinforce their culture through these artifacts. Culture is the shared values which people use to make choices, to choose actions.As you may remember, I was included in a Southern Philippine community, a tribe, named a a son of the chief, and given regalia to commemorate that ‘adoption’. If I choose to wear that regalia, am I stealing culture, or is it mine by right? I was also named a sub-chief of a West African tribe, and given both a chief’s staff and a loverly robe. Like you, I have absorbed language, habits, and artifacts from all the cultures we lived in. However, my ‘culture’, my values, are mine alone. I do not become an African by donning my robe or a Muslim Filipino by using that regalia, my basic values, passed down from my family, my parents and my greats, remain largely unchanged. (There I agree with you absolutely- we all do Ancestor reverence in some form.) What I consider ‘sacred’ are things that reflect my values. If others see those same things in a different light, it does not affect my perception of the sacred. e.g. I firmly believe there is only one God. That given, I have shared in worship rituals with people who call God by a different name, and I reverence their form of belief without it affecting my beliefs.
    So, my conclusion is that we are all one people, and we are free to borrow names, clothing, rituals, and other things without harm, unless we are using those things to deliberately offend or injure others.A cross burning on a lawn is an abomination – the deliberate use of an image seen by many as sacred, in a deliberately profane manner. Calling a High School team ‘The Braves” is not wrong. It is not meant to hurt, it in fact compliments our first immigrants – the boys want to be like them.
    Finally, St. Patrick was not Roman – he was Welsh (and Celtic). What he did was teach new values – a new culture.

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      You call it error, I say you’re trying to impose your definition in a discussion about how imposing on other cultures is a harmful act :p.

      In answer to your questions: If you were given those positions along with the regalia, it means you gained the respect of those people. If you wore the regalia in such a way as to disrespect it and the people who gave it to you, such as mocking their culture or replicated it without their permission for your own gain, yes, it would be theft and would be a violation of the trust they showed in you. Imagine turning around and selling the regalia to a designer to replicate for their fall line, or hocking it on eBay. As you have not, to my knowledge, done something like that then you have honored their traditions rather than appropriated them. You did not take what wasn’t given and you did not desecrate what was. You state in your answer that you can share in other cultural experiences with respect even if you don’t share them, which is making my point for me.

      You also use a cross burning as an example of taking a culture and desecrating it. How is that different than taking a sacred symbol from a Native American tribe and using it in a disrespectful or hateful manner? You say The Braves is not harmful and yet it perpetuates a dangerous myth that the natives all died out a long time ago that is implied if not outright stated in our school systems, the very systems that think such a name is “respectful?” A harmful misinterpretation is not a compliment, whether those so named think about the consequences of the choice or not. I can’t, and shouldn’t, speak to the impact on a person belonging to a plains tribe and neither can you. If it was a compliment, why didn’t they ask first? Or when made aware of the offense, why didn’t they change it?

      As to St. Patrick, the reason I say Roman is the Romanized name because Padraig is the Gaelic spelling (Paddy rather than Patty is encouraged for the shortening, but his name is still the Roman version). To be Roman, you don’t have to be born in Rome. I did some quick searching, and he is considered “Romanized” so whether that’s Roman or not is a matter of viewpoint. It also took two centuries or so before he was considered a saint, so after the acculturation was complete.

      His birthplace also doesn’t change how he made it his goal to Christianize Ireland nor that the tactics used, no matter what you may think of the intent, were far from moral. There’s nothing wrong with sharing a new culture to those interested and willing to learn. Imposing a new culture by force is something no one should support, and I doubt you really do.

      I think in your actions you are much closer to seeing things as I do, but your words are still tangled up in this ideal of we are all one people who would not harm out of arrogance or presumption. It’s a neat place to be, but it lacks connection with history and even present day. If everyone respected others’ beliefs and cultural rituals whether they shared them or not, we would not need to have conversations like these.

  2. David C. McGaffey says:

    I agree that we agree more than we disagree,but I still think you go too far in word disagreement. Padraigh, of the same culture although when he was enslaved in Ireland came from Wales, used words to Christianize the Irish, not force. The fact that later invading English used the church to impose their rule does not change what Padraigh did. But you’re right about my regalia.
    your loving Dad

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      I was not there and extrapolate simply because I’ve never heard of a culture that gave up their centuries-old beliefs without a fight, and the “chased the snakes” does not seem to imply peaceful negotiation. Since the sources appear all from one side of the question and were written two centuries later, the truth is probably somewhere in between, but until we invent a time machine, we cannot know.

      I mentioned it only because of your question of cultural appropriation. If you consider how you are using the words of the “victor” to characterize his behavior, even if the time machine would prove they were an unbiased, accurate telling, maybe you can get a glimpse of how people of non-dominant cultures may feel talked over when you deny their experience of having their cultures redefined without their consent.

      Or maybe not.

      It’s been an interesting discussion either way, and you have confirmed my belief that you would not perpetuate this act you don’t believe you understand because you know it when you see it even if the name leaves you confused. Those examples I gave of misusing the gifts were not from thin air :).

      • David C. McGaffey says:

        God bless you. Even if I think you lean too far, I love you.

        • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

          Someone taught me to think big thoughts ;), and I just follow where those ponders take me. It’s fine for you to think I lean too far. I just hope you ask yourself the questions and listen to the answers, especially when they come from the people affected not affecting :).

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