Cultural sharing or unintentional racism?

Don’t let your good intentions do harm to others.

If you’re involved with creating activities, camps and other events, be careful not to let your good intentions turn into potentially harmful acts of racism and exploitation. For example, what some see as cultural sharing (through costumes and crafts that involve American Indian symbols) others see as cultural appropriation and acts of microaggression. But what’s the difference between cultural sharing and cultural appropriation and why is this important? 

Cultural appropriation is when people in the majority or dominant group use symbols, practices, images and spiritual traditions that are outside of their own cultural traditions for their own enjoyment and benefit. This is often done without permission from the cultural group whose symbols or traditions are being taken. Because there’s often a lack of personal relationships between these groups, cultural representations may be based on narrow, limited and distorted information about people (such as Native Americans or African Americans) and may reinforce inaccurate information and stereotypes. In the words of author, Myke Johnson in an article she wrote called, “Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft,” cultural sharing is different. She writes, “cultural sharing involves interaction with the whole person and community, reciprocal giving and receiving, sharing of struggle as well as joy, receiving what the community wants to give, not what we want to take.”  

Unlike cultural sharing, cultural appropriation activities tend to reduce people to artifacts, mascots, fashion, costumes, images, symbols and rituals. These practices can be destructive and dehumanizing by obscuring the realities and complexities of contemporary peoples’ lives. The following questions can be used as a guide in making decisions about whether the use of cultural symbols and practices is inappropriate, unethical, hurtful and/or oppressive:

  • Are the symbols, rituals or practices important to the spirituality of a group of people? How might I feel if important symbols or traditions of my religious or spiritual beliefs were misrepresented, sold and/or exploited by others?
  • Have I asked myself why I’m choosing to use this cultural symbol or practice that is outside of my own culture? What purpose is it serving or how might I be able to reach the same objectives using something within my own cultural traditions?
  • Have I spent time with multiple members of the cultural group discussing the appropriateness of my use of the symbols, practices or traditions?
  • Is money involved? Who is profiting from the sale and marketing of the symbols, music, dance, drumming workshops, artwork, spiritual workshops, experiences or other activities—members of that cultural group or people outside that cultural group who are co-opting, borrowing or stealing those traditions to make money?

  • How much do I know or am I willing to learn about the meaning and importance of this tradition? Am I clear about the authenticity and meaning and am I certain that stereotypic, simplified, and/or romanticized images are not being perpetuated about this cultural group?
  • Are members of the cultural group involved with sharing this tradition and experience?
  • How involved am I in learning about the hurtful and oppressive past and present realities of members of this cultural group? Am I actively involved with members of this cultural group as an ally, advocate and activist for positive social change that will create equity and inclusion? 
  • Am I open to hearing that my use of cultural symbols and traditions may be offensive, hurtful and oppressive even if my intentions have been to respect and honor? Am I open to changing my behavior and looking for other ways to learn about, honor and respect people and groups that are different than me?

MSU Extension provides resources and workshops focused on issues of social and emotional health and well-being—as well as ways to address issues related to microaggressions and other areas of diversity and multiculturalism

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