My social media feeds have recently exploded with several complaints of cultural appropriation at the hands of clueless and selfish white folks who have appropriated the sugar skulls of Dia de los Muertos. I grew up surrounded by the traditional observance, and I think it’s beautiful for many, many reasons. I was honored when a friend asked me to join her family as they cleaned and decorated their loved ones’ graves.
Despite the fact that I have participated in Dia de los Muertos observances, it is not my own cultural identity. I do have a few sugar skull decorations that I put up in my home. Partly because I like their symbolism. Partly because these are things I’ve seen all my life. I grew up in Southern California… I have also attended more than a few quinceanera celebrations, and at one point in college even learned the Son Jarocho and a few other Mexican dances. Oh, and I am a picky bitch about my Mexican food; I can even cook some dishes myself.
Does any of that make me guilty of cultural appropriation?
While I understand the complaints about aspects of a culture being mindlessly adopted for purely aesthetic reasons, I have to stop and ask: how do you know the reasons?
Does the fact that I am not culturally latina mean that I should not ever use sugar skulls in my decor? Or ever have my face painted, or wear a mask, as part of the celebration? Should I never make chilaquiles again?
Yeah, I get it. The complaints are about the rampant use of cultural symbols by people who have no clue what those symbols represent, nor do they have any tie to those symbols.
Great. If that’s the problem, then let’s look at other common cultural symbols as well.
Like… have you ever worn a tartan that isn’t your family’s? Do you know all the standards of wearing tartan? The symbolism and the history? Are you of Scottish descent? (or perhaps a few of Irish and English descent) If not, then please stop with the damn plaid already, huh?
Or… what’s with all these folks in belly dance classes? Do you know the history of the particular style of dance? Do you understand the culture it comes from and why it’s done? Were you born or raised in that culture?
What about all the horrible witch costumes on Halloween? Isn’t that offensive to witches?
Okay, I’m being a bit ridiculous.
I get irritated at the antics of drunk guys parading around in a Native American headdress they have no freaking clue about. But I don’t have any problem with the use of leather fringe, or feathers in the hair, or a variety of other things that could be considered equally as offensive to some.
Put another way, there’s no arguing, there is never a time when black face would be appropriate. But, what about the blues? Or certain types of jazz? Or twerking? Dreadlocks?
What about wearing a bindi?
How about the gaijin who wear kimono, or have katana in their homes? What about the sudden popularity of the Japanese tea ceremony? Or so many other facets of Japanese culture? Wait… what about how much of Japanese pop culture has appropriated Western iconography? Does cultural appropriation not work both ways?
There are some obvious and clear cut cases that are always inappropriate. But the vast majority of situations are not as simple as black and white.
There’s a fine line between adopting aspects of a culture that you admire, respect, and perhaps to some degree identify with and thoughtlessly using something because it “looks cool”. So much of our cultural heritage is also tied into our spirituality. Is it inappropriate for someone to adopt a spiritual mindset other than that of their native culture?
Perhaps it’s time to drop the knee-jerk reaction that accuses anyone who displays a style not native to their own (apparent) culture of appropriation.
Instead of castigation, how about a little education?
If this is your culture, then take the opportunity to teach others what it’s about and why it’s so meaningful to you. What makes it special? What makes it something you hold so dear? By knowing those things, maybe others will learn to treat both you, and your culture, with the respect you both deserve.
But then again, maybe I’m just a privileged white girl who doesn’t understand how “my people” have repeatedly destroyed so many other cultures.
And if you believe that last sentence, you really don’t know me at all.
I know this piece is going to piss people off. While I welcome intelligent, respectful commentary, I will not tolerate abusive behavior or name calling. If your opinion differs distinctly from mine, please feel free to share. I promise to listen as respectfully as you express yourself.