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A Window Into Understanding

Every culture, throughout our vast history, has documented their experience through art: visual representations, music, dance and literary traditions. Each has told their story, and held their truth, through art. They use artistic expression to document their origins, their struggles, their victories, their losses, their pain, their loves. Art serves to record joy, loss, mystical and religious beliefs. Cultures have long used art to chronicle their greatest accomplishments, their achievements; the circumstances that define them, as well as the challenges that continue to confront them.

By its very nature, art is a treasured gateway, a window, into who we are. In trying to understand cultures other than our own, looking to understand the artistic artifacts of these cultures is a decent, and essential, place to start.

It’s innocent enough. As the saying goes,‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Here are three examples.

I recall, as a young boy, being fascinated by our studies of Native American people. I became fixated of what our teacher suggested was their traditional footwear - their moccasins. They seemed so cool and it became important to me that I wear them myself. I was able to convince my parents to order me a moccasin kit from the Tandy Company. And, I borrowed a friend’s table-top beading loom. The kit came and I adorned my moccasins with what seemed to be traditional beaded designs. I loved those shoes and I believed that by wearing them I was paying homage to some fascinating people.

Imagine an African dance being set upon a company of all white dancers by a white choreographer. I’ve seen it.

I knew a young white man who decided to wear his blond hair in corn rows. Several of his classmates of color took exception to his decision, suggesting that it was a disrespectful gesture. He countered that he was only making a fashion statement, and that it couldn’t possibly be racist because a black hair stylist had done it for him.

Innocent. And complicated. These three examples, along with countless scores of others, may not be as innocent as they appear, at least through the eyes of the culture that is being “flattered” by this imitation. In fact, these may be examples of a subtle form of institutional racism in our country. Something the majority culture doesn’t think about or begin to comprehend the pain it may cause.

I’m talking about cultural appropriation. I’ll admit that this is a new term for me. Further, I readily admit that it struck me between the eyes. Cultural appropriation occurs when members of the dominant culture adopt an element or elements from another culture and claim them as their own. In its worst iteration, cultural appropriation may feel like power dynamics to the minority culture who holds title to the appropriated element or idea. It may feel demeaning. It runs the risk of appearing heavy-handed. It quite possibly might seem insensitive and disrespectful.

Again, I am just naive enough to believe that much of this occurs innocently. After all, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? I think not, not as we strive (or should be striving) to become increasingly anti-racist.

Allow me to reframe the argument. Curiosity (not imitation) is the sincerest form of flattery. Think about the shift in paradigm that the substitution of one word causes. Being curious about the clothing of indigenous people, about African dance or cultural hair styles is very different from being imitative. Curiosity suggests inquiry. It’s an open and honest perspective that reveals an interest in understanding. Coming to something from a place of curiosity opens the opportunities of collaboration: of shared and reciprocal learning and discovery.

Being curious about cultures that are different from our own, and being mindful about the people represented by these cultures moves us away from cultural appropriation toward, instead, cultural appreciation. This might be where empathy begins.

There’s nothing wrong with a white choreographer teaching a company of white dancers an African dance so long as it is authentic, the product of insightful understanding born from meaningful collaboration with cultural and artistic “experts:” members of the culture of origin.

What in the world does this discussion have to do with the education kids deserve? I would argue that it has everything to do with it. The past couple of weeks I have been writing on the urgency that kids be taught the truth when it comes to the evolution of our nation, including all of our warts and wrinkles. (Please see The Education Kids Deserve Must Include the Truth (8/10/20202) and I Can’t Begin to Imagine (8/17/2020.) Additionally, I have been increasingly convinced that our instructional practices need to evolve to support a true anti-racist national consciousness. Both of these require work. A ton of it. But, to turn away from these challenges would not only be naive and short-sided, but it would also represent a dereliction of professional responsibility.

I happen to believe that there is a powerful opportunity in the cross-cultural sharing of ideas. This occurs quite naturally, and readily, in design industries and in the arts where the lines of origin are masterfully blurred. (Think of the influence that black musical traditions have had on modern popular American culture.) It’s essential, though, that we remember, and give credit as it’s due, to the sources of origin. After all, our 21st century American culture is not one thing or one idea. American culture is not a melting pot or a “smoothy” made up of divergent ingredients and blended together to make a singular identifiable product.

No, our American cultural salad bowl is filled with unique elements that cannot be erased through the application of a blender. Our bowl, beautiful in its entirety, contains distinct ingredients that rely on each other through a delicate dance of acknowledgement and acceptance.

I wear a turquoise in silver ring that I gifted myself for a monumental birthday. I’m entitled to turquoise due to my December birth date. Parallel is my respect for the artist: a modern designer who applies traditional indigenous techniques to a contemporary aesthetic.

Cultural appreciation. Not appropriation.

Kids must know and understand the difference. It’s The Education Kids Deserve.

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