I'm A Cultural Appropriator! Here's How To Not Be Me.

I woke up this morning and went to check on my 2 year old daughter. As she was opening her eyes, I was tasked with her first demand of the day.


Translation: she wants to watch her favorite movie in the world (right now), 'Moana.'

If you haven't seen it yet, I suggest it. It's amazing! So, for those that don't know, 'Moana' is a Disney movie about the ancient Polynesian mythical demigod named Maui: Shapeshifter. Demigod of the wind and sea. Hero of men! Women? Both? He's a hero to all (You'll get it when you watch the movie)! Also, of course, there is Moana. A 16 year old girl, who is the daughter of the village chief with a wandering spirit. Chosen by the ocean, she is in search of Maui, because he stole a stone that now is causing darkness on the islands and they have to set it right!  After watching it a bunch of times (a million and 5 to be exact), I became inquisitive about all the different cultural themes and practices being thrown at me. I liked what I saw. My daughter likes it even more! Singing the songs and trying to do the dances. Which made me starting thinking about cultural appropriation and how we need to either have a real discussion or shut the hell up because we don't get it.

I've been wanting to write or address this topic for a while but, I’ve had a tough time figuring out how I wanted to frame it. I've read numerous articles, listened to a bunch of podcasts and discussions about it. I've had my own debates and conversations just to get an idea of what direction the winds were blowing. It seems like the winds are blowing towards every week social media dragging someone they are accusing of cultural appropriation just for doing anything another culture does, no matter how common. It's going to be hard to know if what someone is doing is appreciating or appropriating, if the loudest guys in the room are just going to claim oppression and not be clear about what that means. Or, we aren't able to a have a real conversation about how to enjoy what different humans and their tribes have to offer without taking parts of it we have no right to.

Almost every article I've seen or read gives some sort of vague (More on that later!) definition of what appropriation means. Unfortunately, you can't leave these terms up for interpretation like that with all of these victimization hustlers around. They can feel what they feel and squeeze out any likes or clicks they get as a result all they want. But if we are actually going to talk about this, at some point, someone who understands both sides of the argument has to step in and be a voice of reason.

That's when it hit me! The post to write about, after not writing in so long, would be a test to easily differentiate what is or isn't cultural appropriation. With this, social media and the social justice super villains can shut the hell up accusing everyone of it, the ignorant can't deny that the concept exists or isn't harmful, and we can accurately have a discussion about it in a clear way.

The Oxford Reference defines it as: "A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another." The problem with this definition is obvious, it's vague, like I've been saying. In a country where minority groups who are vying for social equity, and have a valid argument about our society, but terrible at convey that message at times, being vague gives both ends of the argument way too much leeway to twist the meaning. Thus, nullifying any chance at understanding the concept, and allowing some to use the word as ammo to shoot down anything you don't like, which isn't the purpose of the term. There has to be a clearer way to make this point without making it a "catch all" term used to silence opponents, which inevitably does nothing to further the cause of equity and justice.

Throughout the history of the world, humans start wars, conquer and trade, among other things that have groups of diverse people interacting with each other for survival or pleasure. Through those interactions, there are a plethora of things that people enjoy from their new friends (or enemies). Having an appreciation or even reverence for the music, art, food, certain traditions, and so on, of other cultures has been something humans and societies all over the world have engaged in since humans and societies began. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. 

If you love Japanese food, and to show respect or appreciation for the cuisine and how it's commonly eaten, you eat it with chopsticks, does that mean you're taking over their practice and appropriating their culture because you're not Asian or Japanese? I think that would be ridiculous to conclude, especially considering that, that is the way that type of food was designed to be eaten. But, according to how it's vaguely defined, there is enough action to cross the line and reasonably be concluded that it is appropriation. So what do we do?

We go back to the reason why I started writing this in the first place, Moana!

I mentioned before there were a few scenes which really helped me put this in perspective. The first being in the beginning when Moana was doing her duties as the village chief's daughter. There was a cut to a guy almost done with his whole back tribal tattoo and it pans to her supporting her adolescent friend who was getting his first tattoo. This had me thinking  and asking myself about what those tattoos mean and how you get them.

The other scene was a bit later in the movie when Moana wanted to get to know Maui better so she asked him how he got his tattoos and he said: "They show up, when I earn them." Granted, tattoos magically appearing in your skin when you accomplish something is obviously part of mythology. But, the makers of the movie were cluing us into the fact that they don't put markings on their body because it looks cool. There is a specific cultural significance.

Tattoos in and of themselves have such a historical and cultural significance in so many different cultures. Even though everyone's tattoos have their own meaning, that meaning isn't always something attached to a tribe or a feat that is culturally respected. When it comes to the tattoos of Pacific Island cultures, those tattoos have a meaning and significance that no one outside of that culture should ever copy unless given explicit consent from people of that culture.

If someone were to have a date of when their child is born tattooed on them, that doesn't mean no one else outside of people who have babies can decide to put a date on their body. On the contrary, I'm pretty sure none of you reading this is going to be a Polynesian village chief any time soon. So its would suffice to say, we shouldn't get a Polynesian village chief tattoo just because we think it looks cool. We didn't earn that. That would be an appropriation of that culture.

Now, this is the part where I hold myself accountable.

For full disclosure and to go above and beyond to make my point, I have to be completely honest. I am a cultural appropriator and I'm not proud of it. In order to maintain logical consistency and be a person who is credible enough to be listened to, I have to make sure that I'm holding myself accountable as well, first, and foremost. What I am guilty of is unintentionally harmful, and I've been intending to do something about it. Although I meant no harm, I had no right to do what I did.

I have a tribal tattoo. When I was 19 and in the Marine Corps., I wanted a cool tattoo that was long enough to reach past my sleeves when I rolled them up. I am terrible at picking things like this. Although, what I ultimately decided I had no right to, it took me almost a week to finally make the decision. It was done by a friend with his own tattoo gun, so it ended up looking the way it does. This was not done by a professional. For obvious reasons, I have always intended on fixing it, but that doesn't doesn't change the fact that, I am not Polynesian and that tattoo which is supposed to mean something doesn't mean anything at all, and was just used to be trendy and cool. That's so fucked up when you stop and really think about it. Even if I had a professional one that meant something, it's still completely disrespectful to anyone that tattoo has historical and cultural significance to.

THAT is the difference.

Common dress, dances, sayings, hairstyles, mythological stories, food, and so on are things that have all been passed down and shared forever. That is a completely different thing than something that is specifically and intrinsically attached to a culture that even those in the culture wouldn't even do. Wearing an Indian headdress automatically comes to mind. You haven't earned being a chief, take the fucking head dress off bro!

To lighten up the point a bit but take it to its logical extreme, look at it this way: In prison and gang culture, a teardrop tattoo sometimes signifies a lengthy prison sentence and sometimes murder. If it's just an outline it may signify attempted murder or a friend had died and they are looking for revenge. These meanings are definitely something that I don't want to make look cool in my Marine Corps. uniform. In fact, I wouldn't have even been able to serve with tattoos like that. That culture is something we don't condone in our societies. The point being, you're not going to walk around with teardrops trying to be cool. You're not about that life. For the ones out there that act like they are **cough cough RAPPERS cough cough** not only do you look and sound stupid, you're appropriating a culture you're not a part of. And, since something like ethnic cultures aren't usually shunned by society, it is our responsibility as decent humans who care about equity and justice, to make sure we are mindful of what we are doing when we are trying to appreciate something we like but belongs to someone else and have purposes specific to them.

Food is food. Common dress is common dress. Unsacred dances are unsacred dances. But, tattoos that have a cultural significance that I should never touch and have no right to blindly put on my body, doesn't reciprocate. I am a part of the problem and will do what I can to at least cover up my disrespect. If we truly care about justice, equity, and equality, we should use reason and a little bit of common sense to tighten up the term. That way, it can be clearly defined with no more loose interpretations or ability for it to be used as a weapon to end debate or to silence dissent.

While bloggers and twitter finger activists walk around with a stick up their ass trying to check anyone who braids their hair, sings a song with an accent she clearly doesn't have, wears a cultural but common outfit or pattern on their clothes, and other things that are connected to a culture but common enough to be shared, they're missing out on actual appropriation. Mainly because they don't know those cultures either themselves. The funny part about it is, besides my tribal tattoo, Indian head dresses and other similar, well intended but disrespectful forms appreciation, cultural appropriation doesn't really happen that often, so it's actually an issue when it does. Those angry birds are just mad that someone they already don't like, is doing something that they don't want them to do, because they usually do it. That's not how that works.

If we want to appreciate a culture, we have every right. We just need to make sure we understand what that thing we like means in that culture. If we end up finding out that it's something that is to be revered and respected, and the way that we are going to appreciate it, can be viewed as offensive or insensitive using this rhetorical test, the best way to appreciate is to respect. If we decide to do it anyway, then we can't be mad when the social media lynch mob jumps on us.. 

This way, we can learn about and appreciate different cultures without being afraid of the lynch mob, while also being mindful and respectful of people's cultures and traditions. Now we have a clear definition of what appropriation is, with a test you can apply to make sure you're correct even though the actual definition is vague. And, this gets the loudmouths on both sides of the argument to shut the hell up. Both are incorrectly and opportunistically trying to monopolize their spin on the term to fit their agendas. A more culturally respectful and tolerant world is the goal right? If the point being made is so valid, there is no need for it be twisted to fit agendas. Sometimes we have to listen to what other people are saying and make our message something others can clearly understand and relate to.

Since we can clearly define appropriation now, we can tell who and who isn't. If you choose not to do that, that makes you part of the problem.  In which case, twitter fingers need to activate because we all get it now, right?