I was asked, “How do I explain to white people that it’s wrong to treat East-Asian religions as fads?” They explained that there are people who want to “become” Taoist, Buddhist, Sikh or Hindu but without any of the relevant social context or history. Two of the inquirer’s friends have been persecuted for belonging to one of those religions, and it had struck them how insulting that is.
Some people aren’t really accustomed to that: not touching what’s not theirs. Moreover, the reverse is often welcomed. White people often expect people of color to assimilate into their religions to speak their language and take part in their culture. That is how they assert their cultural dominance and cultural power. To some, the world is white peoples’ playground and we, people of color, just live in it. Some of them do not understand growing up with a deep rooted anything. It’s all transient. They have the privilege of discovering themselves that way. Picking things up and throwing them to the side when they are done, like toys. I don’t think they realize that it feels like an invasion to some people who were born in a culture where engaging in certain practices is compulsory. White people take space everywhere: at AfroPunk, in workshops specifically for people of color at conferences like Creating Change, everywhere.
So here’s how I analogize cultural appropriation; it is as if the elders of your lineage made necklaces and gave them to the family. They have a family crest on them, and only a few people in each generation are taught the secrets of making them.
They have been passed down generation after generation and have been a symbol of strength and unity in your clan for years. You love these pieces and you are happy to have something that connects your clan together because each member has worn their necklace and has their own memories with the heirlooms. In this generation it’s you who makes the crested jewelry for the generation to come.
Someone sees you making them for your little niece and before you can blink your family heirloom begins to be cheaply mass-produced. You see strangers wearing them with their own added charms and personal designs, ruining the original intent and meaning of the necklace. You see friends borrowing them from other friends, you see children handling them, you see the crest on Frisbees being thrown to dogs. It makes your craft and heirloom feel cheap and no longer invaluable. Your niece cannot grasp the importance of it anymore either. How could they, when her best friend, half the class, and her teacher all have one.
These other people do not treat the crested jewelry the way you do; it’s nothing to them, just a fashion statement for the season. And it makes you feel hurt knowing something that you hold so dear and thought was just for you and your clan is now on the jewelry channel available to anyone in the world.
So you lay your heart out to them asking them not to wear the heirlooms because they don’t know what the heirlooms mean to you.
“But it’s so pretty!” They can very well admire from a distance, but they feel entitled to have whatever they fancy. No one’s ever told them no before. Even though you’ve been denied access to yacht clubs, water fountains, dance boutiques, diners, buses, jobs; white people don’t realize they don’t have to have everything.
“I’m just appreciating it!” If they really recognized the full worth of the heirlooms, they would have realized it means more to you and your clan than it will ever mean to them and that it is not meant for them in any capacity.
“It’s just so different than mine.” So what? Why can’t they just cherish their own? Who invited them? We celebrate our differences by sharing rather than taking, by not by dipping our chips in every proverbial dip available, leaving a mess behind.
“You should be grateful that I like it instead of ripping it off of you and stomping it on the ground like some other rival clans would.”Except you don’t need their approval of value in order to make or wear these heirlooms because you already know what it takes to make one. In some cases people have injured themselves forging these heirlooms for your clan and have the scars to prove it.
It breaks your heart that they have so little regard for you and the things that have molded and continue to mold your identity. They treat it as though it’s just another charm, ignoring the blood, sweat and tears you put into the original pieces.
The people who dispute you are immature, childish and will stomp their feet, and it’s sad that they think they are appreciating your craft even though they have devalued your heirloom. They are only concerned with their own enjoyment and will refuse you and your heirloom the respect and honor it deserves. They come into something you’ve been immersed in your whole life, leave their mud on the carpet then get bored and leave. And, if they still don’t understand even after you explain why the appropriation is unsettling to you, then they don’t truly value your friendship. Lastly, there are the people who are in your family who, after a while, become used to the idea of your heirloom being mass-produced. They will fight you on this until their last breath. But if they cannot see why you’re in pain over this, you shouldn’t trust them either. Explain to them how damaging it is that people who practice these religions are still being persecuted while white people sit there, complacent with their privilege.
Renleigh Stone is a junior in the College. in response appears every other Friday.
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