Cultural Appropriation: Taking Versus Sharing And The Road To Healing

Photo by Filip Bunkens

The world is so beautiful with the blending of different cultures. I love my Costa Rican coffee, Himalayan salt lamp, my Kenyan tea towels and many more aspects of my daily life that were taken from other cultures.

My anti-racism work has brought me to examine intimate parts of my life and the world around me where these cultural exchanges might be exploitative.

As a marketer in the holistic wellness space, who has an interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I’ve noticed that most TCM practitioners I’ve come across are white. Four out of four TCM herbalists and acupuncturists that I’ve consulted with in Ontario, Canada have been white.

With 1.8 million Chinese people in Canada and 3.8 million in the USA, this is curious to me.

Photo by Kian2018

The medicine, developed and used by my Chinese ancestors for thousands of years (with some influences by other East Asian cultures), is used and promoted by more and more white people in North America today.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with TCM practitioners not being Chinese but if you make money by practicing Chinese medicine, how much do you understand about Chinese history in the land where you practice it? Consider these:

  • The arrival of the first Chinese in the mid 1800s in Canada and the USA to build railroads and work at gold mines
  • Knights of Labor organized murders
  • Lynching and massacres of Chinese immigrants
  • Anti-Chinese laws and head taxes
  • Yellow Peril
  • The Model Minority myth
  • Coronavirus hate crimes

It’s the same case if you are not Asian but earn an income using Feng Shui, a martial art, Yoga, or if you commercially use the Yin Yang symbol, Asian written characters, kimonos or the Buddha. By the way, please stop buying, selling and displaying Buddha heads; there is nothing spiritual or respectful about using the decapitated head of Buddha as decoration.

Photo by Clay Banks

If you are not Black and you enjoy commercial gain from using hip hop music, dance, fashion or Black hairstyles, what is your level of awareness about Blackness on this land? How much do you know about the following?

  • Slavery
  • Colonial science: medical experimentation
  • Jim Crow
  • Ku Klux Klan
  • The Civil Rights Movement
  • The Black Panthers
  • The real origins of Pro-Choice
  • The Feminist movement and anti-Black racism
  • The political and socio-economics of mass incarceration (watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary, “13th”)
  • Environmental racism, e.g. Flint, Michigan
  • Black Lives Matter
Photo by Dulcey Lima

If you are not Indigenous but financially benefit from operating sweat lodges, offering shamanic practices, ceremonies and retreats, selling Native American headdress, inukshuks, dreamcatchers, teepees or stereotypical Native American imagery including licensed sports logos, how much do you know about the treatment of Indigenous people on the lands that you occupy?

What do you know about these?

Photo by Max Muselmann

The risk of benign cultural exchanges turning into appropriation is the “whitewashing” or “colonizing” of important parts of someone else’s culture. That is, the manipulation, dilution, or loss of the original meaning behind the adopted element.

Many Native American tribes today don’t even know the origins of dreamcatchers but sell them to tourists as in-demand tokens. The story and significance behind dreamcatchers have been erased from existence; reinforcing the ethnic genocide.

Adopting a cultural piece or practice without giving credit is also a form of stealing. Appropriating also perpetuates the oppression dynamic and racist stereotypes.

There are benefits to cultural exchanges. Sharing could preserve an aspect of and help bring appreciation to the culture. Infusing different philosophies and contexts could lead to beneficial evolutions of the adopted element too.

As far as I can see, a cultural exchange can be mutually beneficial if there is a meaningful level of awareness and acknowledgment.

The concept of cultural appropriation is complex. If you’re not sure about something, start with these questions:

· Is there permission?

· How is the culture acknowledged, honoured and respected?

· What do you know about the culture, its history and the colonialist oppression of its people?

· What is being contributed back to the communities or done in the way of reparations to the culture from which the element is adopted and benefitted?

Photo by Luis Galvez

Humanity is connected globally. We cannot avoid crossing paths and sharing space. Colonialism has caused deep suffering to many cultures around the world. As we interact and share space with open eyes and open hearts, we can learn so much more about humanity and ourselves. We need to see it, acknowledge it and process the pain.

These simple acts are first steps to repairing cultural relationships, our collective humanity and the world around us.

Let our healing journey begin.

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