Some more advanced concepts: intersectionality, the white cultural void, and cultural appropriation
Disclaimer: These are very challenging topics. Please recognize that I'm still very much learning here.
Like I said at the beginning of this website, certain factions of the social justice world can sometimes be hard on people trying to learn. This can be especially true when it comes to topics like these that I consider especially edgy. So, I feel that it's all the more important for me to lay out my current understanding here to help other white people along—but again with the disclaimer that these topics are ethically complex and more nuanced than some of the other ones we've explored so far.
So, please don't treat this section as any kind of source of truth. It's just one person's thoughts informed by a lot of reading and conversations (and, some of these thoughts could very well evolve as I continue to learn from people who understand these things better than I do).
(It's also ok to skip this section and come back later. The sections after this one don't rely on your having read this.)
Racism becomes even more complex when we factor in multi-faceted identities that could include multiple categories of marginalization.
- Intersectionality refers to the way that the various identities that someone holds can overlap in order to give that person additional advantages or disadvantages
- For example, this website has focused on race and how a person of color in America will in many ways have a more challenging life than a white person
- Things become even more complicated when you factor in the multiple identities that a person can have:
- A white woman will have less access than a white man
- A heterosexual white man will have more access than a gay white man
- A disabled white woman will have less access than a non-disabled one
- People of color already face so many challenges because of their race, but being part of other marginalized groups can make things even harder
- For example, black women are an under-supported population because women-focused groups often center on the needs of white women and black-focused groups often prioritize the needs of black men. So, black women might sometimes feel deprioritized in both of these groups that they might look to for belonging and support
- Many social justice movements don't overlap and are entirely focused on their specific area. So, an anti-racism movement might support black people in general but not black trans people specifically; and, a feminist movement might be concerned with women in general but not Latina single mothers specifically
- As Ijeoma Oluo writes in her book, as a black queer woman, if she's harassed on the street, she can't be sure if it's because she's black, queer, or a woman. All three groups are marginalized separately, so an individual with all three of those identities might face more barriers (or, they might have one of their identities commonly forgotten)
- This applies in the workplace too. Let's say a company wants to increase their diversity so they hire more black men. But, they still don't have any black women. They feel as if they've checked the "black people" requirement already so it's unnecessary to bring on any black women
- Reading that, you might be thinking, "This is getting ridiculous! Now you're expecting me to hire every possible combination of race/gender/etc. to satisfy my company's desire for diversity. That's impossible!"
- Agreed, that would be expecting a bit much. But the point here is this: Please just recognize that the same arguments that you might make for adding a person of color to a predominantly white company (e.g., ethics, increased creativity, new ideas, etc.) can equally apply to each combination of identities
- In other words, you probably wouldn't say that the ideal creative team would be composed of all white men who attended the same university and have the exact same hobbies. They'd probably come up with better, more innovative ideas if you added a white man from a different school with different hobbies since he'd have different life experiences. Similarly, you might get an even more varied perspective by adding a white woman. And just like adding a white woman to a team of white men would add new perspective, adding a black woman to a team of black men or a black woman to a team of white men would do the same
- Another example: The reproductive rights movement (e.g., access to birth control) tends to be focused on the most general needs of women with less emphasis placed on the unique needs of women of color—even when there are a number of reasons that women of color have a harder time gaining access to reproductive care
- What this means is that—because white women have the most access, power, and resources—the reproductive rights movement will be most effective at addressing the needs of that group
- Then, as white women get what they need (since that will be the easiest challenge to solve), they might reduce their involvement in the movement even though the needs of women of color still haven't been fully addressed
- As social animals, our first instinct is typically to prioritize people similar to us. And, it can seem very logical to want to help some people sooner rather than everyone later. It's hard though, because that attitude means that certain populations with complex identities are still not being prioritized even after being oppressed for so many years
- One way to start taking intersectionality into account is to ask how a person or situation might be impacted according to a range of dimensions: race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, whether or not they're a parent, etc. Are the voices being heard in a certain situation truly representative of all the people who are impacted by that issue?
Many of us white people feel a sense of cultural void.
One reason for that is how America, over time, embraced a culture of "white homogeneity."
Because many of us white people now just think of ourselves as "white" (rather than of Irish ancestry, for example), we've lost touch with the rich cultural heritage of our unique lineages.
- You might have heard America referred to as the great "melting pot." That was a term used in the early 1900s to refer to a kind of utopian ideal that America was a special place where people from many different European countries could come together and combine the best of everything into a new culture that was uniquely American
- This idea was sold to the public through various forms of propaganda that made America out to be a place where people from any background, religion, language, etc. could come to make their dreams come true. But, as usual with this country's history, none of that applied to people of African or Native ancestry. America was only a "melting pot" of whiteness
- This is a complex topic, but one important point is this: The fact that immigrants from all over Europe came together in the early 20th century to form modern America is positive in many ways; but, one negative outcome of the "American melting pot" was a loss of much of our traditional individual European cultures (e.g., French, Polish, Irish, etc.)
- Because of this idea that we all had to come together as "Americans" (and, in reality, "white Americans"), along the way many of our unique cultural heritages from our various lineages became whitewashed as well
- It's common for white people today to have lost the language and customs of their ancestors who originally immigrated to America. For example, say your grandparents or great-grandparents came over from Poland speaking only Polish and no English. Because of anti-Polish discrimination, their children might have distanced themselves from their Polish heritage in order to fit in and find work. Fast forward to your generation today, and you might not speak Polish at all or follow any Polish traditions. Now, replace "Polish" from that example with "German," "Irish," "Jewish," etc.
- That's why it's common today for a lot of white people to feel a bit of a void inside themselves
- Sure, many of us grew up with some common traditions such as exchanging gifts on Christmas, singing happy birthday, or watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade
- But, many of us feel something profound missing the rest of the time (especially as more and more Americans are moving away from organized religion, which has provided some amount of ritual and tradition). That sense of void applies particularly to traditions and rituals that involve the entire village, tribe, or community beyond just the immediate family
- For example, many cultures have:
- More formal coming-of-age rituals (which can lead to a stronger sense of confidence and a clearer shift into adulthood)
- Songs that are regularly sung (which can relax the nervous system and build a sense of connection)
- Rituals around death (which can make death feel more natural and less scary to contemplate)
- Traditions of coming together as a village to support new parents (which can reduce the stress for parents and provide a richer upbringing for the child)
- In particular, for many of us who have visited other countries like India or Peru, we can feel something lacking in America around the sacred. There's a reason so many white people are drawn to yoga, Buddha statues, Tibetan prayer flags, statues of Hindu gods, Native American-style drumming circles, sweat lodge experiences, etc.
To fill this void (and perhaps due to some sense of entitlement), white people often "appropriate" from other cultures.
("Appropriate"—whose latter part is pronounced like "I ate food"—is a verb meaning "to take without permission or consent")
- "Cultural appropriation" is when someone from a more dominant or powerful group steals or takes on some aspect of a less dominant group’s culture without the proper care or permission
- One of the most straightforward examples is when a white person wears a stereotypical Halloween costume
- For example, it's offensive to dress as a Native American with a feathered war bonnet (headdress) because that particular garment is only worn by Natives who have earned respect in their tribe, and primarily in ceremony
- It's also important to note that customs and traditions vary greatly across different groups of Native Americans. One of the effects of whitewashing history is that the indigenous people of this continent are often seen as a single homogeneous group rather than as an entire continent of varied peoples
- Additionally, it's worth mentioning that I haven't personally spent time in Native ceremonies, so what I wrote about the war bonnet and varied customs is just based on the small amount of reading I've done on the subject and doesn't encompass the true richness of the tradition
- Not only is it disrespectful in general for someone to make light of someone else's cultural traditions by turning them into a costume, but there's something especially cruel about a white person doing it to a Native American (or to any other group that's been marginalized and oppressed so heavily)
- I used to think that some of these types of concerns were overblow; but, please try to look at this issue through the lens of everything else you've learned on this website around race—see below
- For example, it's offensive to dress as a Native American with a feathered war bonnet (headdress) because that particular garment is only worn by Natives who have earned respect in their tribe, and primarily in ceremony
If any part of you feels like this shouldn't be such a big deal (it's just Halloween, right?), please consider from the Native perspective:
White people attacked their lands, killed 90% of the humans on an entire continent (through a combination of murdering them outright and unconsciously transmitting European diseases to them), destroyed their sacred religious sites to build strip malls, and then decided it would be fun and harmless to wear their sacred symbols as Halloween costumes.
Let's look at some more challenging examples.
Remember that all of this is on a spectrum with no 100% clear-cut right and wrong. This is very much a current and active topic in the social justice community.
- You might be thinking that it's obvious that the "Halloween costume" variety of cultural appropriation is bad. Below are some examples that might be more challenging
- Again, these don't have easy answers, but they're useful to think about in light of the complicated history of race and racism in this country
- As you read the examples, I invite you to look at this through a similar lens that you would intellectual property theft in America. We allow artists and companies to trademark or copyright the work that they've put a lot of effort into so that others can't simply copy it and profit from it themselves
- So, if we're willing to apply that rigor to the work of a single individual, shouldn't we apply the same standard to something that an entire culture has been cultivating for potentially hundreds of years when someone from a more powerful culture comes along to steal and copy it for their personal profit?
- Example #1: A white American visits another culture with a rich heritage of sacred symbols or patterns and copies those onto their clothing line for sale in America
- To other white people buying the new clothes, they might just see the appropriated item as a cool-looking symbol. But, to people from that victimized culture, it might represent a sacred spirit or tradition that’s precious to them
- You might find yourself pointing out that other cultures appropriate "our" symbols too such as the American flag or the Christian cross. First of all, that doesn't necessarily make that practice right. But second, this again goes back to power dynamics. America is the most powerful country and Christianity is the most dominant religion in the world. Both have a history of violently oppressing other groups of people
- So, if one of those oppressed groups uses a Christian cross in an offensive or comical way in their modern art, it seems reasonable to say that that's not quite as bad as the reverse (and, maybe that usage could even be a form of healing from the trauma that was inflicted on them by that more dominant culture)
- Again, there's no easy answer that will satisfy all potential ethical concerns here. But, it does seem fair to at least say that there's clearly something different between appropriating from America (who builds military bases all over the world to assert its dominance as the preeminent world power) or Christianity (whose missionaries have been actively trying to convert people all over the world to that religion for hundreds of years) versus appropriating from a less prominent culture that hasn't been actively imposing their presence or proselytizing their ways
- When a white American uses a picture of another culture's holy figure or spiritual leader on the package of their commercial product along with a surface-level quotation from that figure or a misunderstanding or oversimplificiation of their philosophy
- Selling a commercial product with a superficial or misunderstood quote or imagery from that culture might both be offensive to them and spread misinformation
- Because America is the most dominant culture in the world, if a white American takes something from a less dominant culture, they have the opportunity to recontextualize it, meaning they can sell it or frame it under a different context than it was intended for and thus suggest a different interpretation or meaning for it. Because of the cultural power of America and the white race, that interpretation might then become the more prominent one
- For example, what does the average American know about Zen monks, or Native American headdresses, or South American shaman, or the Mexican Day of the Dead? Most of that American's information probably comes from American movies which, through their cultural power, have been able to recontextualize those things to whatever best suits the narrative of the film
- One way to think of it is like "genericization," when brand names have turned into ordinary words
- For example, Xerox, Kleenex, and Popsicle are all brand names that have become such common words that many people don't even think about whether they're buying Kleenex-brand tissues or their competitors' (whose tissues they might refer to as "Kleenexes" as well, diluting the value of Kleenex's brand)
- It's similar if you hear the word "Zen" attached to everything from gardens to music to lotion. It becomes easy for a lot of white Americans to think they know what it means—something about chilling out and reducing stress, right?
- It's a lot more complicated than that, but because it's been so heavily recontextualized in America, many people won't seek out more information from actual Zen masters because they assume they already understand it or there's not much to it
- When a white American visits a less wealthy country, steals their traditional recipes, and starts a restaurant back in America that presents itself as offering a completely "authentic" experience of that culture
- In some cases, those recipes have been passed down in a community for hundreds of years. Stealing that recipe to sell ourselves simply because we like the taste or we can see the business potential is like a business person stealing a poor programmer's computer code and selling the app themselves because they see how useful and profitable that app would be
- There's of course a fine line here. It's not at all to say that white people are forbidden from cooking Mexican or Chinese dishes. But it's one thing to make tacos for your family and another for white people to create a for-profit food cart and admit that the unique technique behind their tortillas is what they learned visiting Mexico and "peeking into the windows" of the kitchens there because the Mexican women were hesitant to give away their secrets
- Some activists might go so far as to say that white people shouldn't be running restaurants that serve food from other cultures at all. But a compromise perspective might be to say that they shouldn't be doing so alone without receiving permission or offering compensation to the people they learned the techniques from
- That food cart story likely would have been different if:
- Those white women had spent real time learning Spanish, immersing themselves in the culture of Mexico, and apprenticing under cooks there who willingly passed on their knowledge;
- Or, if the white women had respectfully approached a person from that tradition to partner with them in opening the food cart (and treated them as a true partner who was involved in decision-making);
- Or, if they'd donated a portion of their food cart profits to a charitable organization in Mexico (including developing an actual relationship with that organization and not just "paying them off" to assuage guilt or look good)
- Again, think about the power, privilege, and access that white people have versus Mexican people. How much work would it be for a white person to start a high-end restaurant in a highly-white city that caters to white foodies, versus how much work would it be for a Mexican-American person to do the same?
- Think about not only the cooking aspect but all the access and respect necessary to get a business loan, advertise the business, etc.
- Think about how a white person might be able to get funding or help from their family whereas a Mexican-American has to worry about everything involved in starting a business from scratch while also navigating discrimination such as being more likely to be stopped by police
- When a white American briefly visits another culture, Instagrams its temples and ceremonies, and comes back to America to start a coaching business based on that culture's practices (e.g., after a two-week trip to India, a white person starts a business in America that has “Vishnu” in the title and incorporates Hindu practices that the white person bastardizes due to their shallow study of the topic)
- Even if the white person is excited about that sacred tradition, if they try to make money off it without permission, it’s disrespectful to people who might have trained in that traditional culture their whole lives. That culture might have a tradition of passing the rituals down orally only, or a belief that one can only know their gods through ceremony taking place on that specific land
- There might be potential for a white American to work their way up to the privilege of being allowed to teach concepts from that culture, but it would have to be carefully earned with specific permission given. In other words, there's a difference between:
- Making the commitment to study in a ceremonial setting under an indigenous Peruvian teacher over the course of several months or years, then being given permission to take those teachings back to America, and...
- Visiting Peru for a week then coming back to America and offering plant medicine rituals as if you're a shaman or expert in the tradition
- Also, it might be tempting here to think: "It's ok, I'll just take their ritual and strip out some of the traditional elements like the music and the strict diet leading up to it; that way it'll be my version of it." Unfortunately, that could actually be worse for a couple of reasons:
- The white person might not understand why the things they stripped out were actually important parts of the ceremony, so by removing them they might reduce the ritual's effectiveness or safety (e.g., when it comes to plant medicine or a sweat lodge)
- People attending the white person's ritual might believe that it represents the real thing and not feel the need to seek out the actual version from someone of the original culture (remember the Kleenex example from earlier—they might simply feel that this white person's version is "good enough" even though the true practitioners in the original culture might have spent generations finessing the nuances of the ritual)
- Again, think about all the paths available to white people in America. Many of us have a great variety of choices with what to do with our lives. In contrast, someone growing up in a less wealthy culture likely has fewer options and is more negatively impacted if a white person with more resources begins competing with their offerings
As white people, we want everything to be available to us (which makes sense because that's what many of us millennials especially were told by our parents while growing up—"you can do anything you want!").
But, as the ones with the structural power, we have to be careful of the power dynamics at play.
- It's not always simple to know where to draw the line between appreciating another culture and appropriating it
- But one double-edged sword of whiteness is that many of us white people grow up with the idea that we can do anything and be anything we want
- We're able to see role models everywhere—virtually every impressive or desirable career has examples of white people at the top
- Because of that, it's natural for us to have this deep ingrained sense that everything should be available to us. If I see anything anywhere in the world, I should be allowed to take it, partake in it, or learn it
- That's great for promoting curiosity and confidence. And, it's also a knife's edge between that and the colonialist mindset that allowed the original settlers to believe it was their "manifest destiny" and God-given right to settle across the continent and take whatever they wanted (even though other people were already there)
- Bottom line: As with so much of this work, it's important to consider the power dynamics at play and if the side with less power is giving their consent
- Is the use of something from another culture coming from a place of collaboration, authentic celebration, genuine relationship, and mutual respect and gain, or is it someone with more power simply taking from someone with less power for their own benefit?
That yearning for more sacredness and culture is part of whiteness, and it's something that we can address by working to dismantle white supremacy culture.
- There's no easy solution to the cultural void that many of us white people feel. It's reasonable for us to be drawn to traditions from Japan, China, India, Mexico, etc. because of their rich cultural heritages spanning hundreds or thousands of years. But the dangers of cultural appropriation create a variety of challenges with that
- This isn't at all to say that white people should be restricted to, say, ancient Irish traditions and shouldn't be allowed to study, say, Hinduism. We just need to be more careful and respectful with traditions that aren't ours
- One solution is for us white people to research our own ancestral lines to discover their rituals and traditions. We can ask our families or use DNA services like ancestry.com or 23andme to trace our lineages back to specific regions of Europe and elsewhere
- And, to be honest, another action for us to take here might simply be to grieve. Like I said in the previous section, we white people have lost many of the rituals that helped our ancestors feel intertwined in community and connected to the land around them. There's no easy answer for how to recover that or how to create something new (that still feels like it has some weight to it). It's natural to yearn for rituals and traditions to help us feel connected to something greater, and it's reasonable for us to mourn the loss of what our people did have in the past
- I attended an excellent workshop where there was an opportunity for the white people and the people of color in the group to separately brainstorm things they each enjoyed about being part of their races
- The white people listed things like: choice, agency, safety, opportunity, freedom to travel, individualism, presumed innocence, access, medical care, etc.
- The people of color listed things like: connection, resilience, style, dance, food, community, feeling their bodies, self-love, fluidity, etc.
- One thing I noticed about those two lists is that most of the white items were around individual power and freedom, whereas most of the POC items were arround embodiment, feeling, and group connection
- When I think about the cultural void of whiteness and the epidemic of loneliness and depression in America, all of this seems to be connected
- White supremacy culture forces us to prioritize our own individual status over the collective. It forces us to separate ourselves from our own bodies and from each other. If we can untangle ourselves from whiteness, that seems like the pathway to rebuilding our sense of culture and community