“Coffee is my spirit animal”: Cultural Appropriation and the Colonial Legacy of Indigenous Violence

The other day I was on my Facebook trying to pass the time when I happened upon a photo of one of my friends in a “Native American Themed Party”. She was dressed in full Native American attire — headdress and war paint included. She wasn’t Native American, she wasn’t a first-nationer. And she didn’t share the culture from which she took the costume from. This is Cultural Appropriation.

This issue is hard to discuss. Its complexities can be daunting even to the “wokest” person. However, it is important for us to talk about difficult issues. It is also important to keep in mind that if you feel uncomfortable, or uneasy, that’s okay. It’s important that you feel uncomfortable, because it challenges deep-rooted ideas in your mind. It is also important to keep in mind that I speak for me and my experiences and from the things I’ve learned. So let’s do it. Let’s talk about Cultural Appropriation. Maybe if I write about it, we can start talking about it more. Maybe we can work together to create a more accepting, respectful world where people from different cultures respect and appreciate each other.

Cultural Appropriation: Warts and All. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines Cultural Appropriation as: “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect their culture.” 

Basically, Cultural Appropriation occurs when you take aspects of someone else’s culture and you use it because it’s just so “aesthetics”, make it as a part of a joke, or wear it as a costume. The culture that is being appropriated is also marginalised in one way or another.

Think of it this way, you’re in a class and your teacher asks the cohort a question. You raised your hand and answered. The teacher says you’re wrong and embarasses you in front of the whole class. The class starts laughing at you. Then, the person sitting next to you raises their hand. They get called, and answer the question. They repeat the exact same thing that you said, verbatim. The teacher then applaudes them, and says they’re correct. The whole class starts congratualting your classmate. How would you feel? This is exactly what cultural approriation is: taking the exact same things from marginalised cultures that have been seen as less than by society at large and wearing them as costumes or using them inappropriately and, then, getting praised and recognised because of them.

“I’m not appropriating their culture, I’m appreciating it.”

Some of you might be reading this thinking, I’m just trying to appreciate their culture and not appropriate it. There is a difference between appropriating other cultures from appreciating it. When you appreciate someone else’s culture, you attempt to understand the why’s behind the surface of the aspects that interests you. This means understanding the weight of rituals, cultural attires, and cultural emblems. Cultural Appropriation occurs because you don’t understand the weight and the reasons why certain cultures do what they do. And so you take everything they do at face value without ever understanding the weight of it.

No, Janice, coffee is not your spirit animal. Nothing is your spirit animal.

One of the most common perpetrators of cultural appropriation are white women. From spirit animals, to headdresses, to cultural attires as costumes, white women have done it all.

Spirit Animals. Spirit Animals are a sacred and important part of Native American Culture, Metis-Anishinaabe and Mohegan tribes being some of these specific Native American tribes. Spirit Animals, or Totem Animals, are sacred symbols within their religions. It is revered and should not be disrespected by being relegated to describe someone’s love of coffee or anything else. This means that you don’t get a spirit animal or a totem animal if you are not indigenous. You will never receive one, because you do not belong to the tribes that revere them.

Headdresses and Cultural Attires. Like spirit animals, when you wear headdresses and cultural attires without being invited to do so, or understanding the significance, you are a perpetrator of cultural appropriation. This also includes hair styles not meant for your hair. When you do this, you trivialise the experiences and the cultures of already marginalised people.

Cultural Appropriation is Cultural and Indigenous Violence.

Cultural appropriation is a form of violence towards people whose cultures and ethnicities have been villified, villainised and marginalised because it does not fit Eurocentric standards. It is violence against hundreds of years of indigenous and ethnic history. It is violence towards indigenous and ethnic cultures. Especially when you think about Eurocentric colonisation that the rest of the world was subjected to because of sheer European greed and hubris. Cultural Appropriation rings the neck of people of colour on its right hand while its left hand steals their property.

How can I do better? 

Simple. Respect the cultures you do not understand by not cutting them up into small marketable pieces. Do not take aspects of cultures you know nothing about and wear it as a costume or as an aesthetic choice. And from the wise words of Taraji P. Henson, “stay in your lane”.

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