Cultural Appropriation: A Parable

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I’ve been thinking about how to explain cultural appropriation to a friend of mine lately who had the really typical reaction most white people have to cultural appropriation: I can’t agree with someone who says I’m not allowed to like things from other cultures.

I hear this objection a lot when people from other cultures try to talk about why cultural appropriation is a problem. It’s very difficult to explain that them liking things from other cultures is not at all the problem. Sometimes they use those things disrespectfully (such as wearing feathered headbands), true, but that’s easier to explain. It’s a lot harder to explain why appropriating things like Hip Hop or Rock and Roll is a problem.

So I’ve written an allegory. Maybe it will help. Maybe not. But it’s my attempt at explaining that problems with cultural appropriation have nothing to do with people liking or not liking things, and that the goal of people who complain about it is not that you stop liking the things that you like.

Also, full disclosure here: The Editor is white, but has listened a lot. I don’t know why the voices of minorities are not being heard on this subject, but this is my attempt, one white person to other white people, to explain that other cultures don’t have a problem with you liking their stuff.
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A STORY OF NEIGHBOURS

You move into a new neighborhood. You’re excited about the move and getting to know your new neighbors, so you bake a pie and go knock on their door. You don’t want to brag, but you make a really good pie, and you’re nice, and you have every reason to believe that your new neighbors will want to be friends, or at least friendly neighbors.

So there you are, standing on the porch in nice clothes, with your pie, ringing your neighbor’s doorbell, hoping to start being social in your new community.

Your neighbor answers the door and smiles at you, and you take the opportunity to introduce yourself.

“Hi,” you say, “I’m your new neighbor; I just moved in next door. I made you a pie to say hello, and I thought we could get to know each other!”

“Oh,” says your neighbor, smile fleeing, “Well that sounds great, but I don’t have time right now. Maybe later?”

“Sure,” you say, “but here, take the pie!”

“Thanks,” says your neighbor with another smile, before closing the door.

An hour later you are moving some last minute things into your new house and you notice people from other homes in the neighborhood starting to go into your neighbor’s house. It appears they are having a party. But that’s okay. Your neighbor doesn’t really know you, so you can’t expect to be invited to their parties yet. You still feel pretty good about meeting your new neighbor and continue to move your stuff.

Not long after that, you notice people on the porch, chatting and eating your pie. “This pie is really fantastic,” they say, “I’ll have to ask the host for the recipe!” It’s okay though, they have no reason to know you made the pie, and you’re sure your neighbor just didn’t see the need to have a conversation about pie at the party.

The next day you see your neighbor as you both go out for mail. They walk over to you and say “That pie was fantastic, could I bother you for the recipe?”

And you, trying to be neighborly, say “Of course! Would you like to come in for a cup of tea while I dig it out?”

“Thanks, but I am going to be late for yoga. Do you think you could just leave it in my mailbox and I’ll get it when I get back?”

So you do. You print a copy of your recipe and leave it in their mailbox.

The week after that, other neighbors gathers at your neighbor’s house again, and you notice people on the porch eating pie and complimenting the hostess. Once again, you are not invited to the party. And it’s okay, maybe they still don’t know you very well. Right?

A year goes by and you keep reaching out to your neighbor. You bake them cookies, babysit their kids at the last minute, loan them eggs and sugar, and all the other neighborly things neighbors do. Sometimes your neighbor does things for you too; maybe not as often, but it’s hard to justify the feeling you’re getting that your neighbor might be taking advantage of you. Your neighbor is nice to you, more or less, but doesn’t seem interested in getting to know you or being friends at all. And you are never, ever, invited to one of their parties with the rest of the neighborhood. You’ve introduced yourself to some others but gotten a very similar cold reception, and you just don’t know why, but it’s getting a little depressing and you’re starting to wonder if there is something wrong with you. Everybody still loves your pie though, and some cookies you made for another neighbor who also asked for the recipe.

Maybe if you made sure everybody knew they were your recipes, they’d realize that you had been participating all along and they just didn’t know. They’d realize you had skills and talents worth including, right?

So you decide to throw a party, and you invite everyone in the neighborhood. You cook a wonderful variety of foods and decorate with fresh flowers and wait for people to show up. Only a few people come, and most of them stand around awkwardly, eating and having stilted conversation. They do compliment you on your cooking and baking, but after eating they quickly leave. Some of them ask if they can take food home for people who could not come, and you figure that you aren’t going to eat it all by yourself anyway so you send them home with plenty of food for their families.

You do this three times, hoping next time will be better. And indeed, a lot more people attend your third party, but they go straight for the food table and don’t stay very long after that. When you try to talk to them, they don’t seem to want to talk about anything else but your food. Eventually you give up on having parties. They aren’t helping you get to know your neighbors, and it really feels like people just come for the food. It makes you feel good about your cooking and baking skills, but that is cold comfort because you still don’t have any friends.

After that, absolutely nothing changes. You are still inexplicably on the outside for reasons you don’t understand. You’re a nice person and very social, so you can’t quite make yourself stop trying entirely, but you do try to stop caring. You stop handing out recipes, instead saying “Sorry, it’s a secret!” You know your neighbors talk about you on facebook and say that you “won’t share” and “just want attention” and “it’s not like they’re the only good baker in the neighborhood, they don’t own the idea of pie, sheesh!” (Because you looked. And you’re facebook friends with some of them but they never respond to your posts.)

One day, you realize that you really don’t like your new neighborhood at all, even though your house is nice. You think about moving, but your old neighborhood was the same way, it’s why you moved out in the first place!

You are genuinely happy that people like your pie, but there is so much more to you than that and nobody seems interested in you as a person at all. It’s pretty depressing, actually.

And you don’t know what to do, or even how to talk about it. You try bringing it up with some friends you made in college and they say “Well at least they like your pie. Don’t you want them to like your things?”

And you say “Well, yes, but I want them to like me too. What am I doing wrong?”

And your friends say “Well you are kind of different. Maybe they would include you more if you tried a little harder to be relate? Try being more like them so they have something to relate to, maybe?”

Okay, you think, I guess I am a little different, I’ll try being more like them. That’s good advice, right?

So you take yoga and you start rooting for the local sports team and go to HOA meetings and listen to their concerns about the neighborhood and pay attention to the things they like and care about so you can learn about them and talk about them.

It works a little bit. A few people in the neighborhood are willing to have conversations with you about normal things when you run into them. They respond to your facebook posts more now, if the posts are about something they like. You still don’t get invited to parties, but there is definitely a small improvement.

It is a small victory, but it never goes further than that, and you also start to hear people whispering and laughing at you for being a pathetic poser.

One day, sitting in your kitchen alone, baking another pie, you realize that they are right. You are pretty pathetic. You have been reaching out to a whole community of people who have no interest at all in being your friend. You’ve been sharing your skills and talents with them and they just took them and left and never included you in the community. And instead of being mad at them for that, you just tried harder, and you changed yourself to be more like them just so people who didn’t even want to try getting to know you might include you.

You don’t want to be like them any more. They’re jerks.

And you’re not making them any more pies either. And when you see them sharing YOUR recipes it makes you really mad. Those recipes are from your family. They are things you value. They’re a part of you. And you loved that other people were interested and wanted to share them, but they don’t, really. Your neighbors want to eat your pie, but they don’t want to hear about how your grandmother taught you to make the crust when you were nine. They don’t really care about any of the heart that goes into your baking, they just want the results. For that, you feel a little sorry for them, because they are missing a really great part about the experience.

But mostly, you’re just mad.

And it’s not because your neighbors like your pie.

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