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28 October 2017

What's the Opposite of Appropriation?

Indigenous Peoples’ Day just passed and Halloween is almost here, and I just suggested learning a new way from Native peoples, while making the grand, controversial suggestion that there exist both negative and positive versions of “appropriation.” I apologize for using a semantics trick to get your attention: there’s no such thing as “positive appropriation.” But, there is something else. Something better.

So, let’s clarify exactly what I mean.
Groundwork first: the word appropriation comes from appropriare ‘make one's own’.

“Make one’s own.” It’s a haunting phrase. A terrifying phrase that suggests power over… possession of. It’s painful for me to write now only two weeks after admitting publicly that: “me, too.” I, too, was treated as an object by a man. He had power over me and he used it to hurt me—he took something physical from me, while shitting all over my heart, my spirit, my mind. When he took that physical thing he had no right to take, he also took a piece of my trust, a piece of my sense of safety and some of my dignity.

Activist Tarana Burke started the "Me Too" movement in 2007.
“Making one’s own” is a very specific problem in the United States (and elsewhere) because White [and male and hetero, etc.] people and systems decided they could make anything and anyone their own—to do with as they chose. Land, rivers, trees, coal, women, Black/brown People, Native People, and essentially all of what is known as Turtle Island. Culture’s trappings, too, when it pleased them (see Victoria’s Secret models prancing down catwalks in headdresses and Native-like “regalia”), even while telling the people that created those trappings that the underpinnings of their cultures were worthless or even the Devil’s work. White supremacy ideology has been telling white folks that they have a right to take anything they want and use it anyway they want for centuries—without regard for anyone else. Taking pieces of a culture for profit, for “fun,” for image, and stomping the pieces they don’t want (don't value) to death in the bloody earth—after telling people they and their cultures are worthless.

Part of how this operates now, at Halloween and in the capitalist marketplace, is that the physical trappings of culture are bought and sold, making companies and white folks money, while the philosophies, values, histories, belief systems, and experiences of those cultures are trampled, devalued, annihilated and worse. So, yeah, Victoria’s Secret models strut in beads and feathers, but Native women are beaten and raped by off-reservation tourists who cannot—by law—be held accountable or prosecuted once they strut back off tribal land.

Feathers and beads are meaningful, Ankara and Kente are meaningful, but the meat of a culture that gives those material manifestations their power is in the stories, the experiences, the teachings, the values, the beliefs, the philosophies, the histories. These intangibles are what make beautiful Black people and cultures beautiful, glowing Native people and cultures iridescent. And yet these intangibles are what White supremacist and Capitalist culture (can they be separated? let’s be honest) have tried to destroy by demeaning, ignoring, excluding, devaluing, and committing all-out genocide through slavery, incarceration, denying sovereignty and all the other bullshit for at least five centuries. This is wrong and is has to be stopped. Now. So let’s be abundantly clear: appropriation is abominable and has to be abolished.

In order to abolish what we now know as appropriation, we have to abolish white supremacy itself— defined as a notion that white culture is more valuable, right and good than any other—an idea that pervades assumptions, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, policies, etc. in the United States (and elsewhere). I can think of no other way to abolish it than to dismantle the false notion that white culture is better than other cultures. The opposite of this, then, is to recognize the power and beauty and value and guidance in other cultures, hold them up, appreciate them, and let what is good in them lead us and teach us.

Learning is defined almost as the opposite of appropriation. In learning, we do not possess, but rather change. In education circles and pedagogy, we define learning as change in thought, feeling or behavior/action. We do not take, put on, co-opt, sell or profit from another culture or people (all colonialist, materialistic, capitalist terms in themselves). Instead, we let the cultures change us. We do not appropriate, “make our own.” We don’t own at all, and there is in fact nothing physical or material to possess. We let cultures that have ways of beauty and truth and meaning guide us. We make ourselves available to them—to be changed by them. We change. We submit ourselves to something that has the power to change us because we want to be changed, we want to grow, we want to love, we want to be better, we want to do better. Not only are we not appropriating, we are submitting.

artist, Vince Ballentine, @ ig: vballentine99

This is not a new idea. The Zen Buddhists, the Yogis, the practitioners of mindfulness the world over from St. Augustine to the Sufis were well-versed in the art of giving themselves over, submitting, to a new idea, letting themselves become immersed in a practice to be changed by it. And we can do it now, again. So, before we take one step down this path, let me be clear about where we are going. We are not going to take power over another culture to do with it as we please. We are not divorcing prayers from eagle feathers and strutting around in medicine wheels, we are not making onesies out of keffiyehs. We are not borrowing beautiful metaphors while siphoning off their power. We are walking into new ideas, immersing ourselves in them, to be overtaken by them, to submit ourselves to a new way of seeing, and emerge changed.

White supremacist and Capitalist culture have demoralized and destroyed too many and too much. There are good things in white/Euro cultures. But there are EQUALLY good things in other cultures, also, and if we want to change what’s destructive and wrong about white supremacist culture and its dominance, what I’m saying to you is, we NEED to learn from and value other cultures, and we need to change the dominant culture—no matter how you describe it. We need to find a new way. So, what this blog will do is bring you along for my explorations and meditations on what I have learned and can learn from other cultures that we must wholeheartedly come to learn from and value. This is not appropriation; this is submission. Submission to a new way, a balanced way, a cooperative and complementary way, a healthy way forward where we value the good and power in every voice: the mitakuye oyasin way.

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