People of color have learned to navigate white spaces, and I have decided to expect no effort in return from white people who want to know about and participate in any element of my culture.
By Nami Thompson
As a Punjabi-American woman in Boulder, any question about appropriation can easily be translated to, “I want this. What can I do to make it sound like you have given me permission to take it?” If you’ve been to Boulder, you may know we are 81% white, and we have a non-native-owned store here called Zuni, which sells Native headdresses and other indigenous art, and we also have a trail called Settler’s Park, as in white settlers.
Our biggest industry is “the healing arts,” which are all appropriated. I belong to a parenting group in Boulder, and we had a recent conversation about the use of sage. By the end of it, a white woman left the group — after wishing us peace and love of course — and the women of color who participated in the discussion were exhausted.
The next day, a white person saw me buying frozen Indian meals at Trader Joe’s and asked me which of their dishes I like best. They said, “I always look at these, but I never buy them in case it’s offensive. What do you think?” As we were talking, another white person who was eavesdropping grabbed the meals I suggested. It gave me a good laugh, and I just answered and went on with my life. In theory, this might be exhausting too, but I was okay. That’s when I realized it’s not about what is and is not appropriation but about who does and does not appropriate, so I’m choosing not to answer questions about appropriation anymore.
People who understand where to draw the line in a particular situation often can name their own racial identity and understand the reach of white supremacy. When our parenting group was talking about sage, we were meant to be discussing anti-Indigineity but ended up debating whether appropriation really exists. The white people in the group fell into two categories. The first believe it exists, but they’re unsure of the boundaries. Like all colonizers, they want to draw definitive borders, but territories are porous and change with time and human need. I’m certain any white ally would cross an established boundary if they sufficiently tempted by something shiny enough on the other side.
The second group denies the existence of appropriation, calling it “culture-sharing,” instead. These people are simply in denial about the origins of white racial identity, which was formed as a means for aggregating power and resources across the globe. When white people invoke the concept of culture-sharing as an excuse to overstep cultural boundaries, they mimic colonization. In fact, I contend it’s always appropriation when a person identifies as white — because whiteness is nothing more than the rejection of cultural identity. If white people don’t know where whiteness begins and where it ends, they will never hear me in a conversation about what is culturally mine.
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