Appropriation vs. Creative Activism

6 09 2010

I’ve been thinking lately about cultural appropriation and how to avoid it.  My principle concern comes from the fact that I am fascinated by indigenous cultures and indigenous activism.  I’ve read some really interesting accounts in my study of human rights on indigenous movements and creative solutions to common activist problems. But I’ve wondered if identifying with and being interested in these movements is a bad thing, especially when I’m thinking about how to apply indigenous ideas to activist movements in the United States as a white, middle class individual.

There was a post on cultural appropriation at Bitch Magazine that presented a really helpful guiding line for this problem.  Basically, it’s about attribution.  White people tend to appropriate the ideas of nonwhite people and of marginalized groups in general, whether queer, disabled, indigenous, or something else, and then claim them as their own–directly or through silence.  What this says to me (and correct me if I’m wrong), is that it’s good to recognize the creativity of solutions presented by marginalized people, and to incorporate them into, or use them as the basis for, an activist movement.  But it is essential to attribute those ideas to that group, and to the individuals that have expressed them.  It is not okay to take the ideas out of context, to strip away their origins, and to exclude those who presented the ideas in the first place.