My third-culture-kid perspective on cultural appropriation

Much is said about cultural appropriation lately. I have plenty of personal experience of how it can be harmful, but I also worry that fears of doing it (or of being accused of it) can push towards the opposite extreme of cultural segregation.

For much of my life, barriers between cultures were the much bigger issue. I grew up with the message that my cultural identity – whether the non-hegemonic parts of it or the mixedness of my heritage – made me somehow inferior, my perspective invalid. For a long time I even believed this. Yet even after some self-esteem was recovered, it was always such a fight for my perspectives to be included. I remember how much I hungered for acceptance; how validating it was on the rare occasions when someone “outside” wanted to work with “my” cultural practices.

Equally important, if I partook in cultural practices of others, I found it warmly accepted and encouraged – like I was giving back the same validation I craved. This was my experience over a childhood and adolescence spent living in 5 different countries and visiting 20+ more. I got the idea that exploring other cultures and taking on parts of them was, by default, a good thing to do – a win-win; a practice that seemed to benefit others at the same time it enriched me. And as a third-culture kid, it also just felt natural.

It wasn’t until university that I ever saw a negative reaction to my “cultural borrowing”. I recall one classmate’s discomfort when I expressed an enthusiasm for learning her language, and another telling me she felt silenced over some performance work I wanted to create using materials from her culture. This left me honestly confused; I couldn’t understand at the time why they were upset instead of pleased by my interest. And it was a while before I got it – and not, I think, until I recognised appropriations of my own cultures.

What I eventually learned is that both things – excluding or appropriating other cultures – do the same kind of harm. You end up silencing voices, erasing people and their needs from consciousness. It’s easy to understand how willful avoidance, exclusion, or segregation can do this; it’s trickier to grasp how drawing on cultural materials can have the same effect, even sometimes when done with good intentions.

I find it helps to remember that the creations of a person or community become a representation of them. It’s obviously problematic if people are denied any representation at all. But if you use a representation of someone without their consent or knowledge, or in a context that is wholly on your terms – without any room to receive and act on their input about how things will affect them – then that is an erasure, too. Worse, it’s an erasure compounded with a theft.

So how can we – those of us who do creative work and find ourselves inspired by other cultures – do better?

We need to understand that when it comes to incorporating material from outside our own heritage and experience, we need to do it with care. Because we don’t all have an equal chance of being heard, and those of us who are more likely to be heard (which has everything to do with which cultures and subcultures are more dominant than others) have a responsibility not to drown out or misrepresent others. And if we make mistakes, we need to prioritise making amends instead of being caught up in defensiveness.

And to achieve that, the most important advice I can give is: listen.

Seek out the people(s) whose cultural materials inspire you. Empathetically, compassionately, engage and listen to them. And do it early – well before you put your work out there – because you must be prepared to learn that your work may come across in ways you didn’t intend. You may find that a compassionate response requires major changes, or scrapping the project entirely.

And when you seek people out, a few caveats:

1. If you can’t actually engage people about the work you’re doing, you don’t know how they feel about it. Imagining how they feel is no substitute.
2. One or two individuals can’t speak for a whole community or culture.
3. You’re not truly listening if you’re trying to persuade people that your project is a good idea.
4. Make it easy for people to say “don’t do this” if that’s how they feel. Hearing it is hard, but for them to say it is harder.
5. Don’t kid yourself that you are giving anyone a voice. If that’s really your aim, use your resources to amplify them – speaking for themselves, on their terms, under their direction. Otherwise you are co-opting them to achieve your goals.

I say this having made every one of these mistakes – and from upsetting experiences of people making these mistakes through me.

But I still believe in the importance of multicultural creative work. Partly because, as a mixed-culture person, this is the only kind of work where I can ever feel truly represented. But it’s also because cross-cultural projects can be a powerful means of addressing sociocultural inequality. Cultural fusion can lead to beautiful, original work that creates understanding and bridge gaps or conflicts. But it has to be pursued in a way where everyone represented is comfortable with the results – where nobody is left feeling disrespected or misrepresented.

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