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Cultural Appropriation: What’s an Educator’s Role?

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Looking around the world, we notice ways that imagery, style, and language are borrowed from other cultures and peoples. Some of these examples are thoughtful and respectful towards the cultures they pay tribute to, and others are much more problematic (i.e., just about any use of Native American headdresses not by Native Americans in ceremony). With the bombardment of media imagery to which students are subjected, how do we teach the ability to discern right from wrong?  How can we encourage students to understand that this ‘borrowing’ can in fact be harmful to already oppressed and underrepresented groups?

What is Cultural Appropriation? 

Let’s start with a definition. I define this concept with my students as: 

...the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture. It may be perceived as controversial or even harmful, notably, when the cultural property of a minority group is used by members of the dominant culture without consent.

Our world has been built on ideas that are being borrowed and continually exchanged.  As an art teacher, I see the usage of images from other artists as a part of a healthy practice; examining and replicating ideas from other people, cultures, and spaces in the classroom is a great way to learn. When done in a respectful and thoughtful way, it can spread understanding and awareness, while reshaping misconceptions and stereotypes. But there is a point where this appropriation crosses the line into cultural insensitivity and commodification. Students have a tough time seeing that line and, as educators, it’s our responsibility to have that conversation with them. It’s not easy, and to be honest, there are times when it’ll be a challenge because you yourself might not be certain about what feels okay and what is offensive. Does it cross the line? Without that challenging conversation, your students won’t practice their ability to discern the acceptable from the unacceptable. 

I’ll speak primarily here to Cultural Appropriation in the arts classroom, but these ideas can be applied across all disciplines. The main concepts can work for all educators and have their basis in promoting inquiry and dialogue with students. It’s just the vehicle for delivery of the lesson that differs.

Research and Educate!

Part of the issue with cultural appropriation is the lack of understanding around the importance that an image or concept can carry within a specific culture. This can be based on misinformation and cultural norms that have existed for decades, and perpetuated by mass-media. I mentioned Native American headdresses earlier because we see these sacred objects misused as accessories in everything from fashion shows to festivals. Examples also show up in costumes around this time of year, as students (and adults) start planning for Halloween. Students at Ohio State University created a great poster campaign to address the ways that costumes trivialize and simplify cultures. 

Encourage students to do some research and to ask questions about the origin of objects and understand the value those items or costumes might hold for a group of people. Some questions they might consider:

  • Is this costume or image a stereotype of a group of people?
  • Does this object/image hold important cultural or traditional significance?
  • How does removing the context of this costume/object change its meaning?
  • Does my usage of the costume/object trivialize a culture or group of people?

Bring in Authentic Voices

It’s important to find experts that know the history and background of objects and images to share with students. Having those voices be an integral part of the conversation provides valuable learning opportunities for students. While educators can impart knowledge in many areas, there is no replacement for someone’s lived experience, which can truly flesh out the understandings of the cultures and traditions of specific peoples. Reach out to community centers or organizations that can provide resources and maybe even a speaker to address whatever artworks or images you decide to use in the classroom. You can also use interviews and stories to further round out the student learning. StoryCorps  interviews are powerful and digestible bites of knowledge that can be particularly moving. This might be easier to do if you’re in an urban area, but connecting with museums and history centers is easier than ever with technology today. I love checking out museum sites for more information on artwork like the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago

Cite Your Sources!

Make sure to cite where your artwork and imagery comes from! Giving credit matters. And folks who are interested in particular students’ work might also be interested in learning more about what inspired students to create their pieces. Being able to go back to the source is so important and often overlooked. 

Reflect on the Work

Maybe you’ve done all the research and the processing that you can with your students, and think that you’ve covered all your bases. Then the project or work goes out into the world and someone raises a concern that puts you on the defensive. Slow down for a second and consider how and where this response is coming from. How can you be reflective and appropriately address concerns raised to you? What ways can students take ownership for their learning and process, and also still learn from mistakes? The ability to take in feedback and critique and absorb the learning is an essential part of the creative process. 

We are constantly borrowing from the world around us, and when we do so respectfully and genuinely, it can result in some really awesome learning. Showing genuine curiosity and a desire to grow and connect helps keep us away from potentially damaging and negative impacts. These are just a few of the steps and resources I access to make sure that I’m towing the right side of the line around Cultural Appropriation.

Ray Yang

Ray Yang Visual Art Teacher

Ray Yang is a Middle and High School Visual Art Teacher in Seattle, WA. Their path to the classroom has taken them from managing youth outreach programs, collaborating with museums on teen programs, teaching in higher ed, working as an administrator in a large urban school district, consulting on state and national standards, curriculum, and assessments, and now working as a teacher and teaching artist for youth and educators. A born and raised New Yorker, Ray graduated with a BA in from Brown University and an MA in Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They are passionate about social justice and equity in art education and believe that the arts are a method of creating a more just and equitable society. They also love reading graphic novels, playing Ultimate Frisbee and spending time with their partner and their two children enjoying the scenery of the Pacific Northwest.

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