appreciation vs appropriation
I have another story. But first, the back story.
As we've all witnessed, appropriation is an intense, meaningful topic. I encountered it, pondered it long before there was a term in mainstream discourse.
That pondering, though, mostly happened outside the US. Living and traveling abroad taught me very quickly to be careful about what I wear and how I speak.
More recently, I've applied some of these lessons to what I do in my own country. I'm far from perfect and have made plenty of mistakes, playing into colonialism and racism. Educating myself is ongoing work, and I pay a lot more attention now than I did before. I'm grateful to have so many resources and perspectives.
In debates about appropriation, I've frequently heard the argument that everything is really just appreciation, that humans have always exchanged ideas.
(The fact that the people with this perspective are always people with white privilege is a sign that it's not true.)
Worse, though, the "appreciation" perspective ignores all context. By that rationale, wearing a certain outfit meant for a religious ceremony is the same thing as wearing the same outfit to a part and posting a selfie online, with no acknowledgement of the cultural context. Not the same.
All that to say, I am very careful about what I wear. I prefer not to wear clothing or jewelry that is identifiable as belonging to another culture. There are plenty of worthy exceptions. For example, I will wear whatever is respectful for a religious service or a cultural event. Whatever choices my hosts tell me are correct, I follow their instructions—clothing, behavior, etc.
Outside of specific cultural events, I'm more hesitant. I have a lot of clothing and jewelry from all over the world. Their sources are not particularly obvious. For example, I have a tunic from India, but it doesn't look like a kameez.
So, the story—
A few months ago, I was running errands. I was wearing my usual western attire, as well as a pendant, which is made from an Ethiopian coin. At times I've worried about the pendant being appropriation. But almost no one has ever noticed the details on it; it looks like a flat silver circle.
That day, I'd gone to a nearby international market, where nearly all of the floor employees are immigrants from Asia and Africa. My mind was wandering while I was waiting in the checkout line, and I wasn't fully paying attention when it became my turn.
The reaction of the cashier, however, jolted me into attention. She said, "That is a beautiful necklace! Do you know where it's from?" I replied that it is an Ethiopian coin. She nodded vigorously, and continued, "Yes, Ethiopia is my country. You are very fortunate to have this necklace! Very good luck."
Then she reached over the scanner and hugged and kissed me. I've gone to this market since I was a child, and I've never, ever seen an employee shake hands with a customer, let alone display affection. I was stunned. In a good way.
I thanked her and told her I like the necklace very much. She beamed and repeated, "Yes, you are very lucky to have this." I don't know if the coin is itself especially lucky, or that she simply appreciated seeing something from home. Or both. (Depending on the context, "lucky" is translated for many different meanings, in my experience.)
Regardless of the luck factor, I've reflected this encounter a lot. It made me feel a lot better about having something from another culture. That pendant has no context to most people who see it; they don't see a white person wearing "ethnic" jewelry. But it does mean something to the people who do recognize it, and at least for one it's something positive. I think the fact that I knew what it was contributed to the cashier's positive reaction.
This experience has helped me continue to navigate the appreciation vs appropriation debate. Not because I expect all Ethiopian people to agree with the cashier I met. Not because I suddenly learned a belief on which everyone agrees, on which I can base my decisions.
But I did see that I before this encounter, I thought I was fully informed on all the ideas to take into account. Instead, I got a humbling reminder that I can always learn more, like this new nuance worth considering.
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