So there’s this article on Fusion titled “Nameplate Necklaces: This s*** is for us” (alternate title: “White Girls: Stop wearing nameplate necklaces”). Obviously, I came across this article because I read Fusion all the time. Just kidding. Obviously, I came across this article because some other white person I follow on Twitter was drawing attention to how crazy it is to add nameplate necklaces to the list of things that are considered cultural appropriation. I’m not actually sure if there is a limit to what “should” be considered cultural appropriation. Being white, I can’t really understand what it’s like to have one’s culture appropriated. I suppose, as a woman who was born female, I can imagine it’s sort of like when Caitlyn Jenner wins Woman of the Year when she’s only been a woman for about 15 minutes. Actually, it’s probably even more like Bono being Woman of the Year when he’s never been a woman for any minutes. Then again, who am I to judge? I don’t know Bono’s life! So I’m back to not really understanding how horrible it is when a white girl wears s*** that’s for women of color.

For the record, I’ve never owned nor worn a nameplate necklace. On the other hand, I don’t know how many things I have worn inappropriately–things I thought I was only wearing but was actually appropriating. I’m suspecting the number is low because I’m pretty white, culturally speaking, and have very little in the way of personal style. I don’t think I’ve ever been cool enough to appropriate something. The only thing I can think of is when I attended my brother-in-law’s wedding in Japan and I wore a kimono for the traditional Shinto ceremony–but that was at the invitation of the Japanese bride. It’s not a thing I would have thought to do on my own, but when someone invites you to her traditional Shinto wedding in Japan and offers you, as a soon-to-be family member, a kimono, it seems like it would be rude to say, “No thanks.” On the other hand, if I just up and decided on my own to wear a kimono someplace, that would probably be considered cultural appropriation.

On our first trip to Japan, my husband and I were visiting a shrine, and a (Japanese) man approached us and pointed out that a nearby tree was known as the “marriage tree.” He brought us over there and showed us how to pay our respects to the tree, or how to bless our marriage via this tree ritual; I’m sorry to say that between the language barrier and my faulty memory, I can’t tell you the precise nature of what he was showing us how to do, and it’s not my intention to sound disrespectful. (Maybe the guy was just messing with us. But he seemed sincere.) To be honest, bowing to the tree felt a little weird to me—not in the sense of “this is foreign and I don’t like it” but in the sense of “I’m not Japanese and I don’t know crap about Shintoism and I feel like a fraud.” But to the man, he was just sharing his culture and inviting us to appreciate it.

So maybe that’s the “get out of jail free” card. If someone invites you to participate in their culture, that’s okay. Maybe if one of my black or Latina girlfriends gave me a nameplate necklace for my birthday, that would also be okay. (Or she could just be messing with me. But friends don’t do that to each other, do they?) The problem is that if I wear my nameplate necklace out in public, no one’s going to know that my friend of color gave it to me. They will probably assume that I am appropriating WOC’s culture, and knowing this, how can I in good conscience wear such a thing? I mean, I could say, “Actually, my friend, who happens to be a WOC, gave it to me for my birthday,” but even I know that’s just what a clueless white person would say. If I were the offended person, I’d be like, “Oh, yeah, I’m sure some of your best friends are black!”

Actually, I don’t think I have any friends of color who would give me a nameplate necklace for my birthday. This is all just hypothetical. It’s something that theoretically could happen. I mean, I never expected to be wearing a kimono to someone’s wedding either.

For the record, the kimono was very beautiful. I’m not sure I pulled it off, what with my red hair and big feet. [1] (Those shoes are the worst. I’m sorry if that’s racist, but at least I won’t be appropriating that part of the culture again if I can help it.) I can understand why someone would want to wear something from another culture because it is beautiful. I guess I can also understand why it gets on a WOC’s nerves when Carrie Bradshaw starts wearing a nameplate necklace and suddenly nameplate necklaces are cool because a popular white girl wore one, even though WOC have been wearing nameplate necklaces for years. But I also can’t help thinking it’s kind of like when hipsters sniff that they liked something before it was cool, and now that it’s cool, it’s been ruined. WOC were enjoying their nameplate necklaces before white girls ruined it for them. I hate to lump anyone in the same category as hipsters, but I just can’t think of a more pertinent example offhand. I understand why it’s different: hipsters are not historically people who have been marginalized by the larger society; they marginalize themselves, on purpose. So of course it’s not the same thing. I get that.

Here’s the thing: I enjoyed reading that Fusion piece, for the most part. I appreciated the author explaining the significance of nameplate necklaces to her and other WOC. It would never have occurred to me that nameplates were a black/WOC thing. I was unaware. I’m glad to be aware of her experience and feelings. What I don’t get is the same thing I don’t get about hipsters being miffed that their favorite band now has thousands of fans who weren’t there from the very beginning: why does it bother you that other people like what you like, even if it’s for different reasons?

I’m sure some people would say that question proves I absolutely don’t get any of the stuff I previously claimed to get, if I don’t get that last part. But I’m trying, I really am. As I said, I’m white—I’ve got the white privilege, I’m lousy with white privilege, along with tons of other privilege. I have zero experience with someone taking an aspect of my culture that is dear to me and cheapening it or whatever else one does when one culturally-appropriates. I can’t even think of a single thing on earth that I think of as belonging exclusively to my demographic group’s “culture.” My husband comes from Scandinavian stock; I can’t decide if this makes him more or less “white” than I am. I have no particular interest in genealogy—it doesn’t do anything for me—but I can trace my ancestors on both sides back about 200 years to…England. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of this, as it was an accident of birth I had nothing to do with. (It is kind of a bummer when they have those celebrate-our-diverse-cultural-heritage potlucks. You can’t eat the Magna Carta, amirite?) But to me, everything that’s great about English culture is part of the cultural heritage of every American. It’s not like I own it, as a person of English ancestry; I share it with a host of people who are not of English ancestry, racially speaking. I don’t even think of myself as a person of English ancestry, i.e. that my ancestors lived in England is not a conscious part of my identity. As a white person, I have the luxury of not thinking about my race unless I start writing crap like this.

But like I said, I’m trying. I’m trying to empathize by drawing whatever parallels or hypothetical parallels I can to my own experience. I suppose that as a woman, I am part of a historically marginalized group. Unfortunately, the closest I can get to imagining something like cultural appropriation in that context is my above Caitlyn Jenner remark, which veers uncomfortably close to anti-trans sentiment. I admit that I get a little bent out of shape when Caitlyn Jenner is named Woman of the Year for publicly wearing a dress and painting her nails. Women have been wearing dresses and painting their nails for years, but someone who used to be called Bruce does it and suddenly it’s Woman of the Year stuff. I don’t care if someone who is biologically male wants to live as a woman, regardless of whether she wears a dress or not (women can do anything!)—it’s no skin off my nose, after all. But when someone who lived as a man and enjoyed the privileges of man-living for 60 years claims she’s “just as much a woman” as I am, please forgive me for saying, “Oh, honey.” I mean, what else can I say? I’m happy you’re happy, Caitlyn Jenner, but a newly-transitioned woman winning Woman of the Year is like Barack Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize immediately upon his inauguration: you just haven’t earned it yet, baby. (Alluding to Smiths songs: just what a white girl of a certain age would do.

I say that, and I own it, but I also realize it sounds pretty mean—I reckon it sounds really mean to any trans woman (or person) who has had to suffer through things that I will never understand because I haven’t experienced them. Yet I also notice that this means 45 years of living as a woman, having experiences that a trans woman has never had, qualifies me for exactly zero pronouncements on the nature of womanhood. So trying to relate to the whole “appropriation” issue via my womanhood is a fail.

As a Mormon, I guess I qualify as a religious minority. Historically, Mormons have been marginalized. Some would argue we still are (though I would not, not really). And Mormons are definitely a culture as well as a religion. I’m not sure how one would go about appropriating our culture.[2] It’s kind of hard to nail down in the first place, not unlike our theology. But as long as we’re imagining something super-unlikely, let’s suppose that some not-Mormon person took something that was sacred to us and cheapened or commercialized it. Let’s say some non-Mormon celebrity (famous and therefore influential, sadly) started wearing Mormon temple clothes in public because they thought it looked cool. No one would ever do that, but let’s say they did. Most Mormons would instinctively call that disrespectful and gross, but that’s because it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it for reasons other than mockery. One has to imagine someone wearing Mormon temple clothes because they actually thought it did look cool. It takes a lot of imagination. (You could strain something and hurt yourself, probably.) I can only imagine that my reaction to this sort of thing would be to think a) they look as ridiculous as I do, and b) we appropriated all that temple stuff from the Masons, so they probably have first dibs on being offended.

Anyway, they already made The Book of Mormon musical, which wasn’t appropriation but satire, and plenty of Mormons got their noses out of joint over that because a) Mormons generally don’t appreciate satire and b) Mormons don’t like to be made fun of, especially not with F-words. I did not see The BofM musical, nor do I care to—I have a reasonably high tolerance for irreverent humor, but a fairly low tolerance for scatological humor, which is the same reason I don’t like to watch South Park—but I thought (and still think) that righteous indignation/outrage was a foolish response. It makes us look small, and frankly, insecure. I’m pretty sure Jesus said if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. If you’re going to trash or mock my religion, maybe you’re a jerk (or maybe you’re just misunderstood—I don’t know your life!), but that’s on you, not me. If you want to have a real conversation about my religion, I’m happy to converse with you; if you’re going to be a jerk, go be a jerk without me.

I can say these things about Mormons because I am one and I understand the Mormon experience, but I can’t say to a woman of color, “Your thing about nameplate necklaces makes you look small and insecure,” because I’m not one and I don’t know her experience. I don’t understand her feelings. Is it even possible for me to understand her feelings to the extent that I can understand why she would get bent out of shape over white girls wearing nameplate necklaces? Is there any point in trying to understand, or do I just accept that as a white girl, I have no business wearing a nameplate necklace?

So I’m back where I started, a middle-aged white lady with a free blog and no clue. Where does one draw the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation? Is there a line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation? [3] If so, where does one draw that? How do you know when you’re appropriating something? I’m not really looking for someone to tell me this whole “cultural appropriation” thing is ridiculous. I know some not-(completely)-ridiculous people who have very strong feelings about it, but can’t really articulate the difference between appreciation/exchange and appropriation. I’m not invested in the idea that I should be able to wear a nameplate necklace or a kimono. I’m not even a fan of any sports teams with Native American mascots. On occasion, I enjoy Vietnamese food, but then I read an essay by a Vietnamese-American who was upset that Vietnamese food was trendy now, but white people used to make fun of her lunches when she was young. My instinct is to think that person might need therapy to deal with her issues, but I’m open to the idea of that not being fair. When I was a kid, I thought bologna sandwiches were delicious. I think bologna is gross now. I still like Spam, though. Hawaiians also like Spam. Who liked it first? What does it all mean? I don’t know.

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[1] Even my red hair is, technically, appropriated. I was born a brunette, but I think red hair is beautiful and I like the way I look with red hair, so I dye it red, even if it’s wrong. I have extremely fair skin and burn easily, so I almost feel as though I’ve earned it, but that’s just what a clueless fake-ginger would say.

[2] I was reading some non-Mormon person’s Twitter feed and they were saying how their son wanted to ask someone to Homecoming, but apparently, expectations have changed such that it’s no longer okay to say, “Will you come to Homecoming with me?” You have to do something creative, like with balloons or baked goods or whatever. I was, frankly, astonished. I thought only Mormons did this. (We love theatre! And arts & crafts!) Now it’s what everyone’s supposed to do? Is this the Pinterest-ization of our culture, or has Pinterest simply facilitated the widespread appropriation of Mormon culture? In either case, I don’t actually care. Do what you feel, kids.

[3] I went to a recipe exchange a million years ago, and a friend of mine, who was from Idaho, shared this recipe called “Hong Kong Chicken.” It was a dish her mother made all the time when she was growing up. It consisted of rice, chicken, and cream of mushroom soup (basically). So…where did the Hong Kong part come in, exactly? My friend said, sheepishly, “Oh. Well. You see, most of what we ate was made with potatoes. But this was made with rice. Hence—Hong Kong.” I thought this was adorable (and hilarious). I shared this story with someone recently, and they thought it was offensive, maybe borderline racist. Well, goodness—uneducated about Chinese cuisine, sure, but racist? Can’t we just be glad that we live in a world where more people are eating rice? Maybe Idahoans should be offended when other people belittle their attempts to try new things!

 

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