The Privilege Behind Doing Good

What is the big deal about appropriation? Defined as the intentional copying or exploiting of pre-existing images and objects. Context is important, specifically the historical one that we largely ignore when it comes to copying cultures that are not from our own lived experiences. Why does this appropriative ideology prevail despite the disingenuous value that culture is profitable, while marginalized people abhor that sentiment?

As free as we are to do whatever with our hair, clothing, art or sacred objects to enjoy, “using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege. Because for those of us who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we look, behave, and speak just to earn enough respect to stay employed and safe, our modes of self-expression are still limited.” This article was sparked by a recent product of Urban Outfitters, Local Branch Smudge Kit seen here. (see image below). By intentionally copying culture without placing context, Urban Outfitters and others are demonstrating the imbalance of power that remains between the colonizers and colonized.

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Also “When someone’s behavior is labeled culturally appropriative, it’s usually not about that specific person being horrible and evil. It’s about a centuries’ old pattern of taking, stealing, exploiting, and misunderstanding the history and symbols that are meaningful to people of marginalized cultures.” (source).

How is awareness of our desire to do good important in our social ventures? We must first be aware of the implications of how we decide to do good – we have to be open to criticism.  We have to understand, analyze then make a decision. Whatever decision is made has to be an enlightened one so that we are truly innovating and not just repeating antiquated and uneven distributions of power. In order to do good, we must find alternatives to the status quo of stereotypes, disregard for context, and really ask, am I exploiting a culture for my own benefit or are the benefits mutually shared?

Pointing out cultural appropriations is not a personal attack, marginalized groups and allies have been for centuries voicing a need to stop what they feel is exploitation – why do people not take them seriously? Would you not take a child’s concern seriously if they felt unsafe or made fun of for whatever reason? Recovery from colonization has several intentional steps, you can decolonize through several educational tools when doing your research, environmental scans and asking for feedback from experts, clients, customers and other stakeholders.

One specific resource by Poka Laenui, and his 5 steps to decolonize follows:
Recovery, Mourning, Dreaming, Commitment, and Action.

1) Recovery – involves a process of rediscovery and recovery.  Laenui writes, “this phase sets the foundation for the eventual decolonization of the society” (152).  During this phase, those who have suffered the consequences of colonialism begin to question their assumed place as inferior to the dominant culture.  The individual begins to rediscover their indigenous history and recovers lost aspects of their culture such as language and traditions.

2) Mourning – Laenui states that, “the natural outgrowth of the first phase is the mourning – a time when a people are able to lament their victimization” (154).

3) Dreaming – Laenui believes that dreaming is a crucial phase in decolonization. Here, “the full panorama of possibilities are expressed, considered through debate, consultation, and building dreams on further dreams which eventually becomes the flooring for the creation of a new social order” (155). This restructuring involves reassessment of existing power structures (internal and external) and expanding our worldviews and shifting our paradigms to make a better world for all nations.

4) Commitment – a desire for consensus, as opposed to votes and hierarchy, is important here. Is your call consistent with the intention of decolonization or do you cut the dreaming phase short and force a premature resolution of historical injustice?

5) Action – involves committing to your dreams and deciding to make them a reality. Laenui explains consensus must occur in the fourth phase before the action phase can follow. Who is sitting at the table when consensus is underway?

Taking responsibility and generously listening to people whom we seek to do good for, educating ourselves, and being open to the possibility of changing ideologies of oppression in society at large can only move us in the right direction. It never hurts to ask someone genuine questions during the iteration stages of a social venture, after all are you not seeking sustainable change in the most genuine ways possible? And so, why not invest in your project under those same values?

Additional Sources


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