broken walls and narratives

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Archive for the tag “ideas”

Sinking in a Sea of Cultural Appropriation

It seems that this past year when I go clothes shopping, I find that most of the clothes are inspired by cultures that are not my own.   Aside from the Halloween costumes of gypsies, Native Americans, Mexicans, Hawaiians, etc. are the everyday fashions that seem quite popular now. I have seen a proliferation of “South Western” prints (those inspired by the Native Americans of southwest), as well as feather and dream catcher motifs. Leather, beads, fringes, turquoise, and other Native American inspired materials and patterns are also common. African prints on pants and dresses seemed popular last year. In a way, shopping seems like navigating a mine field of stolen artifacts.

I don’t have a clear litmus test for if a particular clothing item is cultural appropriation.   Different patterns, materials, or motifs may mean different things to different people in different contexts. Some may be sacred and some may be shared. At the heart of the issue though is power.   The most obvious example are the Halloween costumes, which are often a racist and sexualized caricature of an oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural group. The group that is represented benefits in no way from these costumes, as they perpetuate a hateful image that the oppressed group is not in control of. They dehumanize oppressed groups by making them into a joke, sex object, or even non-existent. For instance, a gypsy costume renders real Roma people as non-existent by depicting them as a fortune telling character of fantasy.

Most things are not so obvious. Fringes, leather, beads, turquoise, etc. may not be uniquely Native American but culturally associated with them and may have specific cultural meaning. Stripped away from their cultural context, it is hard to know what this meaning is. They are just cool, trendy items that look vaguely earthly. Again, power is important. Within capitalism, nothing is sacred. Because we, as workers, do not control production (that is, we are often estranged from the source and process of production) consumer goods appear to us as both mysterious and meaningless. A neon patterned Navajo printed poncho may have been sewn in Bangladesh. The dye and cotton may have come from other countries. The design for it by someone in an office. By the time it reaches Target or Ragstock, it is just one item of many- as mysterious and meaningless as any other.   The pattern may not be recognized as even Native American or southwestern in origin because the history, art, and culture of Native American is not a social priority.  Capitalism functions better if history is disjointed and people are atomized. Even if it is recognized as inspired by Native American motifs, this may not be seen as problematic to the white consumer. Why not? Well, a person could justify that in a global society there is so much exchange that the lines between cultures are blurry. A person might also think that it is a way to express appreciation for a culture. While this isn’t entirely false, the invisible force is power. Why are these things sold in Target or any other store? Why is it popular now? Why is it made in Haiti or Sri Lanka instead of by an actual Native American? How do Native Americans feel about it?

I can’t speak for how Native Americans may feel about the trendiness of cultural motifs. There are some things that have received a lot of attention, such as head dresses and Halloween costumes. So, clearly these things have been identified as either racist, disrespectful, or cultural appropriation. The general trendiness of patterns or materials that may not be specific to a particular tribe or tradition (a generic Native American-ness) gets less attention. However, as an outsider, I feel cautious about these items because A. Native Americans certainly aren’t benefitting from them (at least not when they are bought from mainstream stores that profit white people) B. They aren’t in control of fashion trends. C. It reinforces an idea that looking Native American is cool, but does nothing to actually promote social justice or end prejudice against those who actually look Native American-because they are. D. Culture becomes a fetish (i.e. meaningless and mysterious).

Still, shopping is a mine field.  A solution from some environmental minded, do-it-yourself people would be not to shop and just make your own clothes or thrift (though, these items also appear in thrift stores). Education is perhaps another solution. However, quite honestly, even the best historian probably does not know the history of every material, pattern, or motif (as this would require an extensive knowledge of many cultures over many time periods). Nevertheless, it might be useful to educate yourself if a particular design catches your eye. Another option might be to buy things from Native American producers. This at least connects a person to the production process and supports the livelihood of that producer. Still, these are individual solutions that rely on consumer sovereignty to solve social problems- like racism. Social problems need social solutions.

Focusing on the individual or the product is often difficult because there is no universal meaning on particular cultural items. For instance, there might be some Native Americans who are happy that fashion is popularizing certain designs. There are others that may even partake in selling sacred items in order to make money. These examples can then be used to justify cultural appropriation. The truth is, among any group there is disagreement, as everyone experiences their culture and oppression slightly differently.   Beyond this, because there has been both cultural exchange and cultural appropriation for so long, it is hard to see the difference between the two. For example, does this mean that white people can’t take belly dance lessons, yoga lessons, karate classes, eat tacos, eat sushi, believe in non-Western religions, etc?  What about eating pumpkins, chocolate, or owning Chihuahuas? Some people would argue yes. Some would argue yes for some and no for others. Really, has anything been exchanged or given freely? European people have a long history of colonization and imperialism. Even when things are given, as long as there is unequal power the exchange is at least somewhat coerced.

That leads back to the same question, if so many things have been taken (many so long ago that there is no longer memory or resistance to it) then why bother? Why care? Again, this matters as much as a person wants to build better relationships with oppressed people and wants to promote social justice. With that said, if these are important goals (which I believe they are) then a person should be mindful of how their presentation of self and consumption may dehumanize or render invisible others. And while there is no perfect road map of what to wear and what not to wear or what to eat or what not to eat, mindfulness is important. But, mindfulness is individual. Another idea is to take cues from social movements. What do Native American or African American social movements say about particular items or behaviors? Finally, there is the building social movements component.   Social movements that promote worker rights, environmentalism, indigenous rights, anti-racism, feminism, etc. can each work to solve the problems that cultural appropriation is symptomatic of. We need to know history. We need to be connected to production. We need to be connected with one another. The more that African Americans or Native Americans are treated like full human beings whose lives matter, they less they will be erased by fashion trends, Halloween costumes, police, disease, and poverty.

(As a side note, I don’t proclaim to be perfect on this issue.  I am sure that many of the things I do or wear may be stolen without even noticing it.  Also, while this piece uses Native Americans as the example, it should be extended to any oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural groups)

In the Future, Cakes will be Robots: Technology and Education.

Well,  here goes another post about education.  Education has been on my brain lately because well, I am in an accelerated program working on a teaching license and teaching master’s.  So, here is my gripe of the week: education and technology.   The reason why I am upset about this is because my program, in many ways, has not challenged me to think deeply.  While the program has challenged me to do a large amount of work quickly, I am disappointed with the shallow level of engagement with ideas.  Granted, maybe my life is better because I can choose to challenge myself in this regard.  Nevertheless, we are taught from textbooks and websites, with little emphasis on exploring scholarly work.

I will illustrate this shallowness with technology.  As future teachers, we are encouraged to use technology in our classrooms.  The fact that teachers do not use technology is decried as a horrible thing.  What’s more, teachers are criticized for being laggards or for not implementing technology in meaningful ways.  After all, technology is everywhere!  This is a tech savvy generation!  No one can stand against the tide?  Who would?  Worse, teachers who don’t use technology are not preparing their students to work in the technology driven world!  So goes the unquestioned narrative of the technological boom and boon for classrooms.

As future teachers, we are taught a very narrow set of approaches to technology.  Mainly, we are taught technological determinism and instrumentalism.  Technological determinism approaches technology as something inevitable and everywhere.  You either adapt or die.  Agency to resist or interact with technology is ignored.  In fact, teachers who resist technology are viewed as laggards or old-fashioned.  On the other hand, technology is also taught from an instrumentalist approach.  This posits that technology is a tool.  It is neither good nor bad, simply a tool to be used by teachers.  Within these perspectives are various assumptions.  The first assumption is that technology is necessary for future jobs.  Therefore, failure to use technology is a disservice to youth.  While technology is certainly pervasive, tech jobs are not the dominant sector of society.  Hospitality, retail, health care, construction and finance are among the largest sectors.  Certainly a cashier or fast food worker use technology, but advanced technological training are generally not required of those jobs.  Another assumption embedded in mainstream approaches is that technology = progress.  What is progress?  Who benefits from progress?  These are the kinds of questions that are ignored within my program.  Finally, technology is only treated as positive or neutral.  Technology is treated as positive, inasmuch as it is supposed to enhance and support learning or appeal to student interest in technology.  Alternatively, it is treated as neutral, again as a tool to be used.

I can think of nothing in society that is neural.  Everything that is made has social consequences.  There are no neutral tools, as all tools exist for the purpose of supporting society.  Society is not neutral.  I can think of no neutral technology, as it is either made with exploited labor and with extracted resources.   Much of our technology is made oversees, often by women who work long hours under unhealthy conditions.  The materials used to make this technology are not kindly removed from the earth, but at times extracted in war-torn places by worn out people.  The removal is not gentle and sustainable, but violent and destructive.  But, supposing that a school buys “fair trade” technology or union-made technology, it does not mean that the technology itself is good.  There are pros and cons to technology beyond the social, environmental, and human consequences of their production and distribution.  Spell check may result in lowered spelling ability.  Does this ability matter?  Online discussion may improve writing skills, but diminish social skills.  Web browsing may diminish the ability to pay attention or focus deeply on one piece of information.  Technology shapes our patterns and frames of thinking.  While there may be some agency to resist or challenge this, there cannot be agency without some level of awareness and critical thinking.

I am not anti-technology.  However, I don’t want to be pro-technology simply because it is what is expected of me or the norm in teaching.  Technology should be evaluated for its consequences.  Assumptions that it is inevitable, all-powerful, and positive should be questioned.  Technology should be treated like a tool, but it is a tool that exists in a capitalist system.  What does that mean?  It means that there is conflict between workers and machines, in so much that machines replace and manage human labor.  Of course, there is also conflict between technology and the economy itself.  After all, replacing workers with machines results in a race for better, more efficient machines.  It results in more production, but also more investment into fixed capital.  In the end, this results in declining profits and a crisis of over production.  It also means alienation from production and products.  It also means that there is social inequality, and therefore inequality in technological access.  There is a digital divide based upon an economic divide.  At the same time, there is combined and uneven development, wherein people in Africa may have Smartphones but lack vaccines or clean water.  The World Bank might frame this as progress.  But, what is progress?  Who benefits from this kind of progress?

In my program, we always discuss teaching higher order thinking and critical thinking.  However, very little of our work seems to do this.  We really don’t question such things as classroom management or the role of technology in the classroom.  Granted, if we question too much we won’t get hired or parents won’t like us.  Maybe we’ll be fired.  We aren’t taught to be scholars and thinkers.  Scholars and thinkers are left to universities, where they can serve those students who get to go to college….and exist in an academic bubble, disconnected from the world.  No, that is an unfair generalization.  The main point is that the technological ideologies taught in this teaching program, and I imagine, all teaching programs, add to a certain technological momentum.  I just want to slow down the train!  Where are we going?  Why?  Is that good?  Is it bad?  Who benefits?  This doesn’t make me a Luddite.  I’m just weary of “rah, rah, how can we implement more technology into the classroom?”

Ethics and Education


While I was eating dinner today, I began to think about my thesis.  I am FINALLY going to defend it in two weeks.  While thinking about my thesis, I began thinking about research ethics.  When a student undertakes research involving human subjects, she or he must submit their research proposal for IRB approval.  The reason for this, or at least the reason we are given in Research Methods, is that this prevents harm to humans.  Of course, if some minor harm comes to humans but there is great social benefit to the research, it may still be approved.  History is full of unethical studies that caused harm to the subjects involved, such as the commonly cited examples of the Milgrim study, Tuskegee syphilis study, and the Stanford prison experiment.  I can’t think of any qualms with research ethics as it seems rather basic that research should not harm people and if it does, this harm should be weighed against a greater good.  (Of course, the greater good is subjective as is harm.)

With that said, institutions go to great lengths to make certain that research is ethical.  However, this seems to be an island of ethics.  Universities, or other institutions, do not account for ethics in much else aside from research.  For instance, the apparel that sports teams wear or that is sold in bookstores may be made in sweatshops.  The food that is served in dining services is likely sourced from factory farms.  The treatment of these animals would not (at least I think) be accepted for IACUC approval if treated that way in the name of an experiment or research.  There are also everyday, common place harms against students and workers at universities.   For example, 75% of rape victims are women under the age of 25, many of which are college students.  What structures and behaviors within campuses promote rape culture?  If nothing is done to curtail this, or, if these structures and practices are even promoted, can an institution be considered ethical?  When it comes to institutional decisions regarding everything BUT research, it seems that ethics are hardly considered.

That brings me back to my original idea.  Can institutions conduct ethical research, when other aspects of their institution are not ethical?  Research is submitted to the IRB on an individual basis, but the individual cannot be extracted from social context.  For example, could Nazi German scientists conduct ethical research?  While an individual Nazi may be able to conduct research that does not harm, if this individual is placed in broader social context it seems that ethical research is not possible.  This is an extreme example, but I hope this clarifies my point.  A research project that proposes that 350 women should be raped would be rejected, yet, in the broader social context, this does happen on campuses!  This isn’t to argue that universities do nothing about these problems, but I think that many ethical issues are not on the radar or are taken as seriously as research.  Ethics is squirmy- because right and wrong are debated concepts.  But, at least in research there is a working definition of ethics as causing no harm.  It therefore baffles me how ethics can be taken so seriously in some areas and not in others.  Beyond this, I am not certain that any research is ethical, so long as humans are harmed by the institution wherein or whereby the research is conducted.

I don’t want to freeze knowledge or the exploration of ideas.  I only want to call into question the compartmentalization of ethics.  Research ethics should not be idealized as there is always harm, somewhere in the process, after the process, or before the process even began.  Is harm inevitable?  No.  But it is an effect of larger systems of inequality and injustice.  It is also an effect of the atomization and alienation of everyone.  Our isolation and distance from the processes of how things are made or where things come from, render harm invisible to us.

What should be done?  Would an ethical university only buy fair trade foods, sweatshop free apparel, cruelty free foods/cosmetics, and sustainability grown paper products? Would an ethical university offer free tuition, safe chemicals to custodians, bus rides, sustainable powered buildings, high wages to student workers, etc?  There are many things that could be done.  Certainly some of these things would make these institutions more ethical.  But, at the end of the day, institutions are connected into the broader society- which itself is full of inequality and injustice.  The point is, there are no islands of ethics.  Researchers, institutions, communities, states, and countries are interconnected.  If the connection between them is a socio-economic system that harms people, then ethics are not possible.  This should not be taken with despair, but with the goal of enlarging ethics and branching out beyond research. Things can be better…and there can be less harm….but part of doing this is enlarging the circle.

In any event, that was my most thoughtful thought of the day and something I hadn’t considered before.

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