Recently, my older brother posted an article on Facebook about cultural appropriation and a prom dress. I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation, both in my writing and as a teacher, for a little, so I was appreciative when he tagged me into the discussion to hear and talk more.
The debate raged on his page, and 179 comments later (some of which were from me), many of us came to the key point that there are not always clear answers in conversations like these, but it’s important that, before using something from someone else’s culture, people consider the context. To use something without contextualization of a people’s history is erasure and, thus, appropriative.
That’s an important fact to remember, but that’s not the point of this piece.
While discussing the topic, I mentioned that what feels hard is knowing that things my friends and I might have worn from our home or parent culture would have been mocked had we worn it, but “cool” or “edgy” if worn by our white counterparts (consider what has historically happened when non-Black women wear certain hairstyles as compared to Black women themselves).
Some people shared similar thoughts and experiences, and one person asked if I still thought that would happen today, or if I thought it was getting better.
And I was able to honestly answer that, truly, in my heart, I think things are getting better. Not easier, but better.
And I think that is, in part, because of conversations about topics like appropriation that were occurring on Facebooks, in offices, and over meals across America.
We’re living in a time in which the millennial generation is one of the most diverse in our history. More and more of them are thinking about race and calling race one of our greatest problems. Race is becoming a widely discussed topic in the American lexicon. And that’s the only way change will happen. If we keep pretending like it doesn’t exist, if we keep pretending like race isn’t difficult topic we need to navigate, then we will not be able to fix it. The only way we can start working against racism is to admit that it’s an issue.
That said, it won’t be an easy discussion to have. Discussions about race are difficult and painful. They make people defensive and bring up painful experiences. They require emotional legwork. But it’s better to have them, even if they don’t always go swimmingly, then to continue to brush the problem under the rug and pretend they never happened.
Even if it created a difficult media buzz, it mattered when Amandla Stenberg called out Kylie Jenner’s cornrows. It mattered when Katy Perry apologized for a history of appropriating Black and Asian culture. Because of difficult conversations like those, America is slowly evolving the way we discuss race, and those conversations are having real consequences in the media and in the political world.
So, what does that mean for our classrooms?
The end of the school year may not be the best time to introduce a completely new idea (though, it’s certainly doable). But as many of us already think about what our next steps are, now is the time to prepare our own hearts for what’s next. We should, of course, rest. We can also be critical consumers as we move towards summer. Whether it’s engaging with a new text or important discussions, we need to consider how to create classrooms that move beyond content and towards important discussions that will shape the level of critical engagement our students have as global citizens.
As scary as it is, we can’t shy away from conversations that we know may be a little messy. We should, of course, create a culture of healthy, constructive disagreement. We should ensure that, prior to these discussions, we have created a space that feels safe for our students. We should be purposeful and thoughtful about the framing around these discussions so that our students feel supported and validated as they do difficult, critical work about evolving their ideas on race, bias, and privilege.
But they should still learn to do the work, and we should too. As teachers, we are often called on to model from experience, and part of that is learning to accept conversations that will be hard and may not end neatly.
That’s okay. If we are to prepare our students for life, that also means accepting and showing acceptance of the fact that life doesn’t always wrap up in a neat, little bow. Sometimes, what matters most is that we had the conversation, even if it didn’t end the way we planned.
Photo via Wikimedia
The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.