Kids and cultural appropriation v. cultural appreciation: Where’s the line?

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Moana and Maui toys from Disney’s Moana.
After my three-year-old son watched Disney’s Moana and decided he would be Maui when he grows up (be still my heart), I started thinking about cultural appropriation and how to properly frame that for my son as he grows…

We’re a military family, so we live everywhere. And the different places we’ve lived and the cultures there have definitively become a part of our identities, our tastes in art, the foods we cook, our political views (you get the picture).

For example, our last station was in South Dakota. There we developed an appreciation and sympathy for the Lakota peoples — love of their art and jewelry, sympathy for their causes, love of Three Sisters Soup… I would never presume to wear traditional or ceremonial clothing obviously. But media, art work, and custom made jewelry?

Help me out. When does cultural appreciation cross the line into culture appropriation? -Katie

We’ve talked about cultural appropriation when it comes to kid’s names, but what about when it comes to kid’s entertainment, art, and even the cultures that surround their upbringing?

What are your experiences and thoughts about framing cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation with children?

Comments on Kids and cultural appropriation v. cultural appreciation: Where’s the line?

  1. After discussing this topic with many friends from many different cultures, we came to this conclusion- Don’t use anything they consider sacred for your own amusement. Religious symbols and ceremonial garb are off limits if you aren’t a part of that culture. I think anyone can see why it’s rude. I feel like enjoying food from a culture not your own is not appropriation but be open to learning about the culture around the food. If you enjoy eating sushi, you should want to learn about the culture and ceremony involving food in Japan. Basically, show respect for the culture of other people and stop acting like you (or one of the Kardashians) discovered it.

  2. Cultural appropriation literally means appropriating/taking cultural icons. And it’s also often seen as people talking “for” the culture when they are not part of it (i.e. like white people saying what Native people think/feel/care about instead of leaving room for them to speak themselves).

    Appreciating isn’t taking. If you appreciate the context of its cultural origin and ideally make your thoughtful purchase from a person of that culture, that is totally different than buying Urban Outfitters “Navajo” panties or wearing a bindhi to seem exotic.

    I would see buying jewelry from a Native person and having respect for its symbolism in their culture as being appreciation. If you bought a ripoff of a Native design from a mass retailer and wore it just to seem cool, that would be appropriation.

    • I fully agree with all of this, but I think some of the problem stems from people from a particular culture seeing someone not from that culture wearing/owning something from their culture and not being aware that it was purchased/is used in the context of appreciating and knowing that culture as in the first examples you provide. So, in effect, they see it as appropriation instead of the appreciation that it truly is, because they have no way of knowing the intention or situation behind the item and it’s use by that particular person. They just point the “appropriation finger” and boom! you’ve been labeled, innocent or not, because as the person not from that culture, you automatically have no say and cannot defend yourself in the face of their self-righteousness and need to find things to feel offended about, which some people definitely have.

      • I don’t see jewelry as being an issue at all, unless it’s sacred regalia. Making and selling jewelry, pottery, baskets and blankets have always been important revenue-sources, and the artists feel valued and their culture appreciated when anybody buys it. The kind of accusers you’re talking about often don’t even belong to the culture they think they’re defending, or were cut off from birth, and don’t know what appropriation really is. Maybe that doesn’t help when you’re being attacked, but since it’s impossible to get through life without offending somebody for no good reason, just endure it like you would mosquito bites.

        Real appropriation involves one of the following: 1) sacrilege, 2) disrespect, 3) misinterpretation with refusal to accept correction, 4) conquest, 5) ridicule, spiritual injury, or 7) trivializing something which has deep meaning for the tribe. The meaning of your average turquoise necklace is “This is pretty!”

  3. I don’t think anyone would say that there’s something wrong with your son having a fictional character from a different culture as a role model. In fact, I would say it should be encouraged to look up to people who are different from him!

    I think you should emphasize the qualities that make Maui a good role model to emulate (like being able to apologize and learn from his mistakes, helping others, sharing knowledge and teaching, learning to overcome selfishness and put his ego aside, etc.), rather than his cultural markers like tattoos or style of clothing. Don’t separate Maui from his culture, but in terms of things that your son can do to be like Maui, focus on the character rather than the culture.

  4. I’d think a first step would be to provide appropriate cultural context for your kid. For example, in the case of the Moana story/characters, you could go to the library together and look up material about Maui and his role in culture. Discuss how there are different versions of every story, and that it’s ok to be inspired by other cultures, but one should always try to learn more about the context of every narrative. How does the story fit in where it was first created? The key to apreciation is often putting things in context. And, as a bonus, it often helps deepen our understanding of what we liked in the first place.

    • I have a similar guideline regarding whether something might be appropriation rather than appreciation: can you answer why this thing is significant to the culture? If you can’t even do that, it prooooobably isn’t true appreciation. Plus, the more you know of the why, the less likely you are to appropriate things since you understand the significance.

  5. As a Mum of a teen and preteen, this is our life. Our family is like a small United Nations. Northern and Eastern European, South American, Asian and a number of religions and languages are represented. For the last day of school, harem pants or a kimono have been requested. My daughter routinely listens to KPOP and JPOP, enjoys the food, art and literature there, and is learning some of both Korean and Japanese. Coming from a diverse family, we encourage the kids to learn about other cultures. Lucky for us we have friends from all over the world to help with it too. (A Canadian/Japanese friend has been helping me with making the kimono.) I took a number of courses about Anishnabae culture, I taught elementary school on a Reserve, I took Ojibwa language classes, I volunteered for another Reserve, I go to Pow Wows and Gatherings, and yes, I wear Haida Gwai art earrings. Learn, appreciate and share in it, don’t go blindly. (I also go into my kids’ school to teach about our Jewish traditions.)

  6. Moana is a tough one, especially regarding children’s costumes. My 5 year-old wanted a Moana-themed birthday party and to wear a Moana costume. It’s just a dress, so I thought why not. But what about Maui? Is tattooed brown skin a costume? Yikes, of course not. Disney initially sold them but then pulled them from shelves over backlash.
    Would Mulan’s outfit be an appropriate kid’s costume? Or Pocahontas, or Jasmin?
    I’m pretty torn over the matter, and how not to mess with my kids’ absolute innocence and good intentions over the matter (to look like their favorite character).

    • Especially with Disney, there’s also a line between cultural appropriation and admiration. I don’t think any child who wants to be/dress up like Jasmine specifically wants to be an Arabic woman; rather, it’s probably wanting to be a princess who rides a magic carpet, stands up to her father, and has a pet tiger. Thinking about it, I think now I want to be Jasmine.

      I’d let my kid dress as Mulan in a heartbeat. She’s pretty badass and has great lessons about honor, dedication, and respect. However, I wouldn’t let her wear the makeup.

      Maybe that’s the line – makeup and skin tone. That still gets tricky: little girls’ Jasmine costumes often have a mesh covering the torso, but I’ve never thought of that modesty panel as cultural appropriation even if it is the wrong skin tone. For Maui, the tattoos are absolutely important, but given that they usually need to be on some kind of nylons (remember those faux tattoo sleeves we had just a few years….wow, more than a few years. Many, many years.), how do you pick the skin tone?

      Summary: I do not have a good answer. Maybe with the Maui shirt, I’d try to research mythology and history and have him draw his own tattoos that matter to him.

      Perhaps it does come down to a discussion about context. You like Mulan? I like Mulan too! Let’s talk about what life was like back in China for Mulan. At least you can give them cultural backing and hopefully respect.

      • I also this there is a massive difference between dressing as a specific character (Moana) and a culture(Polynesian) I think most people would be pretty okay with a little girl wearing moana’s dress, I think most people would draw the line if you put on brown face and a black wig (which the Disney story sells by the way). Moana can’t really be compared to Pocahontas either, Moana, was approached with respect. Pocahontas is a romanticised story. The true story is about a young girl who was exploited and is a dark story of colonialism. As an indigenous women, I won’t let my daughters watch it. it is an old and ugly narrative.

      • The geology and flora in that movie didn’t look much at all like tidewater VA, where the historical events took place, either. Everything about Disney’s Pocahontas film was fantasy.

  7. Disclaimer, I don’t have kids and I hate almost everything Disney does for reasons of domestic violence beauty and the beast and so on.

    In my opinion, going to the library and learning about the whole culture is awesome. At that point trying on a part of the clothing at home or for a culturally aware event like a day at school, would be cool. But calling it a costume to me makes it sound like Halloween and that’s when all the stereotypes and disrespect comes in. I don’t think there is a clear line, but maybe talk to your child about how a Victorian clothing outfit is a one thing because it is a time that has passed, but a Japanese kimono is a culturally important outfit because it is a whole culture and nation and still exists.

    If I ever do a phd in this subject I’ll be sure to let you guys know.

  8. Specifically in the context of children and costumes, I think it’s acceptable to dress up as an occupation, or a specific Proper Noun Person, but not as a race or group or generalization. It’s hard to be truly appreciative if you’re lumping a lot of different people together. And if you don’t care enough to do anything but skim a culture for cliches, you’re doing a (possibly marginalized) group a disservice. So dressing as Sacajawea? Thumbs up. Dressing as a Sexy Indian? Thumbs down, dude.

    As a Native Hawaiian person, I had a really hard time with the Maui costume. My beef came with the skin tone tattoos and the padding. I appreciate what someone said earlier about not co-opting religious and/or sacred practices. Those tattoos have a deep cultural, historical and emotional significance. Some things are just for looking at, not for taking.

    My last thought is that I’m not out to be the Cultural Appropriation Police. I want my culture to be admired and valued as part of the human experience. If you get side eye from someone while you are engaging in a cultural practice that doesn’t seem to “belong” to you, it’s an unfortunate side effect of having culture viciously denigrated, stamped out and then appropriated over the course of history. The antidote to that is being respectful and well-informed.

    • And these rules against appropriating sacred things aren’t just because we the colonized feel hurt or angry–it’s also to protect the naive and anyone around them. Who knows what could happen to your kid if you draw temporary tattoos on him that are supposed to represent a permanent commitment–and you don’t even know anything about what those tattoos would commit him to?

  9. The most concise thing about it that I read recently was that if the thing is limited within the community it comes from, then it’s appropriation. For example, all native Americans can wear leather moccasins, but a warbonnet must be earned. Therefore wearing moccasins is not appropriation, but wearing a warbonnet that you have not earned is. This link is about the topic of dreadlocks in general, but uses many other examples of what is and is not cultural appropriation.

    As far as dress up costumes go, I don’t see anything wrong with dressing as a specific character. Dressing up as Mulan is not dressing as “a Japanese person” and dressing up as Moana is not dressing up as “a Ploynesian person”. Unless the character itself is an offensive one, I don’t see a reason to not dress as a specific character.

  10. I’d like to note that my US History teacher went on a 30 minute rant day one regarding the Pocahontas film– I remember him starting with the fact that her outfit was more likely inspired by a tribe originating from the plains as opposed to VA, and ended somewhere around the events of Roanoke. Pocahontas was almost a curse word in that class.

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