Eradicating Cultural Appropriation in Art Education

In contemporary society, cultural appropriation is a hot topic. We most commonly hear about cultural appropriation when news sources and/or social media cover a celebrity accused of appropriating culture.  But, how often do we/you discuss cultural appropriation outside of celebrity news? Do we even have a firm grasp of the definition of cultural appropriation? And, as educators, should we include how to avoid cultural appropriation in our professional studies, and by proxy, our classrooms?  

Humans have been adopting the practices and cultures of other humans since the beginning of time; take the Roman and Greek empires for instance. When someone has a good idea, does something we like, and/or has a better way, humans like to emulate that. This practice of borrowing from other cultures is called cultural exchange. In cultural exchange, there is mutual sharing and mutual respect.

The term, cultural appropriation (added to Oxford Dictionaries in 2017), is defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Essentially, this means when someone adopts something from a culture not her own, she is culturally appropriating that entity. This could be anything from hairstyles to sports. That sounds A LOT like cultural exchange, so what’s the big deal with cultural appropriation?

Well, adopting something from another culture is only part of cultural appropriation. The vital part to the definition of cultural appropriation is the “unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption” by “more dominant people or society.” Essentially, there is a power dynamic to cultural appropriation that is not present in cultural exchange. In cultural appropriation, “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” For example, a white, non-native person wearing the headdress of a Native American person is cultural appropriation. Historically, white people have oppressed Native Americans, and white people are members of the dominant culture in the United States. When a white person wears a Native American headdress, the white person is appropriating a culture that is not their own, and a culture (Native American) that has historically been oppressed by their own (white) culture.  And, for your reference, Native Americans have strong opinions about the appropriation of their culture (click here to read more).

A musician in Ghana, dressed in a dashiki – source

 The thing about cultural appropriation is that the transgressor doesn’t have to be intentionally racist, hateful, or oppressive. In fact, most instances of cultural appropriation are caused by people who had good intentions, weren’t thinking, weren’t sensitive, and/or were ignorant on the topic. Fashion is a go-to example of ignorant cultural appropriation. The dashiki, a unisex article of clothing hailing from West Africa, is frequently culturally appropriated. In the United States, dashiki rose to popularity during the Civil Rights Movement; dashiki serve(d) as symbol of Black beauty, pride, and culture. It also serves as a symbol of the West African cultures that were lost to Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. Today, when a non-Black person wears a dashiki, it is often because s/he likes the way a dashiki looks. The non-Black wearer means no harm to Black people or Black cultures, yet when a non-Black person wears a dashiki, s/he is appropriating the culture and history of West Africans and Black Americans for personal enjoyment. This casual wearing erases the symbolism and rich history of the dashiki, and minimizes the struggles and racial bias experienced by the West African cultures that created the dashiki. While the non-Black wearer intended no harm, s/he behaved in an ignorant, oppressive, insensitive, and perhaps racist manner.

When I began teaching in 2005, the power of the internet (and the global community that comes with it) was just beginning to be utilized by educators. When I first taught Art, I thought back to projects I learned in school and replicated them. In elementary Art (back in the late 80’s), I made an artwork about a spirit animal. As such, as a novice Art teacher, I had students identify an animal they liked, and create a “spirit animal art project.” You can go online and search for “spirit animal” and take any number of quizzes that will tell you what your spirit animal is; I confess, I even let my students take those quizzes and use the results to guide their artwork. You may have done or do something similar. You may even do it in the context of a unit of study about Native Americans, so what is the harm? Well, spirit animals are a part of some Native American’s spirituality and are very sacred. The usage of the term “spirit animal” and the creation of artwork based on an arbitrary animal, commodifies and erases the realities of Native American people. Native American people have had their lands and their customs literally stolen from them, and their children were put into re-education programs that ensured their religious beliefs and cultural traditions would be lost and/or eradicated. To write a project wherein students create an artwork based on a spirit animal is the fetishization of Native American culture for the purposes of a cute project.

Still a bit confused as to why cultural appropriation is a problem? Allow me to put it in another context. Let’s say an Art teacher in North Korea is teaching about art in various world religions and decides to have students create a project about Christianity (North Korea is listed as a country not safe for Christians). The teacher doesn’t dig deep into a study of Christianity, she simply explains to students that the crucifix is a symbol used by many Christians. Students use papier-mâché to create a sculpture of a crucifix. Students follow the directions and do the same things that students do when they create projects anywhere: Some are cute, some show less ability, and some show high ability. Since the dominant society of North Korea does not support Christianity, many of the sculptures have a political bent to them that portrays Christianity negatively. Now, let’s say you are a Christian living in North Korea. You frequently see your faith vilified, and you have a reduced role in society due to your faith; you may even live in hiding. You visit your child’s school and you see the culturally appropriated crucifixes on display. You are hurt by the negative context in which you see your faith displayed, you feel the artists and the teacher do not understand Christianity, and you feel powerless to change anything about it due to your oppressed role in society. That’s a glimpse into the harms of cultural appropriation.

 Art is a subject that lends itself well to the study of culture, religion, politics, and the culturally sensitive connection of these entities. In 2017, the National Art Education Association, published a position statement regarding cultural appropriation: NAEA supports the need for culturally sensitive and responsive visual art educators who encourage socially just practices and policies that provide and promote increased awareness, understanding, and acceptance of individual and group identities that affect all human interactions.” Yet, even with that endorsement, globally connected Art teachers are still relying on the old standard of culturally appropriated art projects to teach about various peoples, societies, and practices. Art Education professor Dr. Richard Bay states, “It’s hard to embrace the vast knowledge necessary to learn about a culture. It’s easier for teachers to pick up a “cookie cutter” pattern or lesson plan and say it’s done the job.”  Today, I dare say there is a lot of accidental and/or ignorant cultural appropriation happening in Art classrooms across the United States due to teachers taking the easier, cookie-cutter path. “[M]any art teachers argue that teaching cultural appropriation is an acceptable practice in the classroom if for no other reason than “everyone does it.” This attitude and practice are hugely problematic. How can we expect our students to be better than us, to pursue a more connected and peaceful society if we are utilizing methods that exploit oppressed persons to teach about culture and history? We all have to do better (myself included).

Hopefully, you now have a better grasp of what cultural appropriation is, and how harmful it can be. And, yet, you may also still be grappling with the definition. How do you avoid cultural appropriation in the art room? How do you take on the task of ensuring you create culturally sensitive projects? Well, the first step is to be aware that you want to avoid cultural appropriation by being sensitive to what it is and how it functions; utilizing culturally relevant pedagogy will help with that.

The second step is to follow the NAEA position statement directive regarding cultural appropriation:

NAEA encourages visual art educators to make curricular and pedagogical decisions that:

· acknowledge and respond to the unique world views and voices of different people and communities; understanding, valuing, and respecting different perspectives

· authentically reflect both historical and contemporary cultures and philosophies of diverse people

· address issues around cultural appropriation and move toward cultural appreciation, valuing the ownership and significance of cultural images

· eliminate perpetuating stereotypes, social inequities and assumptions of cultural homogeneity in educational settings.

To help you follow that directive, ask yourself:

  1. What cultural tradition and/or topic do I want to teach about?
  2. Why am I teaching about this topic? Is it for my own purposes (cute project, I like it, I need something to teach on Monday etc.), or because it is relevant to my students, part of the curriculum, and/or otherwise necessary to the education of my students?
  3. Am I aware of the historicity of the persons, events, and traditions present in this study (historicity is the historical actuality of persons and events as opposed to historical myth, legend, fiction, pop culture, or urban legend)?
  4. Am I aware of any oppressed persons represented in this lesson? Am I aware of the historicity of these persons? Am I aware of the contemporary/current history/story of these people?
  5. Have I discussed teaching this topic with other educators? Have I sought out the opinion of educators who don’t always share the same opinions as me? Have I looked online to see how other educators have approached this topic? Have I sought out -online or in person- the opinions of oppressed persons about my lesson (and be aware that it is not the job of oppressed people to educate you)?
  6. In what ways can I approach this lesson that respect the cultural and religious traditions of the people being studied?

Here are a few examples of cultural appropriation in the Art classroom, and tips on how to avoid it:

  • Cardboard Totem Poles

Problem: “Indigenous communities have been exploited through colonialism. They were not involved in the assignment to make poles, and they did not grant permission to the teacher to make poles. Poles have spiritual significance not honored in this activity. This activity trivializes the importance of poles in [indigenous] culture. [It is like] having children make a model of a Catholic chalice and host and pretending to give and take first communion.”

Solution: Engage indigenous people in the creation of a lesson on totem poles. Design a lesson alongside input from indigenous peoples about the history, culture, traditions, and religion of the indigenous people. Students work alongside indigenous people to create a pole that is representative of their school culture and respects the tradition of the indigenous people. Ensure that students experience the principles of indigenous ways of teaching and learning (source).

  • Native American “Outfits” for Thanksgiving

Problem: “Indigenous communities have been exploited through colonialism.” Native American clothing; including headdresses have cultural and religious significance. Students re-creating these items out of colored paper to wear to a Thanksgiving luncheon is problematic for two primary reasons: 1) it erases the cultural and religious significance of the clothing, and 2) celebratory Thanksgiving luncheons primarily rely on a historical legend, and not the actuality of history. And, many Native Americans take issue with the representation of Native persons at the first Thanksgiving in light of what ultimately happened to Native Americans.

Solution: Provide students with a more realistic narrative about the first Thanksgiving (that is appropriate to their age and level of understanding). Have students create artwork inspired by the foods eaten at the first Thanksgiving and/or create artwork about how Native Americans and/or Pilgrims felt about the first Thanksgiving.

  • Creating Generic “African” Masks

Problem:  “When teachers do not take care to respect the context of artwork from other cultures, they are telling students that it is ok to steal from another culture.” Africa is a continent; within it consists hundreds of different peoples each with their own religions and cultural traditions. There is no generic African mask. Many tribes in Africa do make masks, and they make them for a variety of different reasons. Different people make different masks using local materials, and each has a different significance. When a teacher tasks students to create generic African masks it is diluting and erasing the rich and varied cultures represented within the continent of Africa; it is making a statement that most people in Africa are the same and do the same thing. Furthermore, to copy an existing African mask is to appropriate that mask and religion without consideration of the culture who created it.

Solution: Have students research the rich cultural tradition of a people or several different peoples who engage mask making. Determine the materials used to make the mask, how the mask is made, why the mask is made, and how the mask is used. Task students to use the same materials to make a mask of their own design (not derivative of the original tribe’s), and have the student write a report about the challenges and/or successes of using that material.

Note: Because we are always learning, I have removed the word “tribe” from the discussion of African masks based on an informative social media dialogue. I have recently learned the word “tribe” can be problematic, and we should strive to use the term “people” or “culture.” Learn more about that here.

Here are a few more articles that may interest you: