Cultural Appropriation in the Classroom

From teepees as reading nooks to Drake decor, cultural appropriation is rampant in the classroom. Before I give some examples, let's make sure we all know what cultural appropriation is. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as, "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture." I actually like this addition from Wikipedia as well: "It is distinguished from an equal cultural exchange due to an imbalance of power, often as a byproduct of colonialism and oppression."

As teachers, and particularly if you're a white teacher, it can be difficult to find the line between cultural appreciation vs. appropriation. Teaching your students about other cultures is important and absolutely not appropriation when you're doing it in a respectful and accurate manner. So how can you tell when you're taking part in cultural appropriation? Consider the intent AND the impact. Is your intent just to be trendy and cute, or is to truly and accurately teach about a culture? Is your intent to gain attention and profit (thinking TPT sellers here!) or is it to honor the culture? Now, consider the impact. Could the impact of your actions be negative, even if your intent is good? If a person of the culture you are appropriating tells you it's appropriation, listen to them! If you are a white educator teaching about marginalized cultures, you need to come at it from a place of humility. If you make a mistake, stop doing it, apologize, and make amends. 

Here are a few common forms of cultural appropriation in the classroom:

1. Using a whole culture or aspects of a culture as decor. "Tribal" is not a classroom theme. Sadly, if you search tribal decor on Teachers Pay Teachers, hundreds of results come up! There are many different Native American tribes that have all different customs and forms of art. They should not be reduced to some zigzag patterns and arrows for the sake of decorating a bulletin board. In the same vein, I also see tons of "teepees" being used as reading nooks! Just because something is sold at Target doesn't make it okay. You can learn more about this specifically in @readlikearockstar's Instagram post on the topic

2. Cultural dress as costumes. This can come up at Halloween, as well as throughout the year. Dressing up as a specific culture or nationality often turns into a stereotype that doesn't promote true understanding. When it comes down to it, traditional cultural clothing (such as Native American headdresses or Japanese kimonos) just are not costumes. When we treat them as such, we are not being respectful.

3. Creating crafts inspired by a culture, but not explaining the significance or incorrectly interpreting it. Most teachers like cute crafts, and there's nothing wrong with that! However, sometimes these crafts are inaccurate or reduce the culture to just one aspect. When you have your kids make a sombrero-and-mustache craft for Cinco de Mayo, you're promoting an inaccurate and often hurtful stereotype. Creating sugar skulls for Dias de los Muertos can also be a form of cultural appropriation. Again, consider both the intent and the impact. Is your intent just to make something cute or is to truly learn about and honor Mexican culture? 

4. Rapping. There's been a trend recently of white teachers taking rap songs and changing the lyrics to be educational or about school. Rap is a uniquely and powerfully Black form of music. It's been used to address social, political, and economic issues and can be seen as a voice of a marginalized group. If you want to listen to and appreciate rap music, great! If you want to study rap lyrics with your students and treat the art form with respect, great! But don't steal from a culture that isn't yours and turn it into something silly.

5. Phrases. Thankfully, many culturally appropriative or racist sayings are no longer socially acceptable to say. Unfortunately there are still quite a few floating around, some of which you might be using at school. I see sooo many shirts that say "teacher tribe" on them. Guess what? Unless you're referring to an actual cultural, regional tribe, you're not in a tribe. A group. You're in a group. Spirit animal is another one I see thrown around a lot, and unfortunately is something I used to say as well. A sloth is not your spirit animal, coffee is not your spirit animal-- NOTHING is your spirit animal, unless you are Native American and it is part of your religion. Also, I really hope no one is still saying this, but your students shouldn't be sitting "indian style"-- just say cross-legged! 

Wondering how to teach about other cultures without culturally appropriating? Consider using teaching resources created by members of the cultures you're teaching about. You still have a responsibility as an educator to do your own work, but this can be a great jumping off point. LaNesha Tabb and Naomi O'Brien have created an amazing K-3 Social Studies Curriculum that would be a great place to start. Jillian of The Starr Spangled Planner also has a great instagram post on cultural appropriation as well.

If you're not sure if something you're doing constitutes cultural appropriation, do some research or just don't do it!

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