What Is… Cultural Appropriation?

When I was a senior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania (which was in Fall 2015), a HUGE controversy erupted on campus. In short, there was an “Around the World” party at the college. At the party, a student posted on his Instagram account a photo of himself and a friend of his wearing sombreros. The photo had the caption “We swear we’ve got our green cards,” and the photo had the hashtags of #taco, #chihuahua and #tequila. In addition to the Instagram photo, there was a Facebook photo of a male student wearing a white flannel undershirt and a bandana posing with a female student at Dickinson who was wearing a sombrero at the party.[1]

To say that there was anger about the existence of the party, the social media posts, and the people involved in the party would be an understatement. The political climate in the United States was already tense at the time, with then-candidate Donald Trump surging in the polls with inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants, and particularly Mexican immigrants. Therefore, when news of this party and the social media posts from the party spread around the student body at Dickinson, there was an outpouring of fury. In particular, there was fury at the fact that instead of aiming for cultural appreciation, the party and all involved with it instead performed acts that were considered by many to be cultural appropriation.

But what is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is defined by the Oxford Dictionary 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.”[2] Whether we realize it or not, cultural appropriation actually happens on an everyday basis. When, without acknowledgement, you use Arabic numerals to help you with your math, make food from other cultures, and wear a form of clothing design that comes from a culture not your own, you are performing acts of cultural appropriation.

However, it’s not those everyday instances of cultural appropriation—those instances where the cultures responsible for the numbers we use, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear are not acknowledged—that seem to get the most flack (either rightly or wrongly). Instead, it is making fun of or otherwise mocking a certain culture/group of people that gets the most flack. Such actions fit within the definition of cultural appropriation, but might also fall into the realm of another term I hear less often: cultural mockery. Cultural mockery happens when there is inappropriate misrepresentation, imitation, caricaturizing, or making fun of a culture. The “We swear we’ve got our green cards” incident at Dickinson would fall into the category of cultural mockery.

On the other hand, if we are “honoring and respecting another culture and its practices, as a way to gain knowledge and understanding,”[3] then it’s cultural appreciation. One common example I’ve seen of cultural appreciation is when someone makes the food of another culture (and not just food stereotyped as being from another culture) while explaining the history of the dish and how that dish became so important to the culture. Through that, something as simple as food can encompass not just food, but also the history of the culture (how the dish fits within the history of a culture), the types of crops that the culture relies on (the economy of the culture), and much more.

Some of us may unwittingly fall into cultural mockery—something that may happen with some frequency with the upcoming Cinco de Mayo. However, if we really want to aim to learn more about cultures outside our own, we should really strive for cultural appreciation, and for actually trying to learn more and understand more about the cultures we aren’t a part of.

[1] Click on the following link to learn about this controversy at my college, Dickinson: https://thedickinsonian.com/news/2015/09/15/photos-draw-anger-apology/

[2] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/cultural_appropriation

[3] https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/cultural-appropriation-or-appreciation/#:~:text=Cultural%20appropriation%20can%20be%20defined,to%20gain%20knowledge%20and%20understanding.

What Is…Medical Racism?

In the post I wrote a few weeks ago on racial inequity in COVID-19 vaccinations, I alluded to the history of the abuse of people of color by the medical field as a reason that some people of color may feel hesitant about the vaccine.

While I think it was important to talk about medical racism in my post from a few weeks ago, I think it is also important to dedicate a post all by itself to this topic, especially given the amount of attention this term has gotten in the past couple of weeks. Additionally, since it is Black History Month, it seems particularly timely to talk about this term now. As such, while medical racism was not among the terms I had initially planned to cover in my “what is” blog posts, I think it is important to cover this term.

But what is medical racism, and how has it manifested itself over the years?

In short, medical racism is “the systematic and wide-spread racism against people of color within the medical system.”[1] Racism against people of color within the medical system has taken a variety of forms over the past several hundred years in the United States, including, but not limited, to: policies that affect health outcomes disproportionately in communities of color, the disparity in health care coverage by race, biases held by healthcare workers against people of color, the use of the medical field as a means of harming people of color, and disproportionate use of people of color for experimental purposes in medicine.

The form of medical racism that involves policies affecting health outcomes disproportionately in communities of color is wide-ranging. It involves everything from the fact that unsafe water is much more common in communities of color than in white communities[2] to the building of highways through Black communities[3] (highways that would have an impact of pollution on said communities that got these highways[4]). Some of these policies might not always have in mind the intentional harming of health outcomes for people of color (though the building of highways in Black communities was in many cases intentional), but the result of such policies is harming people in communities of color.

Speaking of things that can negatively affect health outcomes for communities of color, one thing that can cause this is the disparity in health care coverage by race. I talked about this issue in my “Obamacare and Race” post a number of weeks ago, as there are particularly high uninsured rates among American Indians, Hispanics, and Blacks in particular. To Former President Obama’s credit, Obamacare has made that disparity somewhat less stark than it used to be, but it’s a disparity that still exists.

Even when people of color have health insurance, though, sometimes the doctors and healthcare workers that insurance covers can have biases against people of color. Sometimes that bias is explicit, but sometimes it can be implicit too, such as implicit preferences for white patients over Black ones,[5] false beliefs about the nature of how Black bodies are,[6] and the fact that many doctors don’t believe their patients of color when they say they are in pain (an issue particularly prominent with Black women).[7] This form of medical racism comes up every now and again, but especially in light of the painful COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a form of medical racism that really needs to be talked about thoroughly.

Sometimes, the medical field is used as a means of harming people of color, whether it be denying medical treatment available to others, or using medical treatment as a means of harming others. Both things happened with the way the American government in the 1830s handled smallpox in Native American populations. Initially, Native Americans were denied the access to smallpox treatments that whites got. However, many Native American populations later got this access when smallpox threatened removal of said populations to other lands.[8] In other words, denial of the smallpox treatments was initially used to harm Native Americans through suffering without medication, and then distribution of them was used to help accelerate the infamous Indian removals of the 1830s. I am sure there are other examples of this form of medical racism, but the example talked about in this paragraph is one that needs to be talked about more, in my humble opinion.

The final form of medical racism that I think is worth talking about is one that involves the disproportionate use of people of color for experimental purposes in medicine. This is when experimental medicines that are, these days, typically tested with a cross-section of people or with other animals get tested disproportionately on people of color. It was this form of medical racism that led to the exploitation of Black slaves in the medical field for the purposes of experimenting.[9] This form of medical racism was also involved in the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” a study where researchers told the people involved that they were being treated for “bad blood,” but in reality did not get treatment during what was a highly unethical and ultimately lethal study.[10] Some in the medical field suspect that many people of color are hesitant to participate in medical studies these days because of the legacy of how such experimental studies did so much harm to many people of color.[11]

The form of medical racism that seems to be talked about the most these days is the disproportionate use of people of color for experimental purposes in medicine. However, the reality is that medical racism can take so many other forms, as well—forms that ultimately can contribute to negative health outcomes.

[1] https://www.ywcaworks.org/blogs/firesteel/tue-07212020-0947/what-medical-racism

[2] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/unsafe-water-more-common-communities-color

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/feb/21/roads-nowhere-infrastructure-american-inequality

[4] https://www.lung.org/clean-air/outdoors/who-is-at-risk/highways

[5] https://www.businessinsider.com/biases-you-didnt-know-existed-in-the-medical-industry-2020-4#black-people-are-24-times-more-likely-to-die-from-the-coronavirus-4

[6] A study in 2016 found that half of white medical trainees held false race-based beliefs such as Blacks having thicker skin than whites: https://www.pnas.org/content/113/16/4296

[7] https://www.today.com/health/implicit-bias-medicine-how-it-hurts-black-women-t187866

[8] https://ais.arizona.edu/thesis/politics-disease-indian-vaccination-act-1832

[9] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32032-8/fulltext

[10] You can read about the long version of this story on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm

[11] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/10/25/556673640/scientists-work-to-overcome-legacy-of-tuskegee-study-henrietta-lacks

What are…Calling Out and Calling In?

Some terms are criticized as social justice jargon. However, many of these terms are important to know about and understand. Two such terms are “calling out” and “calling in”—words that are often used right next to each other in many social justice circles.

But what is calling out, and what is calling in?

Calling out is when someone publicly points out that someone else is acting unjustly, while calling in is when someone privately points out to the unjust actor that they are acting unjustly. Both calling out and calling in involve pointing out someone else’s wrongful actions, but calling out has a different approach to handling someone else’s actions than calling in. Calling out and calling in have both their benefits and their limitations.

I’ve come to notice that “calling out” has a bad reputation, even in some social justice circles. The issue, as far as I can tell, is simply by virtue of the fact that calling out someone is humiliating for the person being called out. And it is true that being called out is humiliating—I know that because I have been called out on one or two occasions before and have felt rather embarrassed about my own injustice being laid bare for an audience to see. However, what people forget about the importance of what calling out is supposed to do is that the act is meant to do more than educate the person being called out about that person’s injustice—it is also supposed to educate everyone in the room about the injustice of the person, so that nobody else can repeat the same issue. While it may feel humiliating to be called out, believe me when I say that it can be for a greater purpose for all who listen—namely, making sure that the injustice you are believed to have committed is not repeated by other people.

While a lot of people prefer being called in to being called out (since being called in doesn’t involve the public humiliation of being called out), being called in has both benefits and limitations. In my experiences (I have been called in, as well, on a few occasions), being called in when you’re in a private setting can really give way for an opportunity to discuss at length about why you’re being unjust and how you can do better in ways you wouldn’t be able to discuss in the public “calling out” setting. The limitation, however, is that you’re only educating one person about an injustice when you’re calling in someone, while you’re educating dozens or hundreds of people about an injustice (or, if you have the national profile of someone like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, possibly millions[1]) when you’re calling out someone.

Regardless of the benefits and limitations of calling out and calling in, it is important to understand these two terms as approaches to tackling injustice within one or more people. After all, if the goal is to make the world a little more just, having a good understanding of both calling out and calling in, as well as recognizing the value of both approaches,[2] is important.

[1] Congressman Ted Yoho reportedly accosted Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez. AOC responded with this speech on the House floor. The speech, which is on C-Span’s YouTube channel, has nearly 3 million views as of the date of my writing this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI4ueUtkRQ0

[2] Some debate whether calling out or calling in is better. For the purposes of this post, I will not weigh in on that debate. However, I think it’s good to be aware of how both can be beneficial.

What Is…Gaslighting?

Content warning: Emotional abuse

Because of other things I felt I needed to cover on this blog, the “what is” blog series took a bit of a backseat for a couple of months. However, I feel that it’s important to continue with this series, as I still have some important terms to cover.

The term I’m covering today is gaslighting. As National Domestic Violence Awareness Month was in October, one of the months I was hoping to do a “what is” post but was unable to because of election-related topics, I felt that gaslighting—which can happen in abusive relationships, including ones with domestic violence—was worth covering next.

But what is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is “a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions.”[1]

Phrases like the following can be commonplace in gaslighting:

Of course that didn’t happen. You’re being crazy.”

“Your mind must be playing games.”

“It’s all in your head.”

“You’re being too sensitive.”

Regardless of what sorts of phrases or sentences are used in gaslighting, there can be one or more techniques involved when someone is gaslighting someone else, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline:

  • Withholding: The person doing the gaslighting does not listen to what the victim is saying or pretends not to understand.
  • Countering: What this means is that the gashlighter is countering the gaslighting victim’s understanding of events, as if the gaslighter is trying to make someone question or doubt the way things happened.
  • Blocking/Diverting: The person doing the gaslighting is trying to change to a different subject and/or question than what the victim is thinking.
  • Trivializing: The person doing the gaslighting tries to make it sound as if the actions of the abuser are no big deal.
  • Forgetting/Denial: The person doing the gaslighting either pretends to forget what was done to the victim and/or denies what the gaslighter is accused of doing.

The questioning of one’s reality that can happen with consistently being a victim of gaslighting can become extremely dangerous. Victims of gaslighting can find themselves second-guessing things, feeling confused, and struggling to make decisions that would usually be simple, among other things.[2]

Speaking from a personal point of view, I know people who have been victims of gaslighting, particularly gaslighting in the context of romantic relationships. Therefore, knowing about it is so incredibly important because knowing about gaslighting is a way of understanding the experiences of friends or family members who have been victims of/survivors of abusive relationships that involve it. That’s not to say that it can’t happen in contexts outside of romantic relationships, but most of the contexts I’ve heard gaslighting in have been in romantic relationships.

Additionally, I’ve been aware of situations where someone was being emotionally abused but did not quite have the words to describe how they were experiencing emotional abuse. Spreading awareness of what gaslighting is can also hopefully help more abused individuals realize what they are going through, so that they know what steps to take.

While talk of abusive romantic relationships often centers around physically abusive relationships, some relationships, both romantic ones and non-romantic ones, can also be emotionally abusive. One of the common forms of emotional abuse in relationships is gaslighting. Therefore, while gaslighting is a term that may not be understood by many, it is a term that should be understood by more people.

If any of the signs of gaslighting exist for you, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (United States) at 1-800-799-7233 or chat with them online 24/7/365. If you don’t live in the United States, please contact your country’s equivalent of the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the United States.

[1] My definition comes from here: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-gaslighting-how-do-you-know-if-it-s-happening-ncna890866

[2] https://www.thehotline.org/2014/05/29/what-is-gaslighting/

What Is…Performative Allyship?

In the wake of the wrongful killing of George Floyd by a police officer a few months ago, I’ve increasingly seen the following term online: performative allyship. Given the increased use of that term, I thought I would do a “what is” post on this term, even though it wasn’t in my original plans. It’s another term that may seem like social justice jargon to some but is important to understand.

Performative allyship is, generally speaking, an action or set of actions that do more to show how virtuous someone is than help the cause they say they support. Performative allyship is not a term used as a compliment, but as a criticism of someone’s actions.

But how can you tell that you, or someone else, is engaging in an action of performative allyship?

Based on the reading I have done, it seems like different people have different opinions on the point at which someone’s allyship crosses the line into performative allyship. However, I think there’s probably good agreement that if the action you’re thinking of has a clear benefit for you, but does not have a clear benefit for the cause you say you support (or worse yet, if the action you’re thinking of doing may actually harm the cause), then you may need to reconsider your action (or think through it some more) in order to avoid performative allyship. One thing that I might consider to be an example of performative allyship was when some people were wearing safety pins in the aftermath of Trump’s election to the presidency—while the intention was to show that someone would be a “safe” person on issues ranging from race to LGBTQ+, I recall the pins being widely critiqued for doing more to advertise a person’s self-righteousness than actually address any problems.

Thinking about whether an action of yours might fall into performative allyship is not just important to the cause you support, but also to yourself. After all, if an action you’re thinking of is not actually going to do anything to benefit the cause you say you support, then, in all due honesty, why bother? Why waste your time doing something that does not support the cause you support in some tangible way? First and foremost, it’s important to make sure you actually help the cause you say you support, but you also want to make sure that you make good use of your time—something that would not be the case if you’re using your time with performative allyship.

Ultimately, performative allyship is unhelpful for both you and the cause you support. Instead, try to aim for what I might call supportive allyship—allyship that brings tangible benefits to the cause you support, regardless of whether there are any benefits for you.