Show Notes

In this episode Samah and Michelle discuss the difference between cultural appreciation vs. cultural appropriation. While some things seem pretty obvious, sometimes the lines blur between what is acceptable, and what is not. Individual cultures and world locations come into play. The bottom line is always respect. 

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Speaker A: Welcome to the Underrepresented in Tech podcast, where we talk about issues of underrepresentation and have difficult conversations. Underrepresented in tech is a free database with the goal of helping people find new opportunities in WordPress and tech.


[00:00:29] Speaker A: Good afternoon, Samah.


[00:00:31] Speaker B: Good afternoon, Michelle. How are you?


[00:00:34] Speaker A: Good.


[00:00:35] Speaker B: Good.


[00:00:35] Speaker A: I’m having my first cup of coffee of the day, and it’s so funny because I think there’s, what, 6 hours difference between you and me. And so it’s always like, I wake up and I’m like, uh. And I’m like, she’s already been going all this time.


It’s all good.


[00:00:51] Speaker B: This is my 10th copy of coffee of the day, so it’s fine.


[00:00:55] Speaker A: Cheers.


[00:00:56] Speaker B: Cheers.


[00:00:59] Speaker A: So I have to tell you about something about my childhood that was ruined for me this week.


It really brings up, and we talked about this a little bit yesterday when we were planning the session, but it really brought up for me that whole cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation. But when I was growing up watching Sesame Street in the seventies, there was a woman a regular singer on Sesame Street named Buffy Sainte Marie.


And Buffy Sainte Marie, as we thought back then, was a native American woman. And she would appear in native american clothing and sing folk songs. And I remember thinking how beautiful she was. And she was like, the first, you know, Indian woman that I’d ever. Native American Indian woman that I’d ever seen. And, I mean, I was just, you know, five, six years old, maybe even younger, watching Sesame Street.


And I was so enamored of her. And I remember, like, different parts of my adulthood, thinking back to, oh, remember that woman, Buffy Sainte Marie, on Sesame Street?


Well, my whole, like, childhood was shattered the other day when I was on TikTok and I saw somebody make a video about how it was all a ploy. It was a scam. She was actually born in Connecticut, not to a native american family. She has Italian American heritage.


She’s not from the Pyoto tribe in Canada like she said she was. Her story was that she was part of the sweep to take children away from native Canadian families and place them within white homes. And so her story to be famous, was completely a lie, predicated on pretending to be a native american woman. And she had all kinds of accolades for that. She actually wrote a, co-wrote a song that was the primary song for an Officer and a Gentleman, that movie from the eighties. I think she won an Oscar award or Grammy or something for that song.


But, like, all of this time that her brother comes out and says she’s not Native American, and her own son came out and said, she’s not Native American.


And it really reminded me also of the Rachel Delazzle case. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but a woman who said she was African American and was even running a chapter of, gosh, I don’t remember the name of the organization she was running a chapter of, but it had to do with the advancement of African American people in the united states. And her family came out and said, she’s white. She’s wearing makeup and affecting this difference.


[00:04:18] Speaker B: I know.


[00:04:19] Speaker A: So she has onlyfans now, from what I understand, that’s how she makes money now. But I mean, whatever. To each their own, I guess. But it also reminded me, and then it reminded me a couple of years ago. It could have been ten. I don’t know. Time is irrelevant. But Adele, the singer Adele had gone on vacation and had bantu knots in her hair, and there was a huge uproar about her culturally appropriating bantu knots, which is something that black women wear in their hair, and that she’s a white woman, and so she shouldn’t be wearing this hairstyle. This then also kind of translated into the last four years over TikTok as well, with women getting cornrows or getting dreadlocks put in, who are white women or white men, and that that is traditionally an African American hairstyle and that you shouldn’t be wearing things that are not part of your cultural upbringing because of cultural appropriation. So where is the line between appreciation and appropriation? And I think that’s an interesting conversation to have. So I’m gonna let you give me your two thoughts while I mute myself for just a moment.


[00:05:34] Speaker B: Yeah. I think the line between appropriation and appreciation often, I don’t know, lies in intent, respect, and understanding.


Appropriation reduces culture to stereotypes and strips it of its history and significance. And also, at the same time, I think it is people just like something in one culture, and they just grab it. They use it without even sharing what’s behind it, why the other culture is doing it, or just sharing, let’s say, exact information or the right information about it. And honestly, sometimes I hate it. They grab something and they say it’s trendy and they use it. They never check out politically what’s behind it, what’s culturally behind it, or even what stories behind it. And appreciation, on the other hand, is like, I think, involves understanding, respect, and genuine engagement with the culture, and that, of course, it’s a very thin line, but it’s totally different on both sides.


And I think, I don’t know, maybe it’s crazy, why you want to pretend to be someone else, just, like, to gain fame or to get attention. It’s so crazy. I don’t know. She never thought that she would ever get caught. I’m sorry about your childhood because I love Sesame Street. We used to have it in my culture, and it was, like, my favorite show. So, yeah, I’m really sorry.


[00:07:09] Speaker A: I mean, a little tongue in cheek. My childhood wasn’t completely ruined because of one person. The idea of something that you believed so strongly as a child or that you leaned into and that you understood to be true. And if you go back through Hollywood and look at movies very, very often, if you go back into the early cowboy movies and the westerns and things like that, so many of the American Indian characters were actually played by people of Italian descent because they have a similar.


At least they thought, I’m not saying they do, but the idea was that there are similar features. Yeah. Facial tone, especially. Right. Especially in the old black-and-white movies. They were looking for something. And so it’s really sad to think of all of the people over time who didn’t get jobs because somebody was pretending to be them. Right. So how many Native American actors could have portrayed parts that were given to somebody who was not a native American, for example? And so I think about those kinds of things and how, you know, it doesn’t hurt anybody, but it. But it does because you are completely usurping somebody else’s identity. And I think there is a difference for sure, you know, between appreciation, and appropriation. I think we can all agree with that.


If you go to Jamaica and there are people on the beach who want to braid your hair for whatever amount of money, do you do it or do you say, no, that’s not my place? I’m a white woman. I should not have my hair braided that way. So it’s. And I think depending on where you are in the world, you might have different answers to that question as well. Right.


And so I just wonder about that sometimes and how people think about that. My daughter is a black woman, and so she has very specific thoughts about these kinds of things. And she constantly will say things that challenge my thinking because. Not because I disagree with her, but because I never thought about it before. It never occurred to me because, like, what I grew up, like I said, in the seventies and eighties and the movie ten white woman, Bo Derek running down the beach with her hair in cornrows, it was like every white woman wanted to go have their hair like that. But where I live in the United States, it’s not appropriate for a white woman to have her hair done in cornrows because it is culturally appropriating a black woman’s hairstyle. And so it’s just very, very interesting to think about what is acceptable and what isn’t. And absolutely where you live in the world will make that a different answer for sure. And whether people in one, when part of the world will agree with you is another story, right? I know maybe in Europe it’s perfectly fine to go get your hair in cornrows, no matter, you know, what your heritage and your ethnicity is. And somebody in the United States can look at you and say, that is wrong because of where they stand and what their perspective and where they’re coming from. So I don’t know. It’s just, that it definitely is one of those topics that makes you stop and think sometimes, right? And I think to myself, if I go to another country, like, we go to, you know, Europe and we go to Asia and things like that for WordCamps if I buy certain products if I want to wear something from another country, how appropriate. Or is it appropriate for me to do those things? And so I have that in the back of my mind now. And I think about that.


There was here in the United States, gosh, I can’t think how long ago it was now, maybe eight or nine years ago, when to wear a hijab. People, women were being, I mean, and it’s all over the world, of course, but women were being attacked and they were having their hijabs ripped from their heads. They were having things thrown at them. I remember asking one of my Muslim friends, would it be appropriate for somebody like me to wear a hijab in solidarity? And they said you can wear it if you want. We don’t have any kind of, it’s not a cultural appropriation for you to wear a hijab, but we wouldn’t want you to face the same kinds of oppression that we’re facing now, too. So don’t do it for me, is what she said.


And so, like, the hijab was different, right? If I wanted to wear a scarf on my head, I’m not culturally appropriating, because for them, for those women that. And I’m not speaking for all of them. I’m talking about the ones that I spoke with and the people that I know. It was not anything that they would say, why are you doing that? You’re taking away our heritage. So sometimes things are fine, and it really depends on the culture. Anyway, I’ve been talking a lot. What are your thoughts?


[00:12:12] Speaker B: I totally agree with you. And also sometimes, how can I say it? I have privilege because of my skin tone, my look, you’ll think like, she’s southern Spain, she’s North Africa, she’s from the Middle East. And if I wear a veil, like, sometimes when I used to travel and work in places, I have to wear a veil. People think that I’m from Pakistan or even from India. So it is sometimes, of course, like, I’m proud where I am from and then always correcting them, saying, like, oh, that’s a very nice compliment, but actually, I’m from a less interesting place, so. But wearing a veil, you triggered my brain in this question. Because wearing a veil, how can I say it? I don’t know what’s the name of it, but I know African Women, or Women from African inheritance, they have this amazing, beautiful scarf. And sometimes I feel guilty because I can wear it and never call out because, in Europe, it’s normal. Like, nobody will say, like, hey, why you’re braiding your hair? Why are you wearing something that is not your culture? And also, sometimes people, will not know what culture you are. So I don’t want to call it a brown privilege, you know that you don’t know which culture you are, then let you pass a little bit. But yeah, I totally agree with you. Sometimes you want to try other cultures, like, for example, how can I say it? Um, I traveled to India, like, thing in 2015, and I always wanted to buy a Sari. In our culture, we watch amazing Indian movies and the woman look beautiful with their dark hair. I have a dark hair check. My toned skin is a little bit dark. And then I was wearing a Sari. I was really happy with it. I tried it, and I bought one. Of course, I cannot wear it now, of course, when you get older, get more educated and understand, but it’s so crazy in a couple of days, like, let’s say in the Netherlands or maybe on Halloween in the States, also, people can wear those things. Like, people can dress from other cultures and people let it go. Like, I see people dressing in Arab clothes and in the carnival, I don’t like it. I feel like. Why are you wearing it? It’s really not nice. Or even seeing them dressing like Native Americans, indigenous. I don’t find it okay to do it. I feel like you’re stealing one part of the culture and taking it for yourself, and you try kind of make it fun or make it kind of accustomed, which sometimes can be very insulting because you’re talking about cultures thousands of thousands of years, and people are proud of their culture while you’re wearing it as a costume, and you’re celebrating it in a way that is very insulting to the other people. 


[00:15:31] Speaker A: Oh, you know, it’s just one of those things that you don’t want. Once you’re aware, you don’t want to do the wrong thing. At least if you are a good-hearted person, you don’t want to do the wrong thing. We know there are plenty of races in the world that just don’t care. There’s another woman on TikTok. Yes, I talk about TikTok a lot. It’s my social outlet.


But there’s another woman who has been called out time and time again because she gets on and does these incredibly insensitive things, like, she will put on different outfits. She’s put on the outfit to assimilate a Native American woman. She’s put on an outfit to assimilate a Chinese woman. I can’t think of all the different ones. And she will go on, and she will affect a terrible accent and show dolls and things that she’s collected, none of which are actually. They’re all just cheap, not made by actual Native American people.


And the way that she does it is so incredibly racist and insensitive. And so she gets called out time and time again. She doesn’t care because she’s getting more views and she’s making money off of TikTok. And so in that situation, you can absolutely look at that and think, what a terrible human being.


And I don’t want to ever be construed as a terrible human being. Right. So I say time and again, I make mistakes.


I talk about. I think, you know, I’ve talked about making a mistake with accessibility. And I talk about those things publicly, because, number one, I want people to know that we learn and we grow. Right? And so we make mistakes. We learn about what those mistakes are why and how we made them, and then we do better. And so I don’t. But I don’t want my life to be a cautionary tale about cultural appropriation either. So I try to learn ahead of time before I make mistakes in that way. And so it’s an incredibly touching and moving experience to have somebody from a different culture give you a gift that represents their culture. I don’t think you can see it. Oh, it’s on that. It’s not another thing. But I have a beautiful metal statue that a gentleman gave me last year at WordCamp Asia from India, and it’s an Indian garden. Please forgive me. I don’t remember now. It’s written on the bottom, but I don’t remember which it is. And it’s just beautiful. And I do display it in my home, but I don’t say this is my heritage. Right. It was a gift from somebody from that culture. And he gave me a beautiful scarf as well. And I do wear the scarf, but I wear it as a scarf. I don’t wear it inappropriately, you know, those kinds of things.


And so, yeah, so I think about those a lot. And then I think about being in airports and buying trinkets in an airport. And in an airport, they will sell you whatever they can make money off of. So you could be buying something in an airport that is culturally appropriate if you aren’t doing something correctly with that. And in some instances, at least here in the United States, to own certain things is also inappropriate. So, for example, a Native American chief’s headdress with all of the feathers is very specific to a specific role, and ownership of that belongs to that person within that role, within that community. If I were to somehow find myself in possession of one of those, my job would then be to find out how to return it to the appropriate cultural person. And not to say, look, I have this amazing headdress, and I’m going to wear it.


It would never go on my head, because now I know, and I’ve never had one. I’m not saying I made that mistake, but if I had come into possession of that 20 years ago, I would have put it on and thought, look how cool this looks, because I didn’t know then what I know now. And so we learn. We do better. I think there will be lots of people who will disagree with some of the things today because they’re from different parts of the world.


And that’s okay. We can disagree.


But the most important thing, in my opinion, is to represent who you are authentically. So don’t do the Rachel Delazzle and Buffy Sainte Marie thing, whose last name actually was Santa Maria, which is very Italian, as opposed to, and be aware. And when you’re told that you’ve done something wrong, don’t double down. That’s the biggest thing. It’s so hard.


It’s so hard to be told that you’ve done something wrong and not want to be like it, but I didn’t know. This and making all of the excuses, it’s so much more mature to say, thank you for teaching me, and I won’t make that mistake again. I will do better.


[00:20:27] Speaker B: I totally agree with you.


[00:20:30] Speaker A: There’s just something in our makeup as humans that makes us want to go, I did it.


[00:20:33] Speaker B: Now I think it’s great to make a mistake. Otherwise, you will never learn, will never grow, and nobody wants to be flat. And I don’t believe anyone is born with all of the amazing knowledge. And let’s be honest, we as a community, as a humanity, as. As we grow. How can I say? Like, in ten years, we’re using different phrases or we’re talking about different things, and we are growing too. To move forward. And I think, let’s make a mistake. And as you said, if someone disagrees, it’s okay to agree to disagree. Depending on what it is.


[00:21:13] Speaker A: Absolutely. What’s not okay is to purposely harm other cultures by pretending to be them. So, I mean, there is a line. Absolutely. Sometimes it’s difficult to find exactly where the line blurs, but you go, you know, enough beyond it. I think everybody would say, you are a terrible person. Rachel Delazzle and Buffy Saint Marie.


[00:21:37] Speaker B: For me, you’re talking about TikTok. It’s so funny because one, there is a trend now, or maybe I’m too old.


There’s a tattoo. To write a tattoo in a different language, not in English, you know.


[00:21:49] Speaker A: Yeah.


[00:21:50] Speaker B: I’m an Arabic native speaker. And this guy was showing online tattoos and people making fun of him. Arabic speakers. He said he wrote two words in Arabic. He said, this is love and this is peace. And they were literally mean. One of them means okra, and the other one means spinach. And I was laughing. Also, even Lindsay Lohan once made a tattoo in Arabic, and she said, it meant love. No, it means donkey. It means donkey. You know, so also because it was a trend to write it or even like Japanese tattoo. I know Japanese speakers, who say this is not right because Japanese language and Chinese like drawing. And sometimes if you miss it a little bit, it can give you whole total meaning.


And even now we’re talking about tattoos, I don’t like it. Sometimes there are native ones, like the Maui or, like the cultural tattoos and some other people putting them on, I feel it loses the meaning. Maybe you like it. You want to put it in your body, study the culture, understand what that meant before, just like, yeah, it looks cool. Let me put it on me. So, yeah, no, but the arabic one, it’s so funny. I can see a lot of tattoos and it’s so hilarious.


[00:23:14] Speaker A: Oh, okra and spinach. No, basically, dude, you’ve got a salad.


Oh, and you hear that all the time that like, they want something, and the person actually tattoos, like the Chinese food menu or something on them because they can. Right. You’re in a different country. When are you ever going to go back and all of those things? So, yeah, just buy or beware of all of that. For sure. It reminds me of the tattoo that says no regurts instead of no regrets. So you want to be careful about all of those things, for sure.


But especially, yes, body art. That is permanent.


[00:23:53] Speaker B: Yeah.


[00:23:54] Speaker A: Please be sensitive to the fact that you may be doing something that is considered incredibly harmful to another, to another culture, for sure.


[00:24:04] Speaker B: Even the fashion industry like, I know a lot of fashion companies. They just take something from one culture and they make it and then they come back and apologize because they. I find that is really not acceptable nowadays because do your research to better understand it even if you want to use it. I will be honest, I would be happy if someone used something from my culture and celebrated it, but presented it in the right way and not just like, take it and not mention it. Because in most of a lot of cultures, or let’s say languages, everything has a meaning, has a story, and it’s really nice to share the story behind it. Then just feel free to use it. 


[00:24:55] Speaker A: Well, whoever you are out there, we hope that we’ve said something that makes you think at least about things in your life and things that you’ve seen and ways to view the world and other people. And remember, it’s always wonderful to appreciate other people and other people’s cultures, but just know where to draw the line. And all it takes is a little bit of research before you do anything, especially anything permanent. But yes, before you do anything public or permanent, Google is your friend. I will say that.


[00:25:29] Speaker B: Yeah.


[00:25:32] Speaker A: Thanks for hanging in there with us this week. We’ll be back next week where our topic is. We actually, have a whole list of topics coming up, so I’m not going to tell, we never know because we might change it between now and then. So I’m not going to tell you what it is. But yeah, we’ll be back next week with more on underrepresented in tech, and we hope that you’ll be here with us. Thanks, sama. Good to see you.


[00:25:52] Speaker B: Good to see you. Bye bye.


[00:25:56] Speaker A: If you’re interested in using our database, joining us as a guest for an episode, or just want to say hi, go to See you next week.




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Michelle Frechette

Michelle Frechette


Samah Nasr

Samah Nasr