The Scott Shaw Blog Be Positive

The Art and the Impact of Cultural Appropriation

When I was young, I had a friend who was a member of what was called, “The Indian Dance Troupe.” They also had a secondary name, defining their specific group, something like, “Shoshone Tribe.” What these people did was dress up in these very elaborate costumes with bells and feathers—they dressed the way they believed the Native Americans of long ago would have dressed. The thing was, there was not a Native American among them. Everyone who participated was White. Where they originally got the dances they performed from I do not know but all of these White people would get together, practice, and put on shows mimicking the sounds, the songs, and the dances of a people they had very little true knowledge about.

My friend would always ask me to join the troupe. I always declined. I just felt there was something Not Right about all that was going on.

When I was maybe twelve, we had moved so I changed my Hapkido instruction to a new school. There was a group of Native Americans who attended this school. And though, of course, I was an outsider to their culture, studying with them and befriending them allowed me to have a small view into true Native American Culture in big city America. I was truly glad I never disrespected them by joining that dance troupe.

Around this time, the television series Kung Fu came on TV. As we all know, it is a show about a Shaolin Priest/Kung Fu Master who immigrated to America. The thing was, the character was portrayed by a White man pretending to be half Chinese. Certainly, this TV show has gone down in history as being a positive influence to the spiritual evolution of the Western mind and to the martial arts in general. I too liked the show. But, is what was presented in this TV series historically accurate or was it simply the idealized image of what some person romanticized about a culture, a specific time in history, and a school of the marital arts?

Soon after this time period I entered into the period of my life where I was closely involved with those who practiced Eastern Mysticism. Everyone, including myself, generally wore what we believed to be Eastern style clothing. Though most of us, including myself, were true believers, were we a true part of what actually defined the Eastern understanding of religion and religious knowledge? No, we were not. But, it took me traveling to India (by myself) to come to understand that we were anything but.

People look outside of themselves and their culture to find that something more—that something better that they believe must be out there. They do this because they feel a sense of inadequacy with what they are experiencing. There is always the promise that the culture they focus their intentions upon is or was somehow better—that it/that they know that something more that will fill the hole that some people are experiencing in their lives. The fact is, nothing can give you what you don’t have. By its very definition, what you do not have is what you do not have. Yes, the pursuit of other cultures can fill your time, and some my find solace in that, but it will not change your core being. To do that, you must change your definition of the emptiness that you feel within yourself. How do you do that? You become. That does not mean that you try to become something that you are not. What it means is that you become the most you can be, defined by where you find yourself in life, time, and culture.

If you look outside of yourself, hoping to become something that you are not, then you will spend your entire life chasing a false dream. You are what you are. Embrace that and become whole in that knowledge.