Bothersome details: Cultural Appropriation and Privilege

I am sitting at the American Orff Schulwerk Association national conference, where I am refreshing and learning so much about teaching children and adults. However, as I sit in excellent sessions representing diverse cultures and ideas, I am finding myself considering two terms that are in the public consciousness right now: privilege and appropriation.

Privilege is not a new term, yet in American culture, calling out privileged individuals seems to be a new tool in the never ending quest for “liberty and justice for all.” While I can’t necessarily point to the detailed examples of where it occurred in my life, I have no doubt that both male privilege and white privilege have helped me become the successful adult that I am. As a male, I have always been constantly praised for being outgoing and assertive in discussions. I think that women receive a very different message: “don’t be pushy!”

As a Caucasian in America, I do not fear a random police stop, because I know that the officer involved will likely view me as non-threatening, and treat me accordingly. I’ve never been called a racial slur, or given the impression that I wasn’t welcome somewhere, even in neighborhoods where I was not in the majority. Class has privilege as well, and since I grew up in the middle class, I had access to good schools, student loans, and the connections to get or create job opportunities.

So how is this relevant to my teaching? Well, many my students are not afforded these same privileges. Instead, they will succeed on their own merits, often despite discrimination. It is my job to help instill these children with the innate drive, self-confidence, and poise to seize or create opportunities for themselves. Orff Schulwerk creative teaching can be a perfect model for this. Students are expected to take ownership of the creative process, composing, arranging, choreographing, or improvising their own ideas, and bringing these ideas to a performance level. Every day I am asking students to demonstrate independence, creativity, and critical thinking. I am also working to develop their interpersonal communication skills. The fact that this aligns with many standards is nice, but the point is that this is what Orff Schulwerk teachers have been doing all along.

I can also address discrimination by identifying it within myself. For example, I discovered awhile ago that I learn male names and faces much more quickly than female names and faces. A friend suggested that maybe this was because I grew up with two brothers, but I think it might be a more prevalent social norm that allows men to network with other men, to the exclusion of women.

Identifying this issue in myself does not make it go away. Instead, I have to take extra care to learn womens’ and girls’ names, and to ensure that I am giving them equal opportunities and encouragement in my classes. It also means calling out other teachers or children who might try to bring discrimination into our school.

Cultural appropriation is a more difficult issue. The concept is that a dominant society has taken something symbolic, such as music, clothing, or symbols, from a minority or oppressed group. This can happen without permission, and without respecting the original meaning of the material. For example, a white person wearing an American Indian headdress is seen as offensive to many.

The difficulty lies in separating respectful and natural cultural sharing from cultural appropriation. Like many busy teachers, I use books and websites to gather some materials for learning about and sharing music from other cultures. I also attend sessions at national and state conferences like AOSA. In each case, the material I am learning to take back to my students is at best second-hand, and often even more removed from the source. So the question of whether it is appropriating or sharing is not something I can definitively answer. I try my best to be respectful, to explain to the children the limitations of my knowledge, and to research the music I am teaching. If and when I discover that something is considered inappropriate, I stop using it.

Here is an unrelated example. I attend the Unitarian Universalist church, where we celebrate Hallowe’en/All Saints/All Souls Day with a “Day of the Dead” theme, which is borrowed from Mexican culture. I recently saw a blog post shared by a friend, written by a Hispanic woman who was upset with the appropriation of Day of the Dead by white Americans. Now, I’m not in a position to change this single-handedly in my church, and I definitely think it deserves more careful study, as it is possible that this opinion is not the primary opinion of Mexicans or Mexican-Americans. I also see the value of cultural cross-pollination, which is responsible for all of the musical styles and cultures and religions we see today.

So I don’t have an answer, but I do have a big question that I hold in my head and heart as I teach a multicultural curriculum. I believe children learn about the world through studying and understanding other cultures, as well as their own. I’m not willing to give that up. It’s just frustrating that what is intended as respect can sometimes come across as the exact opposite.

2 thoughts on “Bothersome details: Cultural Appropriation and Privilege”

  1. Tim,

    First, thanks for writing about this from your perspective. I respect how thoughtful you are about your own personal experience, as well as what you bring back to your students.

    When I taught music (and when I teach it in my classroom now), I was also very cautious as to how I shared music of other cultures. When I was in undergrad, we were taught that we needed to expose our children to as much “multicultural” music as possible, but we weren’t always given best practices from people OF those cultures.

    Because of my own insecurities and hoping to do right by the people whose culture I was intending to share, I often sought to give my students the experience of learning from other people – instead of from me. Whenever possible, I booked visitors who could share directly their musical upbringing and how important their music was to their culture. When it was not possible to bring visitors into our physical space, I was fortunate enough to have contacts through Skype or some type of video/audio to share with my kids. Sometimes, the kids and their families were the ones sharing… I LOVED that! My students received great benefits from that type of direct learning – and it was also great for them to see ME learning from someone else as well.

    I don’t know if that’s an option for you (in some schools, it’s not), but my experiences were always so positive, the kids loved it, and I learned SO much as well.

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for the comments and suggestion. Having guest presenters is definitely an option for ensuring authenticity and respect of culture. I have definitely considered this in the past. However, there are certainly time barriers to doing this, and as a teacher of teachers (Orff courses and workshops, curriculum workshops), I’m also looking for replicable activities for busy teachers. While I might very well take the time and effort to book a guest presenter for my school, many teachers won’t, especially when they DO see printed materials available. So I guess this is also a call to writers and educators like myself to ensure authenticity when passing on materials. But again, thanks for the excellent suggestion that we should all look for authentic first-person sources!

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