cultural appropriation: the importance of saying “i messed up”

I was sitting at work (at a local independent bookstore) and noticed a group of four college-aged people pointing and laughing at my book on display. I watched as I heard one say, “that’s just wrong.” And I cringed because I agreed with them. The cover of my book alone could be the parody cover of a book about cultural appropriation. A white girl wearing Indian clothing surrounded by dark-skinned Indian boys and a subtitle: “The Memoir of an American Teen Who Dared to Be Different.” More like the story of a white girl of privilege who had the opportunity handed to her by her parents to live abroad during high school.

Still hours later, I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach. I have often been the person to point out books, movies, posters, advertisements, etc. that are incredibly racially (or otherwise) problematic. If I had never seen the book before I probably would have had a similar response as the visitors in the bookstore today.

But I have seen the book before. I wrote that book. I wrote that book one year before I learned the term “white privilege” and devoted myself to educating myself as much as possible about racism, global and national white supremacy, and my own privilege.

Do I feel shame that the book is mine? Yes. Do I think it is important for white folks to acknowledge that the things they did in their “past lives” (before “waking up” to unpacking their own white privilege) and to be open about it–yes. We can’t take back what we did or who we were. We can use those experiences to push other white folks to wake up. My reflections about my own writing almost a decade ago can be painful, but they can also show how much my thinking and consciousness have changed. And is that not what needs to happen for white folks to finally get on board with fighting racism and oppression? A shift in consciousness? I would say yes. I would also say yes to documenting and sharing our missteps along the way. As a writer, I will always try to speak my truth. But my truth changes. At the time when I wrote the book, I knew what I knew. I did my best. Now I know I can do better. I think the urge for white folks (especially those with class privilege as well) to try to pretend that we are and always were perfect anti-racist activists or allies or however you identify–I think that is not only is impossible, but it is completely unproductive.

About an hour after the college students left the bookstore, a young teenager walked in and picked my book up off the shelf and when her dad came in behind her she said to him, “Dad, someone wrote this when they were fourteen! Maybe I could write a book!”

I couldn’t help but smile. When we are young we don’t know everything there is to know about injustice, especially coming from white, privileged backgrounds. But if we practice finding out voices early, then hopefully we will “wake up,” and when we do, we will be practiced at using our voices in the medium that feels most comfortable. I hope that teenager goes home and starts writing. I hope it serves her now, and I hope it serves her ten years from now, when she realizes she thinks completely differently then she did when she was younger.

Here’s to being honest as much as possible. As a writer. As an activist. As a person.

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