Appreciation, Not Appropriation
When I was in high school, back in the dark ages in Louisiana, our mascot was a Native American chieftain. My school also had an annual “powwow” on the lawn complete with tipis and totem poles. Even though it would be years before I learned about the term cultural appropriation, I remember thinking it felt wrong. It was completely based on stereotypes and misconceptions. Certainly, no respect for Native American culture was shown.
Cultural appropriation refers to the use of elements of a nondominant cultural group by a dominant cultural group in a way that reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression, without respecting or giving credit to their original meaning. Khloe Kardashian wearing a Native American feathered headdress or Justin Bieber in cornrows are extreme examples that come to mind. In the United States, the groups most commonly subjected to cultural appropriation include African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans.
Cultural appreciation, conversely, is seeking to understand and learn about another cultural group in a respectful way, acknowledging their beliefs, customs, and contributions, not by copying them. For art teachers, an effective way to approach this is by comparing the art of multiple cultural groups across time and place based on universal themes or Big Ideas. Through culturally sensitive lessons based on art, students can learn about the meaning, value, or content of art objects from other cultures and translate these ideas into original, personal, and contemporary interpretations.
The Human Commonalities
The use of thematic connections across the curriculum offers invaluable opportunities for the development of holistic, meaningful learning experiences for students while avoiding cultural appropriation. The Human Commonalities, eight universal cultural concepts that provide a framework for teaching in a culturally diverse world, are derived from an article by Ernest Boyer, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
In “Educating in a Multicultural World,” from Multicultural Education: A Global Approach edited by Don Bragaw and W. Scott Thomson (1992), Boyer defined true multicultural education as that which affirms the sacredness of the individual while recognizing the universal nature of all peoples. By locating a common ground between all humankind, Boyer suggested that a curriculum based on cultural similarities encourages deeper understanding of subject matter. Boyer characterized this common ground as the Human Commonalities, eight universal cultural concepts shared by people throughout time and around the world.
Why should we undertake the study of any discipline from the perspective of the Human Commonalities? Learning becomes more applicable when students are able to connect their own life experiences to the topic at hand. Boyer believed that students should learn about themselves and their relationship to a subject, rather than simply studying a topic.
A Practical Example
Investigating the commonality “we all develop symbols,” students could explore what meanings have been expressed in the symbol of the hand, a common image found across times and cultures. (Check out the two articles in this issue that focus on the meaning of the hand.) After comparing and contrasting multiple examples of hand imagery, students could develop their own personally meaningful and contemporary artworks, preferably using the media and techniques of their choice.
Cultural pluralism, according to Boyer, is one of the standards of a democratic and free society. As American society continues to evolve and change, meeting the challenges of respecting diversity is a central goal of quality teaching. The Human Commonalities provide a firm structure for this goal and encourage appreciation, not appropriation.
Nancy Walkup is the editor-in-chief of SchoolArts magazine. NWalkup@DavisArt.com