Cultural Appropriation: Making Hard Conversations Easier

As an ally, it is important to call out people who are racist or participate in erasure. But let’s face it: Having conversations around cultural appropriation and racism are hard. Often, the majority of discussions are either extremely serious or a bit heavy handed. There is a lot of hurt, discomfort, blame and guilt involved.

Here at obsidian, we believe in having these important conversations in a casual way. Over the years we have found some helpful ways to approach these conversation and make an impact.

What are some of the challenges you might face as an ally? Let’s break it down!

Challenge 1: Staying Approachable

So, you are a semi woke white person and you want to inform other white people about why a certain action is wrong. GREAT!

Before you get on that high horse, however, you need to take a moment to acknowledge where you started. No one is born woke. Take a deep breath and think back to those cringe-y beliefs you had in the past. When someone said you were wrong, how did you react?

You probably viewed yourself as a good person. When you saw minorities saying things you didn’t have experience with, you probably dismissed it. Not from malice, but from lack of knowledge and understanding.

Now, look back at your friend. Do they know what they are talking about? Do they have experience discussing racism or cultural appropriation? No? That is your audience.

If they are in your life, chances are they are a good person. They have the capacity to change. They just need someone they love to tell them things they might not know.

Challenge 2: Maintaining Motivation

Being a good ally is hard because it’s not about you. It’s often more about shaping the understanding of those around you.

Talking through important topics like cultural appropriation is going to be… uncomfortable. It’s going to be tiring. You might:

  • feel like you are hitting a wall again and again.
  • feel like your loved ones can’t seem to understand the humanity in others.
  • wish your loved ones would stop listening to the poison of certain political figures and news outlets
  • find yourself wanting to yell at them.

If you feel this way, take a breath and remember: Your role in social change is invaluable. People become like the people around them. If you live in a willing echo chamber without challenging those on the outside in a compassionate way, you aren’t being the best ally possible.

Is There Another Way?

Sometimes, people will say:

“Grey? Seriously? I’m doing XYZ. It’s so tiring/depressing/frustrating”

They will often be searching for a solution to these challenges. They might think there is an easier way.

How do I respond? Simply:


Minorities don’t get the choice of not interacting with the major population. Racial minorities in particular can’t hide our skin. The price of your echo chambers is on the backs of minorities. Your family members and friends either talk to you, a white ally; or me, a racial minority.

This is my job… and while I’m happy to help Grampa Joe understand ‘Black lives matter,’ the Black clerk in the grocery store – who is just trying to go home – miiiiight not. Plus, Grampa Joe is so much more likely to listen to you than me. The fewer old white grandparents I need to explain why touching my hair is rude to, the better. My time could be used to more important race relations (such as this blog).

Next Steps

Hopefully, most of my readers are feeling a bit called out. Of course, I won’t just leave you there. We still have work to do.

You might be asking: How do we start talking about this? How do we get people to look head on at something hard, uncomfortable, and disruptive to their lives?

In short, you can help by not making it worse.

When yelled at, people most often react in a few different ways.

  • They get defensive
  • They start mocking you
  • Or worse, they ignore you

Why? People are more likely to think you are being an ass, than that they are wrong. No one likes cognitive dissonance and the majority of people will avoid it at all costs.

So instead of yelling, we need to find ways to avoid cognitive dissonance while also getting our point across.

When you want to start a conversation around appropriation, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • It’s important to start where people are at.
  • Remember the positive result you are after (such as for your Grampa to understand BLM)
  • Don’t use guilt, use excitement
  • Start small
  • Allow your work to build over time
  • Make and stand by your values
  • Show your values everyday, without explanation. Just showing how a person can be better can help others be better.
  • When possible, make these discussions fun/funny/casual
  • Save the harder feelings for the worst moments.
  • You can’t be more upset than the POC around you
  • Remind people that this work is something you get to do not something you are being forced to

These conversations are important, but they don’t have to always be awful and hard. The goal of these conversations is to get people to be excited about learn more about the culture they are unwittingly or uncaringly disrespecting.

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