Growing up, a lot of people asked me “what I was.” With dark brown hair, tan skin, and brown eyes, many people assumed Hispanic or Italian. I’m actually 25% Chamorro (Guam!), 50% Norwegian, and 25% mystery since my nana doesn’t know where her family was originally from (but she thinks a mix including Italian/Japanese). Yet my biological heritage did not translate into any kind of cultural experience. My Norwegian nana makes lefse for Christmas and has a sign that says jeg elsker deg (I love you), but other than that my upbringing included no culture-specific traditions or practices.
In college, discussions of race, heritage, and appropriation have increased my desire to learn about and engage with culture in ways I have not before. I want to know how I can appreciate and participate in cultural practices respectfully. I want to know what role I can take in ensuring people of all backgrounds and heritage are treated with dignity and afforded access to resources and opportunities. So I reached out to my friend Kayli, a fellow senior at CMC who is extremely involved in efforts to promote the rights of native Hawaiians, indigenous peoples, and Pacific Islanders. I asked her how she approaches discussions regarding culture and how to reach out to people to learn more about their culture. This is part of her response:
“When people respectfully ask about my culture and show sincere interest, I’m more willing to talk about my culture and invite people to cultural events to share my identity with them… When I engage with other cultures, I try to get invited into that space through friends in order to understand the culture and respect it…”
Her points seem intuitive in hindsight, but they are incredibly helpful as a starting point for someone trying to increase their knowledge of other cultures in an appropriate way. Breaking it down, the most important points are these:
- Be sincere. If someone sees that you are interested, they will probably be happy to share their cultural experiences and knowledge with you.
- Wait for an invitation. Lots of cultural practices are intimate and extremely important to participants – without an invitation it may seem that you are imposing or appropriating.
- Open a dialogue. Help people understand what your background is and where you’re coming from, which will help them understand your perspective and encourage them to share their own.