Cultural Appropriation: Calling ‘This American Life’ In to Accountability

AliceAlice H. is a writer, educator, dreamer, and social worker.  She is dedicated to supporting and encouraging the work of interconnection and allyship through anti-oppression work, storytelling, and communion with the natural world.  She works with the emotional healing of the heart, communicating the message to people that they have a right, no matter the circumstance, to be seen and acknowledged.  She believes through the sharing of our stories we traverse the process of healing our hearts, which enables us to be better stewards to ourselves, to each other and to the earth.  She derives great wisdom from her teachers in the animal, plant, and spirit world and seeks to share these learnings through her writings.  She is based out of Denver, Colorado.

Read more of Alice’s writing at her blog, Weaving Webs.

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I was recently listening to a This American Life podcast as I biked to work, and I became quite irritated by the story I heard.  A few days ago, I wrote This American Life an email with my thoughts and response to that specific story.  Below, is the email, which I would like to flesh out into a larger piece regarding the insistence that white folks step back and create/allow/demand space for other communities to share their own stories and to just listen to the stories that are already being told by these communities.

The story that was shared on This American Life was regarding the writing of The Education of Little Treea book that is still taught in high schools today.  I have not read this book myself, and the information that I share regarding it comes from the show.  The “autobiography,” which was written in the mid 1970s (not so long ago) claims to be written by a Cherokee man recounting his childhood growing up with his Cherokee grandparents and learning “the ways.”

The book became a huge success; it was at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, the author was on the Today show, and Oprah put it on her booklist in the 1990s.  While the book was being released, some folks in Alabama recognized the fellow claiming to be Forrest Carter as Asa Carter, a prolific white supremacist writer and Klu Klux Klan leader who wrote many speeches for the anti-civil rights, racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace.

“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” ring a bell?  Yep, that’s him, Asa Carter, who moved to Texas in the late 1960s, grew a mustache, tanned his skin, changed his name to Forrest, and began to claim Cherokee heritage.

And let’s be clear: these hateful words and others created a climate of fear and violence where four young girls were killed in a bombing of a church and where state troopers beat and teargassed civil rights demonstrators.  The information regarding Forrest Carter’s real identity came out right before the book was published, with little response.  Much later, the book was changed from non-fiction to fiction but can still be found in the Native American Section of bookstores today.

To me, this is the outrage and this should have been the focus of the program, or at least more throughly critiqued so as to still fit within the overarching theme of the show. The question that the program posited was whether Asa/Forrest Carter could have done a complete 180 degree turn in his life.

In my opinion this could never have been true regardless of if his views regarding race had changed.  This could not have been true because he was still a White man claiming the story of a Cherokee person, a story which garnered him much acclaim and, I would guess, profit.  The fact that this story is still being taught today in our schools only serves to perpetuate this racist notion that it is okay for White folks to claim others’ stories.

Let me be clear, White folks and other folks with institutionally backed power: THIS IS NOT OKAY.  I know that many have good intent and are unaware of the underlining unjustness of claiming another’s story or sharing someone else’s story through your socially normalized vantage point.  I know that many believe that our society has moved past racism and the need to acknowledge its deep wounds.  As such, we have moved towards a more insidious form of racism which is cultural appropriation under the guise of “honoring” and “sharing culture.”

This is a contemporary form of colonization, i.e. the claiming of something that doesn’t belong to you without any kind of contextual knowledge or true responsibility at the psychic cost of those whose culture is being appropriated.  To understand more about cultural appropriation, read Naomi Archer’s open letter to the British Columbia Witchcamp.

I know that many believe that they are offering homage to a culture that they admire, but this is not being an ally.  Being an ally is working in solidarity, not charity or sympathy.  It is listening to the stories that are being told, and sharing these stories with permission and guidance within your community.  It is examining the ease with which you and the stories of folks like you take up space in our society (your privilege). It is taking a step back. It is being uncomfortable. It is being humbled.

Please read Paul Kivel’s guidelines for being a strong white ally.  To follow is the email that I sent to This American Life with my thoughts on their portrayal of the Forrest/Asa Carter story:

Hello,

I was wanting to share my specific response to the first segment of 180 Degrees regarding Asa/Forrest Carter and The Education of Little Tree. This is no doubt an important story to share, but it frustrated and saddened me that the underlying racism of a White man (historically a White supremacist) claiming a Cherokee story that is still being taught in schools today (with and without acknowledgment) was not more critically examined.

Without this, your program unfortunately becomes a continuation of this type of racism.  It is true that today we (White folks) continue to take/share/co-opt the stories of folks of Color with good and malintent. But intent matters little when the impact causes pain, particularly when the privileges of one group is in direct relationship with the genocide and oppression of another.  This, I wished your story had mentioned, as well as how inappropriate it is for schools to continue teaching this story to our youth with made up words and history.

A story that continues to romanticize the spiritual Native American (which impacts our current justification of the racist trend in fashion and lifestyle) without sharing the story of genocide, of forced relocation, of boarding schools, of the prohibiting of spiritual and cultural practices that manifest today in disease and in pain is simply irresponsible. And of course these communities exist in and create great beauty today as well, we often forget that it all manifests simultaneously. Cherokee folks, Native folks – they exist and are here; they tell and write stories, and it is these we must hear and read in our schools.

It is not our role to tell these stories. It is our role to provide space for these stories to be told and to demand that White folks listen to these communities so that healing can continue. It is through honoring and hearing each others’ stories that we come together as a larger community, that we move forward into a time when we treat one another and the earth with more love.

I believe your program wants this change, and I am grateful for your program; it has touched me, educated me, and humored me for many years. However, at times you miss important points that should be highlighted, and the segment I mention is an example of one such opportunity.

One way you could have addressed this issue or become aware of it yourself is to have asked a contemporary Cherokee activist to share their thoughts on this story.  I do not doubt Alex Blumberg’s good intent in producing this story, but unfortunately he becomes another White man re-telling the story without asking folks from the affected community to share their thoughts.  Simply stating that the introduction to the second pressing of  the book was written by a Cherokee man does not do this.

Those that grow up under a system that normalizes this type of co-opting are of course prone to believe in its legitimacy.  I am also aware that folks within the Cherokee community will have differing views on the appropriateness of Carter’s actions, and this is part of the ambiguous times that we live in.  I would hope for your show, and perhaps you already do this, to hire some folks from the communities whose stories YOU are sharing, editing, crafting from footage YOU research and record to see and hear their thoughts on YOUR portrayal. It is in this way that we as White folks attempt to be accountable.

In conclusion, I want to make clear that I am not writing this email with anger. I am writing with the desire that true dialogue and reflection can take place. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

Best, Alice

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