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The other day, I was at my cousin’s home and her daughter was dressed up like "an Indian" (her word to designate a Native American "traditional" outfit).

This made me uncomfortable as I was afraid that some cultural appropriation was at play here. I know my cousin would never willingly try to hurt someone else's feelings (she is very engaged in all kinds of social justice movements like feminism and social inequality. She is also a sociologist so she is very interested in all subjects concerning humans interactions) but I'm not sure she even knows "cultural appropriation" is a thing.

At the time, I didn't say anything because I didn't want to fire a conflict or sound judgmental in any way.

However, I'm still wondering:

Would have there been any way to suggest to her that she might want to learn more about cultural appropriation?

If she already knows about it and decided to dress her daughter like that anyway, that's fine with me. I just want to warn her that she might be insulting people without even realizing it.


Background about my relationship with my cousin

My cousin and I get along very well. I have a key to her house and I spent one or two weekends a month at her place. I'm also the godmother of one of her (two) children.


Notes and clarifications

  • About the fact that my cousin may have a better understanding than me about what cultural appropriation is or isn't, this may or may not be the case. But she never talked to me about this subject and has never shared an article about that on facebook (which are both things she does about feminism or other social justice stuff) so that is what leads me to think that she doesn't know the subject.

  • I didn't ask her directly if she knew things about cultural appropriation because I was afraid this would have lead to the conflict I wanted (and still want) to avoid.

  • I'm afraid that this would have fired a conflict the same way I would be afraid of it if I said: "Hey, you might have been racist here, I suggest to you that you read more about that". People tend to not react well when someone points to them that they might have been racist/sexist/etc... And the fact that this also involves her child make it an even more sensitive topic I fear.

  • The daughter is 4 years-old. She really doesn't need to be part of the conversation.

  • If you want to learn more about cultural appropriation and Native American outfit, you can read this article: "Native Halloween Costumes Are Offensive, Support Native Designers Instead"

  • My cousin daughter did go to a sewing class with the outfit.

  • You mention your cousin is sociologist, is that professionally speaking? – motosubatsu Feb 21 at 15:33
  • @motosubatsu Yes (she is a teacher who also do research on sociology) – Ælis Feb 21 at 15:34
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Would have there been any way to suggest to her that she might want to learn more about cultural appropriation?

When considering how to approach suggesting someone may want to learn about something you need to consider:

  1. how likely they are to already have knowledge of what you are suggesting they should learn

  2. how likely they are to expect you to know about their knowledge level

The two things are somewhat tightly integrated, let me explain this a bit with some examples (both of these have actually happened to me):

In my professional interactions with people if someone I'd worked with for a reasonable amount of time (say more than a month) were to suggest to me that I might want to learn more about, say, coding I'm quite likely to get offended by this, why? Examine it against the above criteria:

  1. I'm employed to do this, it would be extremely unlikely that I don't know about this.

  2. They are encountering me professionally - not knowing that I'm a coder means they don't know the most basic facts about me.

So bearing in mind both of these things it's hard not to take such a suggestion as a slight - either they know what my job is and are suggesting I'm fundamentally not competent at it or they haven't bothered to learn the most basic of facts about professional-me. Neither of these possibilities are particularly flattering to me.

Now if the same person were to suggest I should learn more about, say Magic: The Gathering I'm not likely to get offended by this - examining it using same criteria:

  1. It's not something that's particularly common knowledge

  2. I work with these people, I don't play Magic with them, I've probably never even mentioned it in the office, so it would be unreasonable to expect them to know this about me.

So in this case I'm not offended - I don't expect people to accurately estimate my knowledge on things that they had no reasonable way of knowing about. I can quickly fill them in on my knowledge level and "no harm, no foul"

What happens if we put this situation through the same process?

  1. how likely they are to already have knowledge of what you are suggesting they should learn

For her knowing:

She's a sociologist by profession. The study of things like social identity, social inequality and beliefs, religion and race are very, very central to that subject. Add in that she is active in "social justice" domains in general and it's a concept that has been discussed heavily in mainstream media and general in recent years.

Against her knowing:

She hasn't mentioned it directly to you or posted about it on facebook.

On balance I think it's far more likely than not that she is aware of the concept to a reasonable degree.

  1. how likely they are to expect you to know about their knowledge level

For you knowing:

You're her cousin, and have a close relationship. You clearly know what her profession is.

Against you knowing:

She hasn't mentioned it directly to you or posted about it on facebook.

On balance I think it's far more likely than not that she would expect you to assume that she is aware it.

So how to approach expressing/raising your concerns?

Ask her opinion about whether she is concerned about it:

Are you concerned about whether [Child's Name] dressing up as a Native American crosses into cultural appropriation?

What are the benefits of this approach?

This phrasing raises the topic without any presumption that she hasn't considered that angle, and without giving any opinion of your own that might be potentially viewed as a judgement. And if she hasn't encountered the topic before or considered that angle it gives an opening for her to ask you for your opinion and if she does so that means you can completely side step any possibility of being seen to give unsolicited opinions. I've used this same approach myself many times to great effect.

Are there any risks/dangers to this approach?

Yes (but they aren't hugely likely):

  1. Some parents are on a hair trigger when it comes to even the most tenuous of possible/implied criticism of their parenting, but I'd largely expect that if she was this sort of person you'd probably already know about this.

  2. If the concept in question was clearly and obviously something that they couldn't be expected to know about it can come across as condescending, but that's extremely unlikely in this scenario if she hasn't at least heard the term she'd basically have to have lived under a rock.

  3. Cultural appropriation is (for some people) a controversial topic and can engender strongly held opinions one way or another and there is a very slight chance of hitting a Berserk Button.

Would I say anything?

Candidly - No, I wouldn't have considered this even remotely to be cultural appropriation personally and I doubt it would have even registered with me beyond "child in the room playing make-believe".

I also would consider that even though the risk of it going badly wrong is slight I would consider the possible consequences severe enough that the cost/benefit of saying something wouldn't compute for me. (I'm also aware that I may be projecting here - I know that I would probably react badly to someone saying something, but I'm a very different person than your cousin).

The fact that I wouldn't say something doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't, if it's something you feel strongly enough about.

  • Thanks for the answer. I just wanted to point out to you that cultural appropriation is definitively not something talked about in mainstream media or in general in France (but I your answer is still valid). – Ælis Feb 21 at 18:20
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    @Ælis I've overheard several conversations where someone asked someone if they knew what cultural appropriation was, and the person responded with, "Excuse me? I'm a sociologist. That's literally my job." Now, that's in America, not France. It's certainly a conversation that I would want to have about it, but I really support motosubatsu's advice to introduce the conversation with language that indicates that you think she knows more about it than you. If that turns out to not be the case, you can change the language around as needed. – Ed Grimm Feb 23 at 3:40
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As some people in the comments have suggested, it could be that your cousin is aware of cultural appropriation. It could be that what you saw wasn't cultural appropriation, that she hadn't a problem with it, or that she doesn't see cultural appropriation as a thing. Just because she doesn't share articles about it doesn't mean she doesn't know about it, just that it isn't a main concern or important topic for her.

This doesn't mean you can't have a conversation with her, just don't assume she knows nothing and that she's in the wrong. You seem to be close and have a good relationship, you also didn't say there's a risk she'll react badly to that kind of topic. If you still wish to have that conversation with her, I see nothing wrong with that.

Hey cousin ! I'd like to get your opinion about something. I've just read a couple articles about cultural appropriation and I wanted your take on that, since you're very active in feminist and social circles.

You could be very candid and mention her daughter's outfit, but I wouldn't mention it, it will easily come off as judgy and negative. Since your goal seems to only know if she's aware of this phenomenon, no need to confront her about her daughter. Even if you think that her daughter dressing up is cultural appropriation, I'd either drop it or use halloween costumes as an example, depending on how the conversation goes and the other person's reaction. Bringing awareness to people is OK, but judging them and meddling in their parenting won't go well.

EDIT : just saw the update to your question. So you are afraid of conflict. I think my advice still stands. Bring up the topic neutrally, to have a conversation, and avoid talking about her daughter directly. In the conversation itself, you could gently challenge some of her views if need be (just be aware that just because you think this is cultural appropriation, it might not be, you might be wrong).

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