How To: Addressing Cultural Appropriation and Racism for Allies

As my DMs became flooded with messages from people sharing different camps, clothing and jewelry that fit the definition of cultural appropriation, I quickly realized that I cannot stand up to every perpetrator by myself. 

CA pic- TeachRock
Photo credit: TeachRock

As I voiced my request for these individuals to please message these companies and camps to try to educate and bring about change themselves, I was met with several messages explaining that they simply don’t know how. 

So this resource is an attempt at a “how to” for allies, from my perspective and that of other people of color (POC) and allies. While this is aimed towards combating cultural appropriation, these approaches can be used to stand up to racism and discrimination as well. All opinions are mine, unless otherwise noted, and do not reflect the Native community as a whole. 

And with Halloween just around the corner, I will be sharing more of my thoughts at a later date as they pertain to Native American costumes and appropriation, but this article will hopefully prepare allies for the difficult conversations that will undoubtedly be had in the upcoming month.

  1. Before all else, please be sure that you are not calling out somebody from the culture you are defending. If there is any question, refrain. 
  2. When reaching out to a person, company or organization, introduce yourself and attempt to establish a commonality. An example would be, “Hi Jessica! I’m Cali from *city/state*. You have some really beautiful products on your site”. People will be more likely to listen to you when you have created that human-to-human relationship. Don’t feel like you have to compliment them, especially if it’s a lie. It’s just something that I have realized works really well. 
  3. DM vs. comment: This topic is controversial. Some feel that a private message will yield more positive outcomes due to the fact that said person will not feel publicly attacked. I generally always privately message the person/account, but I will usually comment, too. With large accounts, our private messages are often left unread without response. By commenting, you have a better chance at being seen. Each situation is unique. And I definitely don’t always do things right.
  4. Understand that POC may have a significant attachment to what is being appropriated. For me, if it is something that is blatantly mocking, stealing, or appropriating Lakota culture, I will probably have a heightened emotional response than someone who doesn’t have this type of attachment. My response may visibly show my hurt and anger. If possible, allies should attempt to remain calm and collected. Stick to the facts. They will likely listen to you over me. 
  5. If you do feel a heightened emotional response, wait several hours (or days) to confront the issue. At times I have waited 24 hours to let my emotions settle before reaching out. 
  6. Be respectful! It sucks to be discredited because an ally decided to name call and swear.  
  7. To completely contradict myself with that last statement, please also understand that it is inappropriate to tone police POC. The difference here is that we are responding to continual oppression and misrepresentation, and our emotions do not invalidate our fight. 
  8. Tagging us in posts is emotionally draining. Sometimes I’ll be out having the best day, pause to check social media (because let’s be honest, the addiction is real) and see that I’ve been tagged in something really heavy. As an empath, this has the potential to really ruin my day. If you think it is something that we really need to see, please have a conversation with us about it and ask if it is okay to share before tagging. This allows us to partake on our own terms. I will personally be changing my own practice and sharing a “cover” story on Instagram to explain what I will be sharing in the following stories. This way, people will be informed of what I am about to share and will have the option of exiting out or tapping through. 
CA pic- Refinery29
Photo cred: Refinery29

Since this is a complex topic, and there are multiple different perspectives and ideas, I opened up my DMs to advice from other POC and allies. Below are their words of wisdom. Please feel free to comment with any additional advice that you have! 

Advice to Allies from POC

“My biggest piece of advice for allyship is to not be “color blind”. I see and hear this term thrown around a lot by even those who mean well, but it really bothers me. Race is probably the most divisive thing in our country, and pretending not to “see color” doesn’t make for a solution. This so-called color blindness doesn’t create fairness or equality, it actually ignores the problem and denies the experiences (mostly the negative ones) that POC face. To be an ally, you must deal with race head on because if we want to move towards equal rights, opportunities and representation we need to have real conversations on race instead of denying it”- Katy Gräble

“Try to remain as clear and firm as possible. It can be difficult to do because often these discussions, call-ins, and teachable moments bring up trauma for us. However, I’ve noticed that if I allow my emotions to takeover my argument and education, people are dismissive of me. Later I just spew my emotions on my husband as a release. I thank him for that! Secondly, I encourage anyone who is a parent or around children to be familiar with the history that is being taught about Indigenous people and what our real untold history is. Educate those who are teaching children because it all starts with them and we can end whitewashing if we teach our children well.” –Kate Laubernds

“It is important to be more than an Ally. You must be an accomplice. The difference being an Ally can walk away when it gets rough, and the emotional labor gets diverted back to the POC.. but an accomplice is ready to get into the thick of it for the whole run.” –Corinne Oestreich

“Learn the different style of headdresses. Too many times I have people calling me a hypocrite for not calling out Rihanna for wearing a bikini and headdress but when I point out that it is a headdress that is normal in her culture and has no connection to Plains headdresses. Or if they could learn that different Native cultures have different protocols for headdresses. I saw some well-meaning allies going after a kid in regalia who had a headdress. I think the main thread is learn what is what and if you are confused, ask. If you’re confused as to why one is ok and the other isn’t, ask. It’s a lot easier than someone having to correct you in public.” –C.A. Printup

“Protect and preserve as if it were your own. Empathy goes a long way.” –Madi

“You can be an active ally, but by listening first. Listen, remain in solidarity, support, and stand strong. Remember, we don’t always provide free emotional labor. Wanting to learn more and get properly educated is one thing, but raising words as fists to constantly challenge our beliefs, history, or stances on certain topics will not always be given/acknowledged. When we give free emotional labor, it’s because we want to, not that we have to.” –Faith Fuentes (read more at her linked blog)

“People always say “well my Korean, Japanese, [insert Asian] friend doesn’t have a problem with it because people are just enjoying part of the culture. “Most of the time, these people aren’t Asian American, so as far as where their home is, they are part of the majority. But as an Asian American, we live under a system of oppression and to have parts of our culture be used as costumes, fetishized belongings, and at birthday or frat parties is disrespectful. Also, I know there are non-Asians and fellow Asian Americans who believe and contribute to the Model Minority Myth by believing that we have achieved the status quo of a white person. This is not true and not generalizable It hurts the Asian Americans who continue to be marginalized (esp Southeast Asians). If you’re going to wear something, make sure it’s from an Asian Artist and that they directly profit from it. Don’t wear it as a costume. Don’t do racist things while wearing it as a costume- like bowing to people with your hands together, saying “ching chong ling long dong” as if you’re trying to “speak Asian,” etc. And don’t compare one traditional gown to another!! They’re all different and important to their respectful cultures. It’s inappropriate to say that one country’s gown is prettier/more appealing than the other.” – Susanna Park

Advice to Allies from Allies

“I’d say my biggest advice from an ally to an ally would be to listen to what POC have to say. That’s one of the most important things” – Kaila Walton

“Allies should really not try to be saviors. It isn’t about being loudest to prove allyship. Stand up when you see/hear discrimination/appropriation, but make sure not to speak on behalf of the marginalized. Raise up the voices of the marginalized group, point people to the activists within those marginalized communities. These communities have their own voices and should tell their own stories.” –Jen Aycock  

“Allies should educate themselves on what white privilege is, explore where they see it in their daily lives and attempt to visualize what it would be like to no longer have those things they identified. Additionally, learning about microaggressions was a profound eye opener for me- I was committing them unknowingly. Seeking to educate oneself and continuously learn from a place of humility while being open to feedback and self-reflection” –Ashley Jansen

“For me, the realization that I can use my “white woman privilege” to speak up and call people out in just about any setting (online or irl) without any personal consequences has completely changed how I respond to uncomfortable situations. For example, last weekend I got into a discussion with a guy at party after he used the term “dot or feather” to ask “what kind of Indian” someone was referring to. I might be naive here, but I think I made him see why he needs to stop using that language.” –Nina Larsen 

“Poe’s Law… basically it states that without an emoji at the end of every statement there’s no clear indicator what your intent of the statement was. So even when we simply state, hi this area is closed, people hear a tone of  😡 . And that puts their defenses up and then discourse is pointless. Now, can you pepper an email about a camp using NA culture to profit with emojis and still look professional? Probably not. But we try to keep it in mind when we write things out” –Unethical Outdoors

“Don’t expect a cookie. Your solidarity should not rest on recognition or gratitude for doing the right thing. If you get it, cool,. but don’t expect a damn cookie or gold star. You also don’t get to self-define as an ally. That’s for the people you are aligning yourself with to recognize or not. Be aware of performative allyship. It’s totally cool and important to post on social media and amplify marginalized voices, but make sure you are talking the talk and walking the walk IRL- especially when folk you ally yourself with aren’t present. Learn to know when to keep your ears open and your mouth shut. Don’t try to speak on behalf of a marginalized community or go in with a “savior” complex. Allyship is a lifelong process and commitment. No one is perfect and the work is never done. Keep at it and keep learning!” –Kelly Sheehy

“Accept that we as allies will make mistakes, but we need to own up to them and apologize in a way that doesn’t center us and listen, listen , listen! It’s the only way we’ll learn” –Viktoria

“Maybe it’s because the history books aren’t teaching the truth- people aren’t able to wrap their heads around how bad it is. And because of that, I don’t think they realize it’s still going on. It’s such a hard thing to bring up, but timing and approach are everything in not having people shut down. Like sometimes in the moment isn’t the right time” –Crista Bodai

“Make sure the message you’re sending as an ally is consistent with POC voices, and making sure you’re sending that message advocating with them, not inserting your own opinion or advocating for them.” –Erika Firestone

CA pic- The McGill Tribune
Photo Cred: The McGill Tribune

Resources for you to utilize and share

This document was created by myself and Kendyl (Mnikȟówožu Lakȟóta). It includes ways to respectfully appreciate Native culture, how to donate, and facts about our history including boarding schools and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

Cultural Appropriation toolkit created by Jillian Martinez for the University of Denver.

Youtube video on Mr. Rodgers and the Power of Persuasion. Highly recommend watching this! It elaborates on the concept that I shared in #2. Thank you for sharing this, Unethical Outdoors

Philámayayapi to everyone for contributing and sharing

Pronunciation guide
Philámayayapi- pee-LA-maya-yapi

Published by

11 thoughts on “How To: Addressing Cultural Appropriation and Racism for Allies

  1. This is great! Thank you so much for your words, the additional advice and putting it all together. The additional resources very interesting and useful.
    Muchas gracias!


  2. Thank you for making a post about this! It’s definitely very insightful and helpful! I’ve often been unsure of how to approach certain situations as someone who is not a POC. But I still wish to help point out and educate others on the harm of their words or actions when I come across these situations without also seeming like I’m speaking for POC because that’s not my place. So this was a helpful read for sure.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s