Periodically throughout my Minnesota public school days, we were taught to make dream catchers. They appeared couched in lessons about art or maybe a brief nod to Native cultures, minus any conversation about unceded land and Lincoln’s mass execution and history.
I made this dreamcatcher in late highschool, both unaware of my own appropriation and a full lifetime into my own dis-ease around my experiences as a POC. I was on the cusp of deciding I couldn’t wear my great-grandmother’s beautiful dress, brocade coat—I found it painful to see white people dressing up in “Asian-inspired” fashion and I finally came to terms with that external me, the truth that I read as white and anywhere with strangers, my sartorial choice, that connection to my family, both legitimized and normalized appropriation and caused that same pain to others.
It was a hard realization, a hard choice to make—I felt connected to my Popo and to my family when I wore her clothing on special occasions—but as a white-passing mixed race person, I felt a particular responsibility to buffer the more direct and vicious forms of racism others experience, and certainly to refrain from adding pain.
It still took me another ten years to look at this piece I made and realize my own appropriation. Thankfully the most uncritical visibility this ever got was at my highschool graduation party, tucked in a corner in a display of my art.
Right now, I have it up on a wall in my home, a point of discussion of cultural appropriation. It forces me to be present in an uncomfortable emotional and intellectual space, a reminder of the space between intentions and impacts.
As a kinetic learner, I find tactile projects like those elementary school ones to be invaluable, a tangible empathy that stays with me. But our lessons were devoid of context or challenge, absent any conversations of power imbalances and oppressive systems that reward white people and punish BIPOC for the same objects and icons.
Part of learning is realizing our complicity, the distance between intentions and impact. It’s about owning our capacity for harm and acting accordingly. Being a human is iterative.