Cultural appreciation or appropriation? Arts workshop designed to inspire dialogue

When it comes to dealing with touchy and difficult subjects, Ashmi Desai is the person to call. A postdoctoral associate in the University of Colorado’s School of Education, Desai is certified in dialogue facilitation on divisive issues.

Boulder County Arts Alliance hired her to conduct two workshops for local artists on the subject of cultural appropriation. The workshops were well-attended, said Charlotte LaSasso, executive director.

“It generated a lot of strong emotions,”she said. “People were eager to follow up.”

The issue is tricky, said Desai, who grew up in South India and has been in Boulder since 2011. Some artists admire cultural traditions that are not their own and incorporate them into their art, seeing the practice as showing admiration or respect.

Those whose culture is referenced may see things differently.

“(They think) ‘We have our own culture, which we have expressed. Why don’t you express your culture?’” Desai said. “These are conversations we need to be having.”

A person in a minority culture may feel that a member of the dominant culture is free to try on and discard others’ cultural practices in a way that they are not. It’s important to talk about the differences in perceptions among cultures and between individuals, Desai said.

“It’s very contextual. Our identities are complex. Nobody is necessarily just a black person, an Indian person or a white person these days,” Desai said. “I think Boulder is just ripe for these conversations. When we did these workshops, there was a heightened awareness. Everyone wanted to listen and know. Everyone was open.”

by Cindy Sutter