Dear Queer White People: Cultural Appropriation

by | Mar 4, 2019 | 0 comments

Dear Sami,

Can you please explain to queer white people why using terms like “two-spirit” to describe one’s gender, or “tribe” to describe one’s chosen family, are problematic?

Signed, Annoyed with Appropriation

Dear Queer White People,

Let’s talk about cultural appropriation. In general, cultural appropriation is when aspects of marginalized people’s cultures, like people of color, are taken up and used by people not belonging to that culture, especially people who have historically oppressed those people and their culture.

We hear about cultural appropriation most in terms of attire: Katy Perry’s geisha outfit, white women wearing indigenous style headdresses at music festivals, white guys wearing sombreros on Cinco de Mayo or Halloween, etc. What you may not know is that cultural appropriation extends beyond attire to include words and practices from marginalized cultures as well. This is where we come to Annoyed with Appropriation’s request.

“Two-spirit” is a specifically modern indigenous or Native umbrella term for a number of gender categories, identities, or roles within certain tribal communities for individuals who do not conform to a gender binary. An excellent presentation from the National Congress of American Indians on the history of the term “two-spirit” shows how different tribes had/have words for males who take on traditionally female roles or attire (and vice versa), as well as other expansive, inclusive approaches to gender.

“Two-spirit” is a more recent (around the 1990s) term that serves as an umbrella for these various tribal words and identities/roles, particularly for Native and indigenous people who may not have official tribal affiliations or speak a tribal language, but nonetheless identify outside of a western gender binary. “Two-spirit” is not equivalent to transgender nor non-binary, though it has similarities and overlaps with each of these terms.

Because of the history of the term “two-spirit” in relationship to the history of gender within Native tribes and its specific development within modern Native and indigenous populations, it is highly inappropriate for non-Native people to use the term “two-spirit” as their gender identity, as musician Jason Mraz did recently in an interview with People. He was, rightfully, called out for his cultural appropriation (and misunderstanding) of the term.

So perhaps now, my dear queer white people, you’re thinking, OK, I’m with you there, but why can’t I use the word “tribe” to describe my queer kinship network, chosen family, or polyamorous web of lovers and friends? What’s the harm?

Similar to “two-spirit,” “tribe” is very specifically used to refer to indigenous groups of people, many of whom have been forced off their lands, subjected to genocide, and pressured to assimilate into the cultures of colonizing powers here in the US and around the world. To use “tribe” without any cultural or familial relationship to this history of indigenous peoples is another, though perhaps less obvious, form of cultural appropriation. “Tribe” signals a kind of outsider status that I think many of us in the LGBTQ community identify with. It may also represent a form of communal caretaking that we associate with a “lost” past or with indigenous people, and identify with in terms of the ways many of us have had to make networks of support outside of our biological families.

However, when the word “tribe” is taken up by those of us who have no connection to the history of being colonized and subjected to violent, forced assimilation, the term becomes appropriative, insensitive, and potentially offensive (ditto using terms like “powwow” or “tepee” outside of appropriate cultural contexts).

Some of you may feel some resistance as you read this, thinking I’ve gone too far, too PC. I invite you to take a moment to consider where that resistance is coming from and what you want to do with it. You can use that resistance to be mad at me, dismiss me, or you can use it to think of other words you might use instead.

As queer people, we too have a history. Queer people of color in drag and ball communities have houses. A friend of mind refers to her lovers, their lovers, and their children as all part of her “phamily” (polyamory family). These terms signal the love, connection, and support a group of people may provide one another in the way “tribe” works without the cultural appropriation.

If we can accomplish the same communicative task by using different words, then why cling to the words that do harm to other marginalized groups? If you are white or otherwise non-Native and feel strongly connected to the term “two-spirit,” consider other ways to signal your particular gender or sexuality identity. Non-binary and gender non-conforming are both relatively new terms, as is trans (with a hyphen or an asterisk sometimes added), and yet are increasingly recognized in our larger society, particularly within the LGBTQ community.

As we work to find ourselves and our way in this world, let’s also work to find language that helps us feel most recognized without participating in the erasure or oppression of other marginalized people. I believe in our ability to do better by each other.

Your local fierce black femme,


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