Tiny Houses, Rice and Poverty Appropriation

Am I the only one that thinks we seem to be a society obsessed with finding things to get offended and upset about? Every day my newsfeed is filling with people debating over this or that, or ranting about how they were offended by Joe Blow’s opinion which really has nothing to do with them.  Today, however, I saw a new one. I came across an article from a woman who is upset over, get this – tiny houses. Yup. She is claiming that those living in tiny houses are engaging in “Poverty Appropriation”. Don’t believe me? Read the article here.  Meanwhile, I feel like I must *sigh*. Surely, we have hit a new low in the list of Things to Get Offended About. 

Now, before we go any farther, I’ll  just stop right here and say that yes, I realize that her article is actually about more than tiny houses, and that yes, she does have a point – sort of. I also want to say that in absolutely no way  am I diminishing the experiences of those who live in poverty.  Poverty in today’s day and age is unacceptable, and something that I think we should be doing more to work towards ending, especially poverty caused by systemic oppression.

That said – while the author may have had a point, she lost credibility when she completely misinterpreted what cultural appropriation is by accusing things of being appropriation, when they really aren’t; when she decided to belittle people for their personal lifestyle choices, just because essentially, she’s upset that they have a choice.

So, to start with, to appropriate something means to take something that doesn’t belong to you. Cultural appropriation in it’s most stripped down version is when someone adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own. But it’s actually not that cut and dried, because we live in a culturally diverse country.

In Canada and the United States, our population is made up of hundreds of different ethnicities.  Save for the Native Americans, we all immigrated from other cultures and countries. We became a cultural melting pot, and when that happens, you will naturally have happen what is called cultural exchange – all the various dialects, customs, skills, and religious traditions rub off on each other.  This happens as a result of natural sharing.

The North American traditional celebrations of Halloween and Christmas are excellent examples of this – how we celebrate these holidays today, is really just a mix of centuries old traditions that were brought overseas by immigrants of different countries. We all eat corn today thanks to the Native Americans. We have our current English language thanks to the Anglo-Saxons, Germans, French, Greeks and so forth. We drink coffee today thanks to Ethiopians. The list goes on and on…

Cultural appropriation on the other hand has it’s roots in exploitation. Instead of merely exchanging information, sharing knowledge for survival, picking up on sayings or dialects just through general exposure, eating something because it was shared with you and you enjoy it, cultural appropriation is taking something for the purpose of gain, which isn’t always financial. An example would be white people using “black slang” (more appropriately known as African American Vernacular English) phrases and sayings that they have no knowledge and understanding of, just to sound “cool”.

But really, we need to take it even a step further, and to do so I’ll share a good description of cultural appropriation, which I found online: “Cultural appropriation refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of  a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systemically oppressed by that dominant group.”

So basically, cultural appropriation happens when those in power use a minority culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols etc…  for the purpose of personal gain, or in a way that misrepresents the culture in such a way that perpetuates negative stereotypes about that culture. An example would be Katy Perry dressing as a geisha during the 2013 American Music Awards.

So, with that, let’s go back and take a look at the article in question, and it’s claims of appropriation:

  1. The Tiny House MovementFor starters, the author didn’t even get her facts straight – while the latest movement started in the 90’s, tiny houses have been a thing off and on for many decades, well before the most recent movement began. But regardless, in no way, shape or form, is this poverty appropriation. Again, the definition of appropriation is to steal something from a typically oppressed culture for personal gain at the expense of said culture, or in a way that perpetuates negative stereotypes.

    “Tiny Homes” are not a poverty “thing”. While yes, when it comes to poverty, there can be (it’s not inherent) a stereotypical image of a run down trailer with corrugated sides and a trailer hitch, anyone who has seen the modern tiny homes, with their modern conveniences, lavish interiors and attractive exteriors, knows that these are in no way modeled off “trailer park” homes. In no way are these perpetuating the stereotypical poverty-stricken trailer park home image. As an aside, not everyone, or even the majority of people living in poverty live in mobiles. They can live in apartments, small homes, large homes, cars, under bridges etc…

    Secondly,  those choosing to live in tiny homes are in no way experiencing personal gain at the expense of those living in poverty. They are not exploiting anyone, in any way. They are simply making a personal choice on where they want to live, and how they want to spend their money.

    Lastly, and most importantly, those choosing to live in tiny homes come from a myriad of cultural and financial backgrounds.  This means that the power dynamic mentioned earlier, which is key in cultural appropriation, is missing.

    Those who choose to live in tiny homes due so for a wide variety of reasons, including people recovering from financial setbacks, young couples and students who want to save money, retired couples who no longer need as much space, people who want to live greener, those who recognize the current trend of having “too much” and want to simplify, or those who just like the houses themselves.

    Yes, the key here is that these people have made the choice to live in a small home, with less material possessions. No, not everyone has that choice. No, it’s not fair, but it is life.

    However, just because someone has the ability to own a larger home, yet chooses the same size home as someone living in poverty, doesn’t make them guilty of appropriation. Likewise, just because someone can afford to own more material possessions, does not mean that they are required to. If they want to choose to live simply, without multitudes of furniture, toys, books, electronics etc… that is their business. It is their own path to peace and satisfaction, and again, is not in any way cultural appropriation.

  2. “Trailer Park” themed restaurants and bars 

    Now yes, this one is cultural appropriation. Why? Because privileged people are essentially making money by mocking the circumstances of others. They are also perpetuating negative stereotypes, and yet at the same time, are also glossing over the harsh realities of the life of poverty.  It’s wrong and offensive.

  3. White people living on welfare/Food Not Bombs 

    Now, I’ll admit, I’m not actually sure if the author was trying to give this as an example of poverty appropriation, but considering she included it in her article we can assume so. Once again, she is wrong. Are these issues? Yes, for sure. But not ones of appropriation.The fact that the FNB donations were going to white people, instead of those of other races, in my opinion, was a prejudice issue.

    Now, as for her claim that white people “praise” other white people for living off the system, that’s far from reality. Are there some radical anarchists who would praise mooching off the very government they despise? Yes. And I’m sorry that was her experience. But, I want to point out that  those people are far from the majority. They are in fact the rare exception.

    Most of us “white” people criticize all people, of all color who abuse the system. Since our hard-earned tax dollars are going to pay for the system, we want to see our money go to the people who truly need it – regardless of race, creed or orientation.

  4. Poor People Food?

    Once again, this is not poverty appropriation. For starters, there is no set-in-stone, cultural food for poverty. Those living in poverty eat whatever is available. It might be pasta, it might be foraged greens, beans, rice, eggs from the chicken they own, bread etc… It will vary with whatever is available.I have family members that grew up in poverty. They ate a lot of liver because at that time it was a cheaply available meat. When my husband and I were broke and living paycheck to paycheck, barely above the poverty threshold, we lived on pasta – so. much. pasta. However, you do not hear us, nor my other family members complaining or being offended when restaurants serve liver or pasta. Why? Because there is nothing offensive about it. They are foods that millions of people across the globe enjoy.

    People of all races, from all financial backgrounds have been eating pickles, rice, beans, foraged and stewed greens, bone broth soups, bread, pasta etc… for thousands of years. In no way, is it poverty appropriation for a restaurant to serve these items. Just because someone living in poverty eats rice, does not mean that others can’t.

    Now, once again, I understand that these people have the choice to eat these foods, when other people don’t. But once again – just because someone has a choice that you don’t, doesn’t make them guilty of appropriation.

At the end of the day, aside from the Butter Bar, or whatever that place wants to call itself, there was absolutely nothing that the author talked about that even remotely fell under the definition of cultural appropriation. Sadly, her only legitimate complaint was that other people have/had choices that she didn’t. Which sucks. I get that, I really do. And I can appreciate how it can be hard for her to understand other people’s decisions when she comes from such a different background.

But therein lies the problem. Because, despite her claim that she wasn’t trying to “throw them under the bus”, the author of this article threw around some very real and serious accusations at people/situations that did not warrant them in the least. And we as a society need to stop doing that.

On one hand people today are saying we need to be more open and have discussions on the numerous issues at hand, including appropriation; and yet on the other hand, just like this author, these same people are refusing to try and understand the other points of view.  Instead, they shut down discussion by slapping powerful labels where they don’t belong – calling Christians who oppose gay marriage homophobes, calling people who have legitimate concerns on immigration policies xenophobes, calling people who choose to live in tiny homes poverty appropriationists.

You can’t have it both ways – you can’t claim to want to openly discuss issues, while shaming and erroneously name-calling those with different view points, or who make different choices than you feel they should.  When you do so, all you succeed in doing is shutting down communication and the chance for real education. And when that happens, change can not happen.