“Not About Us Without Us”

RACC’s new Art & Power conversation series kicks off with discussion of Cultural Appropriation in the Arts

by Humberto Marquez Mendez


“What is the historical and cultural framework which informs your art practice?”

This question by Anna Vo kicked off the series and set the stage for an evening of critical thinking, personal reflection, and discussion of covert racism in the arts.

What is Art & Power? Art & Power is RACC’s newest conversation series that centers and explores the experiences of artists from historically marginalized communities through themes of creative expression and power structures. As an organization invested in furthering arts equity, we are committed to the full scope of this work, to hold ourselves accountable, and to actively seek out, listen, and fully engage in dialogue with those often left out of the dominant narrative. Art & Power is rooted in this philosophy and came out of actively listening to artists of color and others who have not always felt supported by or connected to arts and cultural institutions.

Facilitated by Anna Vo, an artist with years of experience facilitating equity and trauma-informed trainings around the world, our first conversation examined cultural appropriation and how it appears in the arts. Vo led us through concepts including tokenism, fetishization, commodification, white-savior complex, corporate co-optation, and cultural exploitation. Participants collectively defined these terms, and were given time to reflect on how they have directly experienced, perpetuated, and/or observed how they appear in our communities.

So what is cultural appropriation and why is it a problem? Cultural appropriation can be defined as the use of traditional work and art forms from a culture other than your own, stripping off their original meaning, and reducing it to an “exotic” aesthetic. Consequently, appropriation leads to cultural exploitation, where the appropriator benefits from the art form without acknowledging its origins or significance, and does not share the profits or acknowledgement with the communities the art originated from. People perpetuating cultural appropriation, whether intentional or not, adopt elements of a culture, get rewarded for it, and can move on when it’s no longer convenient or interesting. Whereas for people of color, this luxury of choosing what, when, and how to embrace our cultural identity does not exist in the same way.

How can people appreciate the cultures of communities of color without perpetuating an oppressive system? “Not about us without us!” This short but powerful statement, which resonated with RACC staff, highlights the importance of talking with and listening to folks of color. Most importantly, many avenues already exist for anyone to support the work of communities of color and immigrant communities. Ori Gallery, Tender Table, My People’s Market, and IntersectFest are only a few of the many efforts led by artists of color in Portland to create platforms for and showcase their work from their experiences and identities.

We so appreciate the vulnerability and engagement that participants showed that evening for these types of challenging conversations and hope attendees continue the conversation with others. Here at RACC, in addition to holding spaces like this for our communities, staff meet to reflect on the conversations to critically think about and change our systems and practices.  As a regional arts and culture institution, this program is but one of the ways we work to hold ourselves accountable to the diverse communities that we serve.

We also know this is a process for us, and that there is a long road ahead. For artists and arts administrators on this same journey, here are some questions that we have been asking ourselves that may help you navigate this journey:

  • How are we creating safe and honest spaces for artists of color to talk/share/create directly about their own racial perspectives?
  • When artists of color highlight barriers or biases in our practice, how are we listening and responding to them? Do we begin with “I understand” or with “But I’m don’t/not…”?
  • How can we change internal and external expectations of what artists of color create in their art practice?
  • How are we addressing our individual and organizational white-savior complex? How are we building genuine relationships with historically marginalized communities and including them in our program planning?
  • How is our organization perpetuating tokenism with our staff, our board and the artists we serve?
  • What are ways we can shift from acknowledgement to action?

As we continue in holding these intentional spaces for dialogue, we hope you join us! If you would like to learn more about Art & Power or ask questions, please contact Humberto Marquez-Mendez at hmarquezmendez@racc.org.

Art & Power is RACC’s newest conversation series focused on the experiences of historically marginalized communities in the arts to engage in safe and intentional dialogue. These conversations are free and open to the public.