Unintentional Cultural Appropriation: The Miseducation of #NoShameDay

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What you are about to read is not what I had intended to share regarding my participation in #NoShameDay on Friday, April 17th, 2015.  I had anticipated discussing how empowering it was to share my story about growing up disabled, and not having any shame about the life I was given.  That all changed when I realized that #NoShameDay was unintentionally appropriated by someone in our community, and my excitement about my participation turned into intense anger and disappointment.

The Buzz Surrounding #NoShameDay on Tumblr

For close to a month, there was a push on Tumblr for disabled people to have an acceptance day where they shared their stories and photographs about their lives as disabled persons.  #NoShameDay was created with similar purposes as other acceptance days like the #BlackOutDay I participated in early March – afford members of a minority group the chance to be visible in a world that prevents them from connecting with those who shared similar life experiences as them.  These acceptance days are considered validating and positive; energies that can be hard to find on social media at times, but are greatly needed.

Why I Participated in #NoShameDay

I decided to participate in #NoShameDay last Friday by sharing photographs of myself over the past almost 30 years.  I created a two-part series:  the first set of photographs were of my younger years, where I wrote about my upbringing as a disabled child; the second set of photographs were from high school to present-day, where I wrote about my journey as a young disabled adult and what I had learned along the way.  I was very proud of what I shared with my followers because it gave a deeper view into who I was, and my testimony.

Stumbling Upon the Real History of #NoShameDay

The pride diminished when I came back on Tumblr a couple of hours later, and saw a post that discussed the true origins of #NoShameDay – it was started by Bassey Ikpi and the Siwe Project to reduce stigma and increase conversation concerning mental health in the Black community.  As a Black disabled advocate, I was outrage that #NoShameDay was appropriated in such a manner that stripped it from its original purpose to the core.  Cultural appropriation is a hot button topic in society, and on social media, especially when African American culture is misused and disrespected by the majority and non-Black people of color in offensive ways.  To say I was livid would be an understatement; I was ashamed to have been misled and unknowingly participated in the appropriation of an acceptance day that was established for members of the Black community.

My Response to the Cultural Appropriation of #NoShameDay

Being that I had to release the hurtful feelings that coursed through me, I knew that writing a response about the true history of #NoShameDay, and my reaction to the appropriation as a Black disabled person, were the correct release mode to take.  On the RYV! Tumblr blog Saturday morning, I published “The Miseducation of #NoShameDay” that articulated everything I felt the day before, and the valuable lessons that can be learned from this moment.  There were positive reactions to my post regarding the real history of #NoShameDay.  Mostly everyone, regardless of race or ability, understood why this was an issue that had to be addressed, and respected the opinion of a disabled Black person about the matter.  That truly made me proud as an disabled advocate, and as a person.

I must be transparent and say that I was apprehensive about sharing the post at all because I am well aware that there tends to be heavy pushback when minorities discuss how their culture had been appropriated, and I was not sure how those in the community, especially disabled non-people of color members, would react.  As a disabled Black woman, I am not disillusioned to believe that racism does not exist in our community, yet I hoped that the voices of disabled people of color like myself who recognized and unapologetically addressed racism, anti-blackness, appropriation, racial inequality, the difficulties of being disabled & of color, etc., would be heard, understood, and most importantly, valued and respected.

I wanted to share with my readers what I wrote for that particular piece so that we can see how cultural appropriation can accidentally transpire, and how we can correct such missteps so they are less likely to occur in the future:

Yesterday on Tumblr, as I peeked in to check the messages on my page, I scrolled on my dash & saw the following:

Originally #NOSHAMEDAY was started Started by Bassey Ikpi, The Siwe Project. Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian writer and mental health advocate:In memory of her teenage friend, Siwe Monsanto, is working toward providing that culturally competent care by instituting the first ever day international day of advocacy for people of color who are coping with mental illness . In 2012 The Siwe Project launched this and today noshameday is for all disabled people, whether it be physical or mental disability.

Being someone who uses Google search for more than just randomness, I decided to dig deeper into the history of #NoShameDay to see for myself if this is true.

This is excerpted from The Root, published in 2013:

Yesterday was the first day of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. For the second year in a row, people on Twitter kicked off the month by sharing stories of their own experiences with mental illness, marked with the tag #NoShameDay.

It has always been said that black people don’t go to therapy; they go to church. No Shame Day and the Siwe Project, both started by writer Bassey Ikpi, aim to eliminate that line of thinking by promoting mental-health awareness in the black community. The stigma of being mentally ill, needing help and seeking therapy often keeps people from doing so; the purpose of No Shame Day is to combat that stigma by freely sharing our stories.

Here’s my problem with everything:
For the past couple of weeks, I, & many others, thought that #NoShameDay was created by a 20-something with CP… not a Nigerian writer, & the mother of their friend who died from completed suicide.  None of us knew about #NoShameDay’s origins until the DAY OF, which is mighty suspicious when I saw almost daily reminders about participating every day this week & for several weeks beforehand… yet no mentioning of Bassey & the Siwe Project until Friday afternoon

As a disabled Black person who is always pushing for the appropriation & inclusion of disabled people, I was beyond pissed – I was white hot mad.

The Siwe Project
I’m familiar with the Siwe Project from the interview its Founder, Dionne Monsanto, the mother of Siwe, did for “Exhale on Aspire” Spring of 2014.  Hearing Ms. Monsanto’s story about her daughter’s life & death with mental illness, & how she wanted to raise awareness about why it’s dire to support those in the Black community battling mental illness touched me greatly.  Being someone who was battling my own minor depression at that time, seeing this mother advocate in remembrance of her daughter was impactful, and as a disabled Black advocate, motivated me to share my own plight with minor depression in a later post on my blog

If I had known the REAL history of #NoShameDay before the day actually arrived, I would’ve been appropriate & not have participated until July, which is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.  Though April is Minority Health Awareness Month, the original focus of #NoShameDay was on Black mental health.

Unintentional Appropriation & Miseducation
I feel as if this is a classic case of appropriation, in the worst way imaginable.  Even if it was unintentional (which I do believe), it still is offensive to have hijacked a day, & called it your own… when you were not the original founder of that observance.  Though the day was expanded to include all disabilities, the fact that it was first created to focus on Black Americans & mental health shouldn’t have been left unknown to those interested in participating.  And the original persons involved in the observance’s history should have been credited within every post about yesterday’s occurrence, to show respect to their idea.  Providing credit & recognition the DAY OF isn’t good enough, nor should be deemed “okay” because credit was finally given.

As someone who is proudly Black & disabled, & am working hard as an advocate, it really upset me that someone appropriated #NoShameDay without paying respect to the original history.  You can’t rehash someone’s idea like that, even if you’re doing it for good.  Frankly, for me, it tarnished the whole day after I learned of everything.  Though I loved reading the stories of those who did participate, I had a bittersweet taste in my mouth about my own participation.

I’m all for inclusion, acceptance, & awareness, but I’m heavily into us respecting each other, especially when it comes to crediting individuals who have created something so powerful as an awareness day like #NoShameDay.  Maybe that’s the academia part of me coming out because it has been beaten into my skull to always give credit & cite everything, no matter how small of their idea you may have used in your own work.  Plus, there are real legal ramifications for not crediting someone’s work or idea, which should always be remembered.

When minorities discuss why appropriation is a huge issue, this is what we are referring to.  It’s not about members of the majority group being unable to appreciate a culture or a significant observance; it’s acting as if YOU created a brand spanking new style, trend, habit, or way of living, & fail to recognize that what you just discovered have existed way beforehand.  (Whether it occurred accidentally or purposefully – it’s still a huge issue.)  How many of us who participated yesterday actually knew about Bassey Ikpi, or the Siwe Project?  Not many I’m sure, but we all could’ve been educated and familiarized with them both IF we had been properly informed about how #NoShameDay came to be.  (And supported the work of both Siwe Project & Bassey in some form.)  For me, this is another example of whites, this time disabled whites, not giving Blacks credit for something we had established for the betterment & well-being of those in our community, & instead, stated that it was their idea, & failed to acknowledge, or at least provide a timely update once discovered, that their idea was someone else’s.

I trusted that we as a community respected each other, & our differences that went beyond disability, but now, I’m not so sure.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not ashamed at participating yesterday because my story is a powerful testimony, but I am ashamed to have been disillusioned that appropriation couldn’t transpire in our community.  As the old saying goes, “when you know better, you do better,” & from the anger & hurt I endured yesterday, I will do better at making sure that whatever I decide to participate in online is right for me, & appropriate overall.

The truth about #NoShameDay had to be shared, & honestly, the real history of #NoShameDay is better than what we all thought it was before it was learned.

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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