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We’ve all heard the saying “cultural appropriation is not a word”, but what exactly does that mean?

In a recent interview, social justice advocate and educator Jen Richards spoke to the ABC about how we can “reclaim” the word to protect ourselves and others from “cultural genocide” and “cultural oppression”.

Ms Richards said we have to take a “very hard look” at how we use and “recruit” language and culture, and we need to understand the “whys and hows” of our actions.

“There’s a whole lot of confusion around what it is we’re doing when we speak,” Ms Richards told the ABC.

“The thing that I find very interesting is when people talk about cultural appropriation, there are no examples of actual people who’ve been impacted by it, and there are certainly no examples where someone has been able to say, ‘I’m going to use my own language, but I’m also going to make it sound like you’re speaking to me’.

So it’s really hard to see the connection.”

I think the problem is really that we’re always in a position where we are saying ‘I can use this to teach my children, I can use that to teach them, I’m going take my culture and make it my own’.

But it’s also not really clear that we have any control over the language that we use.

“We’re in a place where there’s a lot of cultural appropriation going on, and people don’t really think about how that’s happening.

So it doesn’t necessarily come out in the way that it should.”

We need to ask questions When Ms Richards spoke, she said she believed “cultural identity” should be a “permission-based” process rather than a “whitewashed” one.

“What does it mean to be culturally appropriative?” she asked.

“When you think of it, what do you think you’re appropriating?

And I think that’s a really important question because the whole thing is so subjective, so subjective to the people who are being asked.”

When you’re asking a question like, ‘Are you appropriating your culture?’ it doesn´t mean that the cultural thing has been taken away.

It just means you’re trying to find a way of speaking that’s respectful of the other people who have been impacted.

“So I think we need a way to talk about it in terms of permission and ownership and respect, and what that means, and how that should be exercised.”

She also said we need “to ask questions about our own cultural practices”.

Ms Richardson said she often asks herself “why do we have this culture in the first place?”

“When I look at how people use it, I think I have to ask myself, why am I appropriating this?

I’m not trying to change it, but am I trying to be inclusive?

And is that the intention of the language?”

Ms Richards’ “cultural politics” are part of a larger social justice movement, where “culture” is used to describe everything from “a particular cultural way of thinking”, to the “perceived or actual history of someone”, to “cultural capital” or “cultural power”.

“In the past, when I started out as an activist, we used to be the most liberal people in the world, so when we were asked about ‘political correctness’ and ‘cultural imperialism’ it was a very strange and difficult time,” Ms Richardson told the broadcaster.

“Now we are not really the same, but we’re certainly still in the same boat.”

The Conversation has spoken to many people across Australia who have experienced racism and cultural appropriation in their own community.

This is a transcript of their conversation.

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