In responding to a celebrity tweet, Wheaton senior Rana LaPine ’16 started a social media conversation about cultural appropriation.
Wheaton senior Rana LaPine’s gentle schooling of a celebrity on Twitter over the weekend landed her an interview with a pop culture blog—and some mixed attention on social media—and gave her the opportunity to talk about an issue that’s very important to her.
LaPine ’16, an international relations major from Clinton, Mass., was on Twitter Saturday night when she saw a seemingly harmless tweet posted by actor Kerry Washington, whom LaPine follows:
LaPine said she was frustrated at seeing the term “spirit animal” misused yet again and was especially disappointed by Washington’s tweet because of the actor’s history of advocating for marginalized communities. She responded immediately:
As a member of the Kanien'keha:ka, or Mohawk tribe, LaPine felt she had to speak out on the “extremely limited representation of my people and culture” and the thoughtless use of co-opted Native American phrases such as pow wow, totem pole and rain dance.
“Most people who say these things have no idea that they stem from important religious and cultural backgrounds, never mind the brutal history of political and violent oppression of expressing these beliefs,” LaPine said.
Shortly following LaPine's tweet, and others echoing her concerns, Washington apologized on Twitter:
LaPine said she was impressed by the actor’s response.
“She did the perfect thing in that situation. Her recognition of the problematic nature of ‘spirit animal’ made me happy because she was using her platform to educate,” she said.
Rana LaPine '16
Despite the quick resolution on the issue, LaPine was surprised by the amount of anger her tweet raised, particularly among some of Washington’s more passionate fans.
“As happens to anyone who publicly voices their opinion, I found my Twitter filled with violent threats, insults and dismissive responses from her fans,” LaPine said. “However, I also had a handful of people who asked for clarification or agreed with me, and the positive effect of educating those individuals far outweighs the negative responses.”
She also was contacted via direct message by a blogger on the pop culture website whatsthecelebritea.com. The blogger, Franco Borbon, said he was intrigued by the topic and wanted to talk to the person whose tweet led Washington to apologize.
LaPine explained the issue to Borbon: “For those of us that do have something like a spirit animal, they’re holy, and they are beings which guide you through life. Some tribes have spirit animals that are individual animals which appear when needed, for others they’re one species of animal with which the individual has a bond.”
She continued: “Most people don’t realize that traditional Native religions were banned until 1978, meaning that we could not speak publicly on these sorts of issues until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed. As a result there are rampant misunderstandings and misrepresentations of our indigenous religions, which is why we speak out about them.”
LaPine, who was thanked in Borbon's piece for her “stellar cooperation,” said she is grateful for the conversation.
“I never anticipated that my simple tweet would create a conversation on the appropriation of the phrase, and I am appreciative that so many people have learned why using the term ‘spirit animal’ is problematic,” she said.
In sharing the blog post with members of Wheaton’s Council on Inclusion and Diversity, psychology professor Peony Fhagen said the article was important on several levels.
“First, it highlights the importance of speaking up (or tweeting back) when you see, read, or hear something culturally inappropriate," Fhagen said. "Second, it highlights how to respond in a sensitive and culturally competent way when your cultural inappropriateness has been called out by someone else."