As a white male I am well aware that I am privileged
That's as may be.
Nevertheless I think that "cultural appropriation" is a relatively modern obsession: that it has become fashionable for "holier-than-thou" people in college to fuss about it; but sfaik other people are less likely to think that way (to see or preconceive it as a concern).
I suppose if you've heard of Buddhism, maybe "Buddhism" has begun to be present "your culture" too.
Also your being born into a place and time where you're able to be interested in Buddhism (not only human, but able to hear and understand Buddhist teaching) might be seen as a good thing, a fruit of good kamma. I suspect that Buddhists might feel Mudita towards your good fortune, such as it is.
I've always felt uneasy declaring myself buddhist
Yes. Well there are other ways to phrase a declaration if the situation arises; for example:
- I'm interested in Buddhism
- As you said, "I have spent nearly four years with a great interest in buddhism, reading books, texts, and listening to others talk about it"
- I find Buddhism helpful for X or Y reason
- I study or practice with this or that group, or with such and such a teacher
Some people on this site (see these topics) don't like the -ism (Buddhism) word. Buddhist as an adjective is a bit more precise, maybe paired with a noun like (Buddhist) Dharma or (Buddhist) practice etc.
I too have "felt uneasy", by the way:
- If said to someone, "I am Buddhist" or "I am a Buddhist", then would that misrepresent Buddhism ... am I a bad examplar, might I put other people off Buddhism?
- Is it even true (is that a true statement about myself)?
- Is it an view of self, a conceit, a misguided thing to say?
- Would it make other people inclined to see me (and Buddhism) as alien?
Such unease could be egocentric nonsense, but anyway, with that kind of thing in mind I have preferred to make declarations that are more concrete, kind of objectively true, sensible (tangible), justifiable: for example "I have been interested in" etc. ("I verb a noun" rather than "I am an adjective").
In a slightly analogous way I'm content to be vegetarian (i.e. to eat vegetarian food) but I'm usually less comfortable with saying so to other people ... in case people think I'm weird (I've been doing it for so long that I think it's normal, it's normal for me) or that I'm judgmental i.e. that I think that they too ought to be vegetarian (it's common but not normal in my culture, some 10% of the total population).
I don't want to be seen as "some white guy with an obsession with asian culture"
I suppose we don't have total control over how other people see us. If someone sees you as a white guy, that's their
privilege burden. :-)
Maybe how you see yourself (or attach to a view-of-self) that's more to the immediate point.
If having "an obsession with asian culture" is said to be wrong, my guess would be that's because "culture" is ephemeral and distant, and "obsession" might be harmful. Whereas instead, Dharma (as opposed to culture) is meant to be akalika (timeless or immediate) ... practical. And being harmless (causing no injury) is one of the Buddhist virtues.
I also don't want to offend those whose cultures were shaped by it
I don't see why you'd offend. To be inoffensive, don't claim to know more or to be better, "don't criticize what you can't understand", be a friend. Beware of the elements of Right Speech.
I don't remember anyone telling me I shouldn't be interested in Buddhism.
Normally if you share someone's interest they see that as a good thing.
Look at the "Dhamma gifts" available (i.e. people trying to share Dhamma), I think they're there because the donors want the gifts to be available to us.
how can I start myself on the path respectfully
One answer (or non-answer) is that there are many "dharma gates": i.e. it's up to you and your environment.
Some people choose to "Take the Triple Refuge".
You can practice with (and/or live with) a group of Buddhists, study with a teacher, study texts, find or make a good friend, do good, be generous.
I can never truly embrace it until I find the courage to be open about it
Ah yes. I don't know if that's true. :-)
If you look at, the 'fetters' which are abandoned at the first stage of enlightenment in the Theravada tradition, the question is maybe tangled up in two of these fetters: i.e. maybe "identity view" includes "I can never truly embrace it" and "declaring myself Buddhist"; and "making a declaration" might be mistaken for a "right and ritual".
And what you said about needing "courage" also isn't necessarily quite canonical: maybe what you want instead of "courage" is a "confidence" or a lack of doubt.
Or maybe it's called faith and energy.
I'm not trying to say you're wrong about courage, but if you can't seem to summon enough of it maybe it's something else (e.g. confidence and so on, right view, etc.) you could develop instead.
Or I suspect that courage and so on might be part of a Buddhist training, but maybe a Mahayana training of a sort that requires a teacher or at least a group to practice with?