Fair warning: this post poses more questions than answers.
I guess you can say that for all of my posts, but this is one I’d really like to hear your thoughts on.
I have for some time pondered the subject of cultural appropriation. A South Asian friend says it’s the result of Cultural Deprivation Syndrome.
She offered the example of a yoga center that features pictures of Hindu Gods in their studio. Some of the pictures were displayed in the bathroom, and as decoration no less. Wrong place. Wrong use. Totally disrespectful, if perhaps unintentionally so, but that’s kind of the point, right? I mean, they are using religious symbols without consideration for the religion or the people who practice it.
Idols and pictures were placed at the front of the studio, and students were asked to point their toes toward them while doing poses. Again, for Hindus, this is simply not done. Perhaps worst of all, students are encouraged to use Hindu slokas (prayers) as meditation chants.
And, mind you, they are charging money for all of this.
But there’s more. She described whites who study South Asian cultures in school who claim to know more about her culture than she does, as if South Asian cultures are objects one can purchase access to at school, rather than dynamic, living constructs created among South Asian people, based on tradition but ever evolving, and only truly meaningful in the context of community.
If you’re a person of color reading this, I bet you are running your own examples through your mind.
Whites appropriating the cultures of people of color is nothing new. Art History is rife with examples of Europeans falling into faddish fascination with Persian, Japanese, and Egyptian art. And adopting spiritual practices, especially of Asia and Native America, has been common among whites since the mid-twentieth century.
Whites get to have their cake and eat it too when they use their privilege in order to study or collect bits of the cultures of others, assigning meaning to their acquisitions that color up otherwise beige and tan realities.
I guess the down side, slight though it may be, to being the ethnic “normal” is that some whites feel they have no ethnicity or culture at all. Cultural Deprivation Syndrome, in this context, is just one of many byproducts of the political system of racism.
And it gets worse. In the recession years of the 1980s, I saw the uglier side of Cultural Deprivation Syndrome when white youth, many raised in suburban cultural wastelands, were drawn to neo-Nazism in order to create culture and give meaning to their lives. They appropriated the the working-class skinhead lifestyle and mashed it together with the philosophy of Hitler (or, in some cases, Japanese fascist Yukio Mishima) to create a subculture that gave them a sense of power and meaning in a world where they believed white skin was losing it’s value as social and economic currency.
So what’s to be done? I’ve seen diversity education programs that help whites claim their ethnic heritages. I’ve also seen these efforts go in the direction of Irish supremacy (not to pick on the Irish since I’ve seen many other variations on the theme). Folks often develop a more specific ethnic identification, but without challenging their white racial identification and privilege.
It’s a frustrating situation and one that needs to be challenged. But, I encourage compassion.
Mine comes from the recognition that I have also appropriated the cultures of others. My political beliefs were first inspired by the words of Julius Lester, Eldridge Cleaver, Che Guevara, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Audre Lorde, Ward Churchill and many others, none of whom share my ethnicity or culture. The experiences of oppression as documented by African American, Latino, and Native American people provides the basic architecture for how I understand myself, my oppression, and my privilege. Because of the intellectual legacy of people not of my ethnicity or culture, I’m sitting at my computer writing this post, and not standing on a factory line screwing widgets to widgets.
So maybe it’s the way in which we use what we appropriate; how we negotiate between who and what we are and do, and the ideas and practices we learn from others that matters. The question, maybe, ought not be “why are you stealing from me?,” but instead, “how will you use what you’ve learned? Is it just for you? Or is it for us?”