Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been meaning to post on this subject for some time, but haven’t been able to find the right words.  I am not sure it’s something that I have any definite answer for so I hope it generates some discussion.  Some people say it’s just something made up by the left, like privilege.  I find such people who say things like that are the most guilty of cultural ignorance and what privilege actually means.  However one of the ways the topic seems to continue to come up is in terms of things like dreadlocks, or Halloween costumes.  Most of the times the topic comes up these don’t seem like really clear cases of cultural appropriation, but I try to listen and think about it more deeply because it is important.  Most recently I was listening to a podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis who is a physician and sociologist who, along with his wife, was at the center of a cultural appropriation issue at Yale.  I’ll get back to him in a second.

As someone who is half Indian (not native, but from India Indian) my life experience has been very different when it comes to cultural emulation.  Indians generally see it as a form of flattery.  Whether we have been visiting their country or whether in Canada.  There is a real sense in the community that we are valued when white Canadians want to eat our food, dance our dances, or dress in our clothing.  Growing up there was nothing more exciting than seeing a white person who could eat a spicy curry and then get up in Indian garb a kick ass on the dance floor doing the bhangra.  My dad was always someone who wanted to learn about other cultures.  We would often go out for dinner to different ethnic restaurants and he would order foods he’d never tried and he would always ask the waiter or waitress what the usual way the food was eating.  He wanted to use chopsticks or fingers where applicable.  For my dad experiencing the culture wasn’t just trying the food but eating it in a way they did.  For my dad, part of understanding culture was living it as much as you could, even if it was only in small ways.  The warmth he received by people of those other cultures for his honest interest and attempts to do as they did always inspired me to have the same attitude in my life.

A recent cultural appropriation incident in the NBA. Lin wears dreads.
A gracious response from Lin. Noting Martin has Mandarin characters as a tattoo.

I have noticed in my time in the U.S. the sentiment being different and it has become more heated in recent years.  Now of course it should make perfect sense.  Some readers might already be saying, well the history of Indians in Canada is different than African-Americans in the U.S.  There is no doubt about it.  Cultural appropriation is a real thing and I think Nicholas Christakis did a good job of defining it in the podcast.

“The notion of cultural appropriation, the kernel of the idea there, is that some communities of people are so denigrated that not only are they killed and wiped out, but all of their ideas and culture is stolen from them, they are effaced and that all that’s left is a kind of caricature of who they are and there is some truth to that …it’s like adding insult to injury…[like] not only do I engage in genocide,  but I take all your ideas and your culture as well and don’t even credit you and who am I to do that?”

There is no question that this has been done to native peoples in North America, and that this has been done to African-Americans here in the U.S.  Anybody who doubts the existence of cultural appropriation is blind to some real history.  However, if we are interested in making the world a better place, we still have to answer the question about the best way to move forward.  When I see someone genuinely interested in my culture to the point of wanting to emulate it, I don’t see a thief, I see an ally.  They might not be able to experience the lived experience of being someone of my race, but I see someone willing to defend my rightful place as an equal human in society.  Christakis that things have maybe gone too far:

“…now, the whole history of ideas, culture, art, and music is endless theft.  [because really] it’s endless modification, and transformation and exchange of ideas and of thought and musical and artistic forms and so forth”

I find myself agreeing here.  I mean we could get really ridiculous if we wanted to.  Someone could refer to African-Americans behaving badly as thugs, and this is offensive, because we know what the common usage of that word means, but then if I yelled out…”No that’s not offensive to black people, that’s offensive to me because the word is of Hindu origin and your appropriating my culture!”  As Christakis says to trace back practices and ideas back to one particular culture is tricky business indeed.  Culture has been stolen before, it’s been given, it’s been modified, it’s been incorporated, it’s been fused.  It’s complicated.  How do we right all of the wrongs and still move past it?  I guess we are struggling to answer that question as humans.

As I go back to my personal experience I think what matters most is that attitude you have towards another person’s culture.  If I’ve been discriminated against, which is a painful experience, I certainly don’t want others to experience it, but I want them to understand it.  At the same time I don’t want the best things about my culture to remain hidden, when I can share them.  If people are truly interested in my culture, think it’s beautiful, neat, cool, awesome, fascinating, that to me is when humans come together.  The fact that you might not be able to experience the worst of what I face, doesn’t mean, if you’re interested, that you can’t experience the best of my culture.  At least that’s my attitude.

But it’s true that there are some extremely marginalized groups in this country, and I can’t claim to know what that feels like.  I can understand the source of that frustration given the history, and the fact that we live in a country where many don’t admit there are racial problems, where history is white-washed and there is a lot of glossing over the atrocities in which this country was founded.  There are reasons to be angry, but I still hope there is a path forward.  I still hope there is way to make sure people understand the history and the wrongs that have been done, while still having the wisdom to include those who truly enjoy what your culture has to offer.  I agree that people’s cultures aren’t costumes for Halloween, these are things people of those cultures wear everyday, and so appreciating cultures is also something you do everyday.  I think there are lots of people out there like that and I think it’s something to embrace.

Please share your thoughts, I don’t profess any scholarly knowledge here, and would enjoy hearing other voices on this matter.

*Note:  If you’re interested in learning more about the incident at Yale beyond the article I linked, I encourage to read the e-mail that started it all by Erika Christakis which I thought was a thoughtful one.  You can then watch the YouTube video where Nicholas Christakis is surrounded on campus.  I challenge you to watch the whole video.  I couldn’t stomach the whole thing. He handled the situation as heroically as possible.  Also here is the podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis.  The first hour relates to the incident.

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34 thoughts on “Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

  1. As a white person, I feel like I’m literally the least qualified person to speak on this topic. But for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.

    I think in this situation, both viewpoints can be valid. If you’re community feels like the only thing it has left is its culture, and you feel like someone is stealing it, I think that’s a perfectly valid way to look at it.

    On the other hand, if you’re of the “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” mindset, more power to you.

    I think it’s inevitable that the lines between culture blur together at the edges in the modern world. There are so many people who move to other countries (so many people in general), tv and internet opens whole new worlds for people–it seem impossible to keep culture contained neatly in separate little boxes.

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  2. Hi Swarn,

    This is a really interesting topic–both in general and for me personally–and I did watch the entire video. I was truly saddened by it to be honest. I don’t think I understand all of the context in which the video occurred–meaning that I don’t pretend to understand the culture at Yale University, or the social and cultural environment of the dorms–but for me it is hard to see such intelligent persons sail past one another. At one point I felt Mr. Christakis missed the opportunity to let his intellectual positions, which weren’t necessarily wrong, take a momentary backseat to his heart, but on the other he appeared to be surrounded by a mob. The mob aside, I felt at some point it’s okay to say I see that you are suffering, and what is most important to me is for you to know I care, I’m concerned, and you matter. Tough to do under the pressure he was under, but I thought at one point or two the door was open and he didn’t walk through it. On the other hand, the take offense and give no quarter approach from the students–in particular the you don’t know us and you can’t know us mentality that came through from time to time–was really, really hard to swallow. I guess what is most astounding is the lack of overall context here: this is on the campus of an Ivy League university, perhaps one of the most privileged positions a young person of college age could be, and at some level I just don’t get it.

    The world is far from perfect, but my opinion is that things work best when we treat each other with respect, even when we’re different–even when you don’t like my views and I don’t like yours. That was clearly lost here along the way somewhere. At some level if you want freedom you have to allow it, and to take offense over how people dress on Halloween seems like a an easy wish to grant. In some cases the costumes may truly be perjorative and I wouldn’t advocate for that. But of course the world offers many things and forms of expression for us to take offense with all the time. It may even be interesting for a person to dress like the member of another culture to see what that feels like, to encounter their own difficulties with even doing so, to stretch their own skin and thinking and feeling a bit, and Halloween doesn’t seem the worst time to do it…? Probably better than a random day when everyone else is in their normal boxes and roles…? I suspect it could be done respectfully, artfully even, and that if people took offense it would reveal where it is hard for two people to see past color and culture in a more meaningful way.

    If we can’t put on another’s life from time to time, how can we better understand them? It’s interesting to me because of the two stories I’ve had published, one was written from the perspective of a young woman, and the other had an African American narrator. Is that okay? I hope so. Halloween is probably another thing altogether, but the insistence that what is different between us is more meaningful than what is common is only a reinforcement of the difficulty. I didn’t think the students had a lot of willingness to consider this, or at least some of them did not. I can understand feeling upset that a person of authority would argue it’s okay for someone to dress and/or behave in a way you find demeaning, but that of course is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. True freedom requires as much accountability on the part of the beholder as the beholden.

    Great discussion starter here, Swarn!
    Michael

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    1. Hi Michael. Thank you for reading and your well thought out comments. I added a link at the bottom to the podcast interview. The first hour talks about the incident in more detail and gives you a bit more context.

      I would certainly agree that from a distance one wonders if there were better ways to handle it. I also think there are a couple of worse ways to handle it as well. I think it would be hard to have remained so calm in that situation for as long as he did. As he mentions in the podcast he did feel a genuine responsibility to go out and listen and talk to them. Once he was surrounded he said that his main goal was to not allow the mob to de-individuate as he says that’s how mobs can turn violent is when they all just feel part of the crowd. So he is trying to address people individually. This becomes hard when everybody is trying to talk to you, criticism every response, facial expression, and interrupting. It just didn’t seem like there was an easy win there for him. What seems especially unfortunate about the situation is that his wife’s e-mail had really nothing to do with cultural appropriation but rather ceding control as adults to a higher authority about what to wear. I think it would be very hard for me to have patience in that situation to take that ire over something that is a pure strawman. That’s just me. The fact that he was able to be patient with him speaks volumes. Real racists don’t act like that at all.

      I agree with you about delving into other characters, cultures, genders, etc. I wrote a short piece from the perspective of a smoker and felt very proud of the compliments I got being someone who has never smoked cigarettes before. I think that this effort of exploration must be fostered. I know there is a lot of talk about having only actors with a disability playing roles with that disability. Now I’m not saying that the authenticity that such an actor might bring to the role has value, but I also think there is value in another actor, doing the research trying to understand and also demonstrating the strength of his craft in playing somebody that’s not really him or her at all. It’s part of art to explore themes and roles that are foreign to you.

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  3. Another non-controversial topic, I see!

    I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules here. You have various subcultures within a larger national culture, each with its own immigrant/colonial and ancestral histories and each with its own ideas of what’s sacred and what’s just generally in poor taste. From a practical point of view, if you can get away with it, it’s not cultural appropriation, if you lose your job, it is, and if you don’t care, then it doesn’t matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I assume you are being glib? lol

      I do think there are reasonable metrics we can use to at least have productive dialogue and at least identify clear cases vs. muddy or false cases of cultural appropriation. If we can agree what cultural appropriation is, then that gives us a starting to point to see what matches the criteria. And cultural appropriation does have scholarly work that defines and discusses it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As you know, I have a difficult time saying anything without some amount of sarcasm, but I wasn’t being glib. Here are the problems I see with the issue surrounding cultural appropriation:

        culture adjudicates culture, not scholars writing papers (hence my previous glib comments), that’s not to say the work isn’t valuable, just not an authority on what is or isn’t cultural appropriation cultural appropriation in the wording connotes theft, so off to a bad start in a country with multiple ethnicities, don’t we want cultural appropriation? (fusion cuisine being the exception) cultural appropriation is always within a context, so a white girl who braids her hair a certain way is guilty of cultural appropriation because her ancestors (or contemporaries) did some bad things to a group of people (i.e. she’s adding insult to injury), but maybe an Indian girl who also braids her hair that way is okay, because although her ancestors also did some bad things to a group of people, it wasn’t the group of people from whom she borrowed the hairstyle (solidarity, sister), so the whole issue is highly subjective and contextual

        I think a more important discussion is how to respect and honour people, especially those who are different from you. If a discussion about cultural appropriation leads there, then I’m all for it, but I think overall that cultural appropriation is a distraction from a more pressing issue.

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        1. Sure this is what it boils down to respect. But I disagree with the notion that we can’t identify the harm that practices in general cause beyond one individual’s hurt feelings. I think we can see clear cases of cultural appropriation and no so clear cases. There are certain matters that are less subjective and more objective. There is a difference in parading around as a native Indian caricature on Halloween than creating native inspired art after spending some time on a navajo reservation. I certainly think we should be listening to groups that feel like their culture is being appropriated because usually that is more spot on, than when someone from outside of the group feel like they are defending the actually impacted group, even if that group doesn’t feel the same way. I would say that cultural appropriation varies certainly from country to country and is subjective by that country’s history, but while in the U.S. an Indian woman who just as ignorantly decides to do cornrows is just as bad as a white person. Because as you say it’s about acknowledgment and respect of where these themes come from.

          I honestly don’t think it’s that hard to determine when someone’s culture is being stolen for profit, or when some group of people is being reduced to a caricature. These are observable phenomena. I would suggest we don’t just assume everybody is guilty of it without learning more about them before deciding.

          I have read several articles on the subject and sometimes it’s not upsetting so much that an individual themselves has used cornrows, but that a black person might be criticized for such a hair style while a white person is considered noveau, or chic, or bold. So an aspect of cultural appropriation is the different standards we place on different groups. When the culture who identifies with a certain practice isn’t being respected, while different groups who adopt that culture (whether out of respect or not) are being praised, I think there is good reason to be offended in such cases.

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          1. I agree with your sentiment in general and also that it’s not difficult to know when you are disrespecting someone or their culture.

            Here’s my question for you: Is this wishful thinking or can you propose something so that people will be more considerate?

            Also, what do you mean by stealing someone’s culture for profit?

            Liked by 1 person

            1. What do you mean by “is this wishful thinking”? I am not proposing any legislation here, or telling anybody what to do, just sharing some thoughts about how I grew up and why I generally had the impression that someone from another culture embracing yours to the point of imitations was seen as a good thing, and that things seem to be different. I am also suggesting that people simply be more thoughtful when it comes to appropriating someone’s culture and don’t just make it superficial but get to know the culture on a deeper level.

              There are plenty of examples of people profiting of other people’s culture. Fashion and design is a good example for many types of cultural appropriation. I mean even the making of Indian costumes is an example.

              Although complicated blues music at least in part was taken from black culture and many white blues artists never credited black people. Now the harmonica comes from Europe so there is a mixture of origins there, but certainly the role black culture played was edited out and many blues artists benefited.

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            2. I am not proposing any legislation…

              I think I misread your intent slightly, so I apologize for that. I like to skip ahead to the “what do you want to do about it” part and I think you like to spend more time on the philosophical side of things, so we don’t always connect.

              There are plenty of examples of people profiting of other people’s culture.

              What’s wrong with that? I don’t think you can steal someone else’s culture.

              …blues music, at least in part, was taken from black culture and many white blues artists never credited black people.

              When bands like Led Zeppelin copied others’ songs without crediting the original songwriters, they were sued, and rightly so (although they still got away with probably more than they should have). But I don’t think they should be obligated to credit their influences.

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            3. Well there is a difference in being influenced first of all and taking songs directly. There were white people in the music industry making money by singing songs that came from black people. But blues was kind of more of an oral tradition and black people had little standing in courts, so there wasn’t much they could do. But again it’s the context of the appropriation that’s matter. Here you are in a society that oppresses you that has enslaved you or committed genocide against you. You are not equal to the white person, you are to be separated in society by being put on reservations, by drinking from different water fountains and going to different schools. But many we like your music, we like your designs, we like your art, and we are going to reproduce that art and make lots of money from it and not even acknowledge your contribution to it. How is that not an overt act of racism?

              As another commenter said here, there are plenty of examples where the things that black people do, or the cultural identity that black people have, have been denigrated openly, while when a white person does it they are praised. That’s a problem. This is at the heart of what cultural appropriation is. It’s one race treating others as if they are less than equal, while still using parts of their culture to your own benefit and representing it as if it was your own.

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  4. Hey Swarn,

    “There is no question that this has been done to native peoples in North America, and that this has been done to African-Americans here in the U.S.”

    I think that there is a question as to what specifically has been done that counts as appropriation. Part of the problem I saw in the video was that there wasn’t full agreement on what it was. Specific instances of appropriation would be helpful to the overall dialogue. If people can’t tell that something is appropriation when they see it, then they might become frustrated if they’re held accountable for it.

    As to the greater point of dialogue on campuses, something which needs to bear out is that we might be running into problems with older models of discourse. Gone are the days when people can tell others that if they don’t like an idea, they must bear it in silence. Also gone are the days when protesting in numbers is an effective way of showing displeasure. There needs to be a healthier outlet for people to voice ideas (even if it’s making sure all heated discussions are accompanied by cookies; I’ve yet to meet anyone who gets violent with a cookie in hand).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you SB. Always wonderful when you stop by!

      I think that there is a question as to what specifically has been done that counts as appropriation. Part of the problem I saw in the video was that there wasn’t full agreement on what it was. Specific instances of appropriation would be helpful to the overall dialogue. If people can’t tell that something is appropriation when they see it, then they might become frustrated if they’re held accountable for it.

      Fair point. I added in some links yesterdays to give some examples. As I have mentioned to others I wanted to try to focus on the exclusion/inclusion dynamic and what’s tripping us up about cultural appropriation than spend a lot of time on examples, but throwing some links in would have been a good idea!!

      Yeah I’ve been reading and listening a lot to people looking at the change of culture on campus. There seems to be still a lot of mystery as to what’s going on, and why things are changing in terms of the nature of discourse at universities. A university should be a place where people are open to reasons. This should be the place where we all know we have the best chance of changing somebody’s mind through conversation. To me it seems a privilege we don’t have in many other settings in our lives. Although I guess my experience as a professors is that administrators often do things for no reason at all, so I’m not going to pretend that everybody on campus is some deep thinker open to suggestions and views from other people! Honestly I feel part of it is this business model that has been transplanted onto education. I think it distracts from what university is really supposed to be about.

      But I agree with you that things are changing perhaps, but I also do think there is healthy discourse going on to. What we need perhaps more than anything is an objective media that isn’t trying to sell the division, but promote the conversation.

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  5. I am an archer and I have always found it cringe worthy when archers dressed up as Robin Hood or as Native Americans. Over time this practice has faded into obscurity, so maybe we are making progress.

    There is a “rule” in economics that says “the only thing worse than being exploited economically … is not being exploited economically.” There is a certain truth at the core of this. So, when people talk about cultural appropriation, they are actually in the process of observing markers of another culture encroaching upon ours (which makes that culture part of ours and members of both cultures easier to get along).

    For example, if you go into an “American” restaurant (one not specializing in a kind of food, like Indian, or Thai, etc.) you will find menu items, such as spaghetti and meatballs, clearly of foreign origin. If you look at Jewish cuisine in the US (Jewish deli food, Jewish restaurant food, etc.) it is a veritable cook’s tour of other countries comestibles as it has nothing to do with Palestinian (aka Jewish homeland) cuisine. Those recipes were picked up in Russia, Germany, Poland, and many other countries that Jews congregated in because they were pushed out of other places. So, if one highjacks a Jewish comfort food recipe, is that cultural appropriation when they highjacked it first?

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    1. Thank you Steve for your comments. I like this perspective of at least cultural appropriation being a marker that you are being noticed at all. Because at least at some subliminal level you must find some value in that culture to incorporate any of it at all. Although sometimes it can be done in a mocking way, which might actually be worse than not noticing it.

      Yeah the chain of possible hijacking is certainly endless if we let it. I think, and of course, I know you would agree, the context is important. When a black person feels that someone is appropriating their culture I think the first response shouldn’t be a denial and facts about the history, but rather maybe the first stop is to ask why somebody feels that way and go from there. I think sometimes feelings of cultural appropriation are just the window into a deeper conversation that needs to be had and isn’t being had.

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      1. I think you are spot on. Too often in our “conversations” that occur on Twitter, email, Instagram, etc. we follow a Ready, Fire, Aim! procedure. We also assume a great deal in the way of someone’s motives. (I am as guilty of this as many.) Maybe we ought to keep the safety on our guns “on” rather than blaze away with live ammunition at the start. There will be time for that if it is appropriate.

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  6. Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev inside the International Space Station orbiting Earth said while looking down at our home planet,

    …from space you do not see any borders… you feel yourself part of humankind, not just man from one country or one city.

    I really do like that perspective, that mentality about each other, and that as E.O. Wilson also explained, “Exclusion makes us suffer, inclusion makes us thrive.” All 7.5+ billion of us Earthlings are cousins; we are the human family. Genetically no one can deny that hardcore fact. We do offer each other exchanges of valuable, real ideas, thoughts, new lenses, and broader wiser learning toward progress and at the very least survival in this wonderful daunting Cosmos on this pale blue dot of a planet!

    Great post Swarn! 🙂 ❤

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    1. Thank you Professor! See my response to Bela below! lol Your excellent quote speaks to the oneness of humanity that she spoke of. Yeah I tried, perhaps too speedily to focus on a path forward over perhaps a detailed analysis of cultural appropriation itself. I think as with many things, without a decent dose of empathy moving forward becomes difficult. And like in our personal relationships, all we want is that when people have wronged us for them to be genuinely sorry for the harm they caused. It goes a long way to opening arms and moving forward.

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      1. Yes Swarn, I completely agree! Your approach here was fine because the dialogue NEEDS to happen, perhaps with that “decent dose of empathy,” yes, but what you have delved into needs to be discussed openly too! I guess you might say I addressed (lightly) the ‘forest’ and you covered some critical trees — but it all was required! 🙂 ❤

        I'll read Bela's and your comment now.

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  7. Hi Swarn,
    I have similar thoughts on cultural appropriation as well. And unfortunately I think the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation is a very thin line. Speaking from experiences as a Black American women I have no problem with white women wearing cornrows, braids, etc because at the end of the day they are just hairstyles. But the problem comes when it’s praised on them but criticized on black women. Take the incident with Miley Cyrus’s dreadlocks, she was being innovative while Zendaya with dreads was called dirty. There’s thousands of examples of black culture being appropriated from slang to music, to clothing.

    It’s good for people to explore different cultures if it’s what interests them but you shouldn’t try on cultures as if it’s a costume that you can take off and on whenever you want. Marginalized people are marginalized for a reason, and if a person can’t take the time to figure out why, then they don’t deserve to participate within the culture to any extent.

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    1. Thank you so much for joining in the conversation. I was hoping to hear from some people with more direct experience on the matter. The point you raise is an excellent one, and one that I failed to bring out in this piece, that sometimes what cultural appropriation reveals is that marginalization and racism in a society. So yes when a people of a particular race are viewed negatively for their cultural identity while when people not of that culture are praised for adopting those cultural practices that can certainly be offensive. Even if the person gives credit, I can imagine the frustration at the polar opposite in reaction.

      Marginalized people are marginalized for a reason, and if a person can’t take the time to figure out why, then they don’t deserve to participate within the culture to any extent.

      Really well said. I couldn’t agree more. I definitely think that true respect for the culture you are trying to incorporate into your own identity requires some responsibility of trying to truly understand it.

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  8. You are really probing the corridors these days 😉 I like it.

    We have lived in northern New Mexico and Hawaii, and both have more than their fair share of ‘Indian wannabes’ and ‘Hawaiian wannabes.’ It can tweak me a bit, as both cultures (broadly speaking) have been crushed by an entitled white majority. Pretending to be ‘1/8 Lakota’ so one can sell Indian made jewelry to the art shops is reprehensible, especially when one can easily visit the rez and see how Indians live with poverty, addictions and insufficiencies of all sorts. “I” have not done this to them, this is clear. But I would never try and ‘be’ one of these native people simply to be cool. Same with Hawaiians. I respect other cultures for the beauty of diversity they exemplify. Nothing is what it seems – it’s good to remember this. We are all One People – it’s also good to remember this as well. All human with certain human foibles and qualities.

    Beyond this sort of personal experience, I can only nick the tip of the iceburg. I think many white Americans lack cultural identification – there has been so much dilution (and that is not a bad thing, in my opinion). So instead of exploring their own roots, it might seem easier to appropriate another’s. Maybe there is something to be learned. Yet if one is offending another in any realm, not only this one (cultural appropriation), it might bear self examination. If it’s rebellion against parental norms, then you know that. If it’s a desire to be someone other than who you are, well then, you know that. If you lie out in the sun trying to get tan like that beautiful eastern Indian woman and yet consider her somehow less than you are because of her race, another bit of self knowledge. If you like her country’s food, good for you! It’s a far sight better for your digestion than American fast food!

    All of life is a teacher if we are only attentive. Aloha, Swarn.

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    1. As always thank you for your well thought out comments Bela. I think that it’s hard to real be another culture without really immersing yourself in it and really living insofar as that is possible…it may never be completely possible. But I certainly want to live in a world that the beauty of another culture could inspire us to immerse in it. If you have white skin and are trying to immerse yourself into black culture there is of course a particular penalty you will never have to pay, because the surface look to you will always give you an advantage over someone with dark skin, but the problem of why racism exists is perhaps separate from your own individual and genuine desire to understand and immerse yourself in a culture you find beautiful. The recognition that other cultures have different ways of thinking, different views, different lived experiences is important and amazing to me, and in a lot of ways it makes sense to want to experience that as a way of broadening your own mind and experiences. But as I said in my response to MilaJ, there is definitely a responsibility there that must be met I think, which is to not superficially understand what you find beautiful, but to at least attempt to understand on a deeper level. It requires really listening to the people of that culture. I think that’s really the problem for marginalized groups. It feels like mostly theft and not enough listening.

      I also agree that there is something about not really having a well defined culture of your own and thus looking to other cultures that are distinct as a way of filling in the gaps. Honestly I’m not much of a traditionalist. I’m pretty much willing to make it up as we go along. Things change, and I like to just be more fluid if I can.

      The feeling of oneness with humanity should not have us barring the way between others who want to experience our culture, at the same time the oneness should mean that we are much more deeply respectful of the experiences and story of other cultures as well. There seems to be too much asymmetry here in cases where racism is present.

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      1. Swarn & Bela, excellent thoughts, ideas, and perceptions! You two have it figured out very well, recognizing what EVERYONE can bring to another as a member of the human family, BUT still maintaining each of our own identities and experiences — all of which have unique lasting value! 🙂

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  9. I find the idea of cultural appropriation problematic. Highly problematic. Is it not in essence the rewriting of racist theory? The kind that links behaviours/practices/customs to ethnic or socio-cultural groups.
    My parents have different nationalities, my grandparents were born in three different countries, so I just don’t see culture as if it’s some sort of static piece of property.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I understand your uncomfortability with the idea. This is part of my reason for writing it out and sharing my perspective as somebody who is bi-racial and has grown up with multiple cultures from birth.

      What you said had me thinking about what can and can’t be owned. We have this notion in many cultures that as individuals we own the things we create. Whether it is art, whether it is a photo, or whether it is an idea. But how much of any of what we do and create possible without “others”. I could think of a new theory about quantum physics today (well not really!) and it can be bold, provable and true, but it goes without saying that such a feat would not be possible without some knowledge of what has been done before. Art is often inspired by ideas or things we see, the stories we write are often inspired by other things. To some degree there is nothing really original perhaps and everything we do a modifcation of what’s come before. Just like we are at a biological level. That being said, just like acknowledging the truth of evolution has value, acknowledging the story of where things come from is also important.

      In science when we produce original work it is always introduced by previous research whether an argument of what doesn’t make sense or what does, and then followed by the new direction we are taking it in. But if I were to write a journal article and present ideas as my own this would be plagiarism. If I tried to write a paper without demonstrating a thorough understanding of what’s already been done, I would be ignorant, likely repeating something already done or just plain going in the wrong direction. So part of the human story is knowing that history and being honest about it, and then how we integrate and adopt what we have today and move it in a different direction.

      It seems clear that there are certainly cases where a lack of honesty in the story is what’s really causing problems. Committing genocide on a group of people and then taking their craft and style in let’s say making clothing, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that this is a disrespectful if not completely dismissive and racist act. Now maybe that person is genuinely inspired and interested and has learned this craft through honest collaborative and mentoring activities. We probably shouldn’t jump the gun in our assumptions about people, but I think cultural appropriation is a genuine concern. But I agree with you that the name implies a sense of ownership on something that can’t be owned. Maybe nothing really can be owned. So perhaps the term is a bad one, but I think the spirit of the term does represent a deep problem that marginalized minorities experience.

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      1. “Committing genocide on a group of people and then taking their craft and style in let’s say making clothing, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that this is a disrespectful if not completely dismissive and racist act.”

        I agree 100% with that sentiment. But whenever I hear appropriation discussions they seem much less thought through. Earlier this year an Australian Aboriginal person was upset that Chanel was selling a very expensive pink boomerang with their logo on it. Chanel’s logo, not the Aboriginal’s. This was referred to as appropriation. And apparently disrespectful as Aborigines are poor and the Chanel stick was $2200. But do Aborigines really have a claim at throwing a stick in the air? Boomerangs have, in fact, existed in many cultures. We all, without exception, descend from someone who at some point tried to hit an animal by throwing a stick at it. Are there examples of any substantive actions of “appropriation”? Or are we talking about hippies selling turquoise jewellery in Santa Fe, Taco Bell and Eminem?

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        1. You’re right that many cases don’t seem that well thought through. One wonders if the person making the accusation understand history as well as they claim either.

          But let’s look at the example you gave. In a marketing sense, while Chanel might know that boomerangs have existed elsewhere in history but they were clearly marketing in Australia. A country for which the boomerang is much more a known symbol of that country, but will probably make more money than if they tried to market it in Poland where the oldest possible boomerang was found.

          So then we have the context of the country a place that was conquered and atrocities committed against the native peoples, selling a symbol of those people’s at an exorbitant price while many of those people still live in poverty.

          Now maybe the company as part of their marketing campaign they say, this pink boomerang with our logo is modeled after the traditions of ancient Egypt and is available for $2200. An acknowledgement of this history wherever the idea came from might be a start. But I suspect what’s at issue here is not so much the company, or that they feel something is stolen from them, it’s that they are living in a country where they don’t feel they are treated as equals, and they see a rich corporation profiting of an item they could never afford with no acknowledgment of what inspired the idea. Maybe the corporation should have said, we are taking part of our profits from this item and using it to help fund schools for aboriginal peoples. I don’t know, and I don’t know the situation in Australia as well as here in the U.S. I’m just saying that maybe cultural appropriation is in the end the wrong thing to be fighting about and is just sub feature of a larger problem.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Swarn, incredulously I read and stand dumbfounded, that we are still in the 21st century having worse conversations and horrid incidents around (different ??) cultures and skin colour.
    You are Indian decent, I am a freckled redhead whose mother was French Canadian Indian and my father a Spaniard and then adopted in a Pinked skinned family where I grew up in Europe.

    What I see is a HUMAN – with a myriad of ideas, thoughts, ways of living, dress,creativeness. And gratefully I live without a TV to watch all this abomination. Honestly, I would rather spend time watching TedTalks and all the wondrous Ideas bringing people together.

    and yet in social media, articles posted, news feeds online, RACE – White Supremacists and Trotus (trump) with his hatred of Mexicans and Muslims, or maybe anyone who does not share his orange skin (QT??) and foul mouth.

    The wonderful point you made here is: Indians feel compliments when others eat your food and wear your clothing decors. We all should be complimented when we share each others ideas and ways of life, we are expanding our views in acceptance, not viewing each other as a RACE! More of a HUMAN.
    As to Halloween, sorry, do not have children, what are they wearing these days that might cause such an uproar?
    LOL, when I was a kid, I use to play like a Horsey and nicker. I wonder if I should ask my Arabian horse if this offends him? I find all this clatter, and not just your blog, but all the mentions of race and why and this reason and that reason, becoming too much talk about the wrong road that leads to nowhere and might not exit! Are we creating an exploding volcano where it might have been loose dirt.
    Understandably we have committed heinous crimes with slavery, Chinese and Japanese interment camps. When are we going to let our horrible ignorance die? Don’t we have bigger issues to deal with these days, Sex Trafficking, Genocide, poverty, Climate devastation, people shooting innocent people at music festivals ?
    I do think all this uproar in the news (again I do not have a TV) is only agitating, instead of allowing us to focus on the continued needs in repairing – moving forward, protecting our economics – jobs – health – assisting people out of poverty studies – health assistance etc….

    if we listen to hate mongers, that is what we continue to display in conversations in our worlds. I’m taking a different road, one that repairs and augments individuals lives using our brains and able bodies.

    I like Curry also, just mild! Nice to read your words…… Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment MicheleElys. I do think there are bigger fish to fry, but I do think the issue of cultural appropriation isn’t one to just blow off in favor of other injustices. There may be some cases where it’s overblown but at the very least I think it’s still a good measure of racism of society.

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  11. Hi Swarn, what a lovely article thankyou for sharing that piece.
    I am also of Indian background and have grown up in Sydney, Australia. It’s lovely to hear that in Canada your culture was embraced and the environment seems to have been more open and accepting than it was and is over here. I think with cultural appropriation, intention and context are two primary factors that drive whether it is acceptable or not (in my mind at least). For example, for someone wishing to participate in another culture and experience it , I would not consider them culturally appropriating; as long as proper research and an understanding is there surrounding the motifs that they are adorning. And I feel that a lot of people who are socially conscious do this. However, it is problematic in my mind when someone who discriminates and criticises a culture is then using their techniques and motifs for their benefit in attempts to look “alternative” or make capitalistic gain. As a design student, I see this happen a lot; I witness people ridiculing Indian sensibility, but stealing the motifs and ancient techniques – a modern day form of colonialism.

    I know I sound a bit dramatic but that has been my experience.

    Keen to hear your thoughts. Also feel free to check out my website where we explore cultural appropriation in depth

    – the creative sensitivity project. MC

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello CS. Thank you for your kind words, but most importantly for sharing your experience and thoughts on this post.

      I certainly didn’t want to give the impression that Indians in Canada don’t face discrimination and racism, only saying that there is a lot more excitement when Indian culture becomes more popular that doesn’t seem to be the same here.

      I certainly agree that, as I say in the article, we don’t want to be reduced to caricature either. While there might be certain aspects of a particular culture that might warrant criticism when it’s done thoughtlessly, generically, and you are just stereotyping, that’s not really an honest attempt to understand either. So it’s very well said that intention and context play such a large role here, and while sometimes it might be easy to determine that quickly, I think we might be too often jumping the gun sometimes and we might also, in return, be patient to see if the person does understand the culture they are trying to adopt, and help them understand better. Some may even be willing to learn they just didn’t understand the importance of doing so beforehand.

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