Inevitably, in my Internet travels, I stumble across various screeds on cultural appropriation. Inevitably, and often inadvisably, I click on them. I suppose my interest is understandable, in that I wrote an essay on the cultural appropriation of Hinduism by a certain subset of ADF Druids for Talking About the Elephant. I worked hard on the essay and am decently proud of it, even though a Celtic-Pagan author I respect lambasted it as gobbledygook. There was a value in that lesson, too: one can find value in one’s own work, even if a respected authority figure just doesn’t get it. One person, however respected by one’s self, does not determine a piece’s value with the dart of opinion. Granted, that lesson went down as easily as my experiments cooking with bitter melon, but I digress.
Book essay aside, I am starting to get rather disgruntled with the discourse on cultural appropriation. Perhaps discourse is too strong a word; the “course” portion of the word denotes a conversational flow back and forth, and in actuality the conversation seems to flow in one way. The discussion of cultural appropriation is often not discourse or even discussion; it’s reproach. To wit, according to various blogs and screeds:
- Caucasian people with dreadlocks are stealing from black culture, and/or Rastafarians. (Never mind that there are traditions of dreadlocks in other cultures, including Asian Indian. There’s a great book on that topic which is worth reading.) Caucasian people wearing various items of clothing or accessories (bindis, saris, dashikis, kimonos, insert whatever the hell you want here) are stealing from various cultures, although non-white people who do the same apparently get a pass even if they are not from the culture of said item.
- White people practicing yoga are stealing from Indian tradition. (Never mind that postural yoga itself is around 150 years old, and the result of an amalgamation of various exercise and body-building traditions of the day — both in Europe and India. Never mind that yogis in India were traditionally considered disreputable charlatans who performed miracles for money. Never mind that the Indian teachers who brought meditation to the West in the late 1800s and early 1900s deliberately did so without using the word yoga, because it was considered disreputable. Never mind that Indian teachers and schools deliberately brought postural yoga and meditation to the West.)
- People playing various drums are stealing from various indigenous cultures, whether African (djembe), Native American (frame drum), etc. People engaged in various types of spiritual practices are stealing from various cultures, by using techniques such as smudging, drumming, trance-work, etc.
At the heart of this, I find a couple of shared sentiments: Whatever white people do is wrong. And, you should only do what your ancestors have done, in the way that they did it.
By admitting the first hidden shared sentiment, I suppose I come off as being some sort of unabashed racist and not checking my white privilege. Yes, I am — despite my incremental genetic heritage from Mali and India, outlined by our genetic-researcher friends at Ancestry.com and the actual reconstruction of my family tree — unmistakably white. I am so white that when I strip down to my bathing suit at the beach, people shield their eyes and scream “Don’t go into the light, Carol Anne!” Frankly, I don’t see this as a particular advantage, since I need to spackle myself with SPF 900 lest I develop skin cancer and swathe myself in hats and layers of clothing. I do recognize, however, that society affords me privilege and esteem based on my fish-pale skin, thanks to the atrocities of history. This seems patently unfair, but history is difficult to dump; witness conflagrations in various parts of the world. Unfortunately, pigmentation remains a marker of tribe — in-group or out-group — due to the well-attested intersection of capitalism and slavery.
I am also, admittedly, cis-gender. I’ve often bucked against the restrictions and expectations laid upon my gender, so much so that even my own parents thought I was a lesbian growing up. But I think it’s important to point out that my “gender transgressions” (being assertive, intellectual, taking up physical space) led people to question my sexuality, but not my gender identity. I’ve always found this amusing, since I’m boringly straight — something a few coworkers didn’t realize until I married a man.
So yeah, except for my religion (and possibly my gender and socioeconomic origins), I’m an oppressively milquetoast image of privilege. I can’t help the fact that I’m annoyingly pale, straight and cis. I was born that way, just as you are — no matter what constellation of identity you have.
And yes, I admit I engage in cultural appropriation. I have a closet full of salwar kameez, which I wear often. I used to wear them at work in my home state (which has a large Indian population), but not so much here in Upstate New York because I’m not sure my employers would accommodate it in the same way. I love my salwar kameez, and have a few other types of dresses — lengha, even two saris that I never wear because I lost the choli that went with it — that I break out during the rare Kwannon gig and other special occasions. I can tell you the origins of said clothes and the names of each piece — but I am not Indian.
I also practice postural yoga, which I took up on graduate school after taking a class with my mother at the local YMCA. Now, as an undergraduate I minored in religion — specifically Indian religion. I know a fair amount about Hinduism, and have attended (and participated) in puja services at mandirs as a local newspaper reporter. I have a little Hindu shrine in my house, although it’s not a main spiritual practice. Is my yoga practice a part of this? No, not really; it never has been. I practice yoga because it keeps me strong and flexible, prevents injuries from the other activities I engage in, and promotes a sense of calm and well-being (which, I must admit, running does also). I’ve also recently become an aikido student, even though I’m not Japanese.
Look at my many musical instruments, and you’ll find some from all over the world — even though I am not, and have never been, a member of those cultures.
Look at my main spiritual practice: Keltrian Druid. I am not Irish; genetically speaking, I have twice as much African and Indian heritage as Irish. I make the occasional half-ass attempt to learn gaeilge, but let’s face it, I probably never will. It’s a tough language and I have no one to practice with and check my pronunciation against. Druidry was not the religion of the bulk of my ancestors. Truth be told, most were Catholic at some point or another, and before that members of their tribal religions. However, I have not been drawn to (or, for that matter, able to locate) reconstructions of Slavic or Hungarian polytheism, and I was drawn to Keltria.
To intimate that we should only do what our ancestors have done is incredibly limiting — and a denial of the salad-bowl nature of our society. Yes, the United States is a highly imperfect country with little culture of its own (save for the various native tribes, who are really not keen on the folks who stole their land from borrowing. And I can’t say I blame them). We are an entire culture of people from elsewhere, whether deliberately as in the case of immigrants, or under force, as in the case of slavery.
But look back far enough, and our ancestors come from elsewhere, too. The Celts started out in Eastern Europe and disseminated westward, at least culture-wise; the Germanic-speaking people did the same. Interestingly, this doesn’t mean that they slaughtered and physically displaced the original populations; it’s the culture — the language, the material culture — that changed. We all come from elsewhere, as we loped our way out of the Rift Valley across the world.
Overall, our success comes not from shielded enclaves and killing off the neighbors, but from sharing ideas and practices across cultures. That’s why we ended up with our wide array of inventions and even domesticated plants. The sharing of ideas drives the engine of creation. Witness the much-maligned Mongol Empire, which created a vast, interconnected community of ideas, religions and languages — one that accomplished a great deal, and was sadly cut short by the plague. There are other examples, but I’ll just use that one for now.
Do we need to atone for the sins of the past? Yes, especially as this past continues to shape policies and rhetoric that marginalize and oppress particular communities. But sharing — and ultimately, the creation of a common culture built on such exchange — is not the enemy here. Quite the opposite, actually.
At the end of the day: Yes, I’m a white woman who wears salwar kameez, cooks Indian food, does yoga, plays musical instruments from around the world and practices Keltrian Druidry. Nope, not going to stop. Am I selfish, privileged, what-have-you? That’s in the eye of the beholder. In my eyes, it’s just who I am.