Cultural Appropriation and Me

This is an issue that I have to remain constantly aware of.

It’s not a concept I was at all familiar with until after I began blogging. Luckily I have some good friends who have helped me understand what cultural appropriation is and who keep me honest if I veer into it.

I’m sure there are some who think that I should not be a part of Hindu culture. (Let’s forget “could not” because I already am doing it!) The fact is, I do come from a privileged background. I have not faced discrimination or racism or historical reviling of my culture or way of life. When I take something that belongs to someone who has, it can be seen as racism and inappropriate appropriation.

Now, I like to look at it not as taking, but as sharing. But again, I have that luxury. Someone who has been historically prejudiced against might not.

I try to remain aware of such issues and I hope that my respect for Hindu culture takes me out of the realm of appropriating another culture (See Hinduism Doesn’t Need Me). But it might not.

I don’t mean to bring offense to anyone, but sometimes my mere existence does. I am someone from a privileged culture using parts of a culture that is not.

One of the aspects of cultural appropriation is that the “borrowed” ideas, music, language, or religion are removed from their original context, losing their nuance. This is actually one of the reasons why I left SES and began identifying as a Hindu. Though it might not be an issue for many people, to me I didn’t feel comfortable removing Indian philosophy from its roots and its history. I felt that in order to respect Hinduism, it was right for me to practice it within context.

Other people believe that western Hinduism is its own thing. Perhaps it needs a different name (although, the name “hindu” itself is often not wanted, seen as being given by the oppressors; the word “sanatana dharma is often preferred). There are certainly many hippie culture organizations that strip Hindu philosophies of their Indian-ness. Those places are not for me, although some people want me to accept the idea that that is all I can ever have.

This was brought up for me again when a dear friend posted this very interesting article on the subject: Cultural appropriation: Homage or insult?

“What’s so wrong with being inspired by another culture?” Nothing, really. But “inspiration” drawn from a historically oppressed culture comes with a tangle of baggage born of generations of marginalization and bias…

It matters who is doing the appropriating. If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult…

borrowing from a historically oppressed culture is not as simple as some would want it to be. Fair or not, there are hundreds of years of meaning behind that faux African print dress, that Motown-inspired tune and the silent Harajuku posse. I haven’t even touched on the stickiness of appropriating religious items and culture.

Now, I like to tell myself that I’m fine. Because I love and respect the people and culture that Hinduism comes from. Because I know the history and context of my beliefs, both good and bad. But the truth is, none of that protects me.

None of that shields me from the perfectly valid criticism that I may very well be wrong in doing what I’m doing.

Am I “playing with” Indian-ness without having to take on any of the burden of it (as one writer accuses Miley Cyrus of doing with Black culture)? Yes, sometimes I may be. Sometimes it can’t be any other way for me. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I can take on the burden.

Most native Hindus have welcomed me with wonderful enthusiasm and kindness. A few have not. I apologize to those who are uncomfortable with me and who I am. I apologize, but I am still going to do it. I don’t know if that’s wrong, but I do know that no one will ever take Hinduism away from me. It lives in my heart.

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Happy July 4th to my fellow Americans! I am grateful to live in a land of diversity, freedom, and opportunity. I am blessed to live in a place where my eccentric exploration of culture and my place in it is allowed and can blossom. We are a very diverse land indeed and I have a post coming up next week on how others see America and Americans. This day is the anniversary of our independence as a nation. We make mistakes, but we keep on trying and tenacity like that is one of my most American qualities!

 

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • Agni Ashwin

    “Am I “playing with” Indian-ness without having to take on any of the burden of it (as one writer accuses Miley Cyrus of doing with Black culture)? Yes, sometimes I may be. Sometimes it can’t be any other way for me. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I can take on the burden.”

    How would taking on the burden of “Indian-ness” look like, in real life?

    • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea
      • Ambaa

        Exactly! Those things I can’t take. I would take those things if I could. I’m really sorry for the racism, the oppression, the glorification of light skin. I don’t want any of that to exist. But I can’t take your dark skin, I can’t take years of oppression or a history of marginalization. I’m sorry for those things, but does their existence mean that no one should love, acknowledge, enjoy, and respect the beautiful things?

        • http://hindusthan.disqus.com/ Arjun

          I am enjoy everything,at the moment I get conciousness and asking my self who Iam .I am getting stucting. the counciusness diff one.but this question will be in all mind without knowing this even cannot be happy.If one think He will be Happy without knowing this .that will be like a dream living and not real.

        • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

          I don’t think it’s exactly like that. It’s not “your ancestors enslaved me so now you can’t wear my pretty clothes.” It isn’t so much about the past rather than the present.

          Women are harassed for wearing clothing, jewelry, hairstyles that are common to their ethnicity. Women in traditional Indian dress are seen as “not assimilating” and are ignored in stores. A cheongsam is considered “exotic” and “sexy,” thereby objectifying the woman wearing it. An Afro is not considered a “professional” hairstyle. And yet if a white woman puts on any of these things, she’s seen as “bohemian,” “open-minded,” “unique,” and other positive adjectives. The same article of clothing evokes a different reaction against white skin than brown. This is an undeniable fact, and even though you personally don’t see people in this way, racism – overt and subtle – still exists in our society and we are not helping to dissipate this by claiming these things as our own, outside of any context. Context is so important. It’s not about separating people into little boxes of ethnicity and saying “you can do this but not that.” It’s about looking at the larger problem and seeing if we are helping or hurting, if we are listening or talking, if we are being presumptive or getting input before we do or wear something.

          You may not be able to take on these negative aspects of growing up as a visible minority, but you do have a part to play in making those negative things disappear from society forever.

          • Ambaa

            I do want those negative things to go away! I hope that I always am supportive of people wearing clothes, hairstyles, jewelry, etc. of their own cultures. It reminds me of reading one fo the posts of a Christian on Patheos who is a white woman with an adopted African daughter. She had a post about how whenever her daughter’s hair is natural and not in braids (even though it is often in braids and she has learned to braid it) she gets huge amounts of criticism from every black womanw ho sees them. :(

            I’m not sure what I can do to change the way people are seen when they don’t “assimilate” but I’ve always got my eyes open for opportunities to do so.

  • Sunil Kumar

    Practicing hinduism doesn’t need any recognition from anybody .Just have a deity ,do pooja and better to meditate concentrating the point in between your eye brows

    • Ambaa

      That is very true!

  • http://hindusthan.disqus.com/ Arjun

    what religion in your terms and what you are following /doing like meditation any other things

  • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

    I think it is very important to respect not just the origins of these things, but also the context. Intention is also a big part of respect. Reading history books on how jewelry was worn in ancient India and then wearing said jewelry out to the clubs so people will think you’re unique and special isn’t respectful, even if you have a lot of book-knowledge about the subject. You see this a lot with the tumblr bindi girls – “But I’m wearing it to open my chakras!” I doubt they will wear a bindi when they are taking exams in class or going on job interviews; they’ll save it for the music festivals and the trip into Brooklyn.

    I often use the “look at me” scale when trying to determine whether something is appropriative or not. Am I using this sartorial element of someone else’s culture to distinguish myself from other white people? Am I using it to further a perception of “quirky” or “different” or “honorary desi” in other people’s minds? In the setting where I plan to wear this, will it serve to help me blend in, or will I stand out as the unicorn in the room? And for this reason, I usually tend not to wear a lot of overtly South Asian things in my little college town, except for when I’m going to the temple or to Indian functions (or in the privacy of my own home and I just really want to wear a salwar suit).

    • Ambaa

      I feel really self-conscious about being looked at, if you can believe it. I wish I could wear bindi and sari without it turning into a spectacle! I wear bindi a lot less now just because it did draw so much attention and I didn’t want that. I wanted to be able to wear it just as a small and simple indicator of my religion, the way Christians wear a cross necklace. But it always got too much attention.

      I feel like I’m already quirky and “different” enough without the Hindu side to me. I struggle a lot with relating to people because I’m weird in so many different ways. Fitting in in regular society takes a lot of effort for me and sometimes I expend that energy and sometimes I don’t!

  • HARRY

    I think difference between culture appropriation and appreciation has a very fine line, which is easy to cross. The difference between two is very distinct and clear in my book.

    If you take something for spiritual purpose then it’s OK, but if it’s for material gain then the answer is NO. If you are to make profit even you need it and you depend on it, then answer is still NO, because others have suffered in that culture who has more right then you.

    I was asked about this regarding wearing a Saree and buying one, and my answer to that was simple too. If you are buying it because it’s fashion or a fad and others are doing it or it’s just extending your draws then answer is NO, But if you are a part of a culture through marriage or you attending religious ceremony then the answer is YES.

    • Ambaa

      That is an interesting test. Makes sense!

      I wear sari partly because it helps me fit in when I go to spiritual functions, but partly because they are gorgeous and make me feel beautiful and elegant in a way that nothing else does! I’m certainly not doing it because others do (When have I ever! lol) but I do sometimes wear them to feel beautiful. I am not part of the culture through marriage and I’m not always wearing them only to religious ceremonies. :-/

  • Harsh Wardhan Gunthey

    a nice reply to haters.!!!!!

  • Ambaa

    I’ve always loved that image of being a drop of water within the ocean that is God :)

  • godspeed

    I believe that Creation and Destruction of cosmos has some relationship with Hinduism. I mean it is well explained in Holy texts of Hinduism and I guess it would be more clear if we read more about lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu….

  • Guest

    In all the discussions about race, ethnicity, religions, history, and all the things that go with it and how it relates to this thing called “cultural appropriation,” a part of me wonders if such concerns should be as important as they often are. After all. don’t the scriptures say that all the apparent differentiations that we perceive are because of the power of maya, products of prakriti and the gunas? Do they not tell us that those who believe this apparent differentiations are ignorant because they confuse the Supreme Self (atman) with this body and and body? Is not atman brahman? In which case, there is no white or brown, no Hindu or non-Hindu, no India or America, no male or female, no dominant culture or subjugated culture, ect.?

    I think such worries about appropriation, while necessary for working in this material world may be necessary, but I can also see them as very harmful, especially for someone like you who might be a non-Hindu that finds great meaning in Sanatana Dharma. It could apply to other interests, too, but in this case, one might be afraid to go down this path because of these worries. They would be like Arjuna on the battlefield at Kurukshetra, seeing all of his friends, relatives and family on the opposing side, doing their part to uphold Dharma as they understand it, and despairing. Arjuna threw down his bow, said he would not fight, and sank mournfully into his chariot. He at least had Lord Krishna to shock him out of this depression and teach him that there is no slayer or slain. Not everyone in this world has a Krishna figure to do the same for them.

    I have more that I could say about cultural appropriation that I think may be insightful, but I think these paragraphs are the most eloquent way I can phrase it with the little learning and knowledge I have. I would give my encouragement to you to continue being brave and doing what you are doing because it matters to you and gives spiritual nourishment to you. At the end of the day, we must all do what we think is right because we think it is right. Sometimes we only have that as our support, and when good men and women do nothing, that is evil enough.

    Thank you for writing this blog. It is interesting and fun to read. :)

    • Ambaa

      I see what you mean. It’s true that we as Hindus are kind of living in two separate worlds at once. There is the ultimate reality in which we are all One and these differences are inconsequential. Then there’s the maya world, which we have to interact with and respect on some level. I can believe that it shouldn’t matter that my race is different from most other Hindus, but within the play it does matter and it is something to be mindful of.

    • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

      Pretty much anything can be justified on these grounds if we try hard enough. If it’s all maya anyway, why should we help the poor and feed the hungry? They aren’t really hungry on the spiritual plane, so it doesn’t matter if we help them or not. This is their fate in life, their lesson to learn. But we do see this as a wrong attitude to take toward the poor.

      Similarly, we can’t just say ‘all is maya’ when there’s an issue that hurts people and communities, and contributes to racist and unequal structures in society that we don’t want to deal with. Rajiv Malhotra calls this sort of appropriation ‘digesting’ other cultures; I see it as essentializing them into caricatures and normalizing the way we (those in power) wish to use those elements of culture. If we are committed to nonviolence, then we must see where our ‘freedom of choice’ may be essentializing, exotifying, hypersexualizing, or just plain stealing from another community without giving anything back.

      • HARRY

        @ Andrea What guest is trying to say is, that, it is all maya, but we still have to do our part like Arjuna and that becomes part of our Karma, even tho everything is nashvant and it doesn’t matter but while we are on that battle field like Arjuna we will have to fight the war.

      • Guest

        You are right that sometimes the process of appropriation can be irritating at the least and insulting at most. Of course, not everyone who’s culture has been appropriated might agree on which way to feel. Therein can lie the danger of trying to speak too broadly for any people or even an individual.

        I would also point out that cultural appropriation is not only a top-down process but works the other way as well. If one is going to practice one’s culture openly, then one cannot complain too much when others see it and try to mimic it for any of the reasons you mentioned. Humans have done this to each other since time immemorial. We have a natural tendency to be influenced by each other, import, export and reimport culturally. My opinion is that it is a slippery slope to say that it is wrong of a dominant culture to do this and then say nothing of one that is not in an equal position doing the same. I feel that it is too similar to a kind of forced segregation. Not so long ago, most Westerners looked down on Hinduism, and if one was to find a genuine interest in it, they might be ridiculed by their own for wanting to participate in savagery and primitivism. Now they might be told they are appropriating, or a tourist or something like that, and still decide this other culture is off limits. Yet there is not as much outrage if a Hindu appropriates Western culture completely or uniquely mixes it with their own. If that is not a double standard, then what is? “You drink from your fountain, and they will drink from theirs. It has always been that way and so should remain.”

        Ambaa touches on this when she talks about the reactions she has had to wearing Indian garb. If an Indian wears Western clothes, no one bats an eye at home or abroad (for the most part). If a Westerner wears Indian garb, everyone notices and not always in an approving way. How far a stretch would it be to guess that such attitudes could, in time, lead to the normalization of Western clothes globally and the exotification of ethnic garb everywhere? Such a change has slowly begun to take place, I would argue. Why dress in ethnic garb when dressing Western has become normal everywhere and greases the wheels better, even in India’s cities?

        The argument for purity of culture and context may be noble in intention, but let us also remember how it has been used for evil purposes in the past. Let us not risk making a living culture into a living museum. People when left to their own devices are going to do what they are going to do, as they have always done, and they gradually introduce change when they get new ideas. Creation is also a destructive force, but is paves the way for new life as well.


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