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!

 


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About Ambaa Choate

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.

  • Matt

    I don’t like the rigidity of labels, but to describe myself, I’m a middle-aged, white male southerner. I’m not culturally a “redneck”, but that’s what I’m surrounded by…..family and coworkers. Growing up, i always felt like a stranger in my own family. I love my family, but NEVER agreed with them on treatment of animal issues…I don’t feel that I’m better than them, just different. A while back, upon learning about the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and being fortunate enough to study them under a knowledgeable devotee, I began to recognize them as the truth. Of course, the study of these texts could take lifetimes…I’m fortunate to have patient, kind mentor at the local Hindu temple who takes time to help me study and to explain things to me. So, no one can legitimately say I’m not spiritually a Hindu. However, I’m not Hindu culturally…I’m just myself. I respect indian culture and find lots of it beautiful and interesting ….just don’t feel comfortable or feel the need to change my clothes or appearance. I attend a temple here in NCarolina, and am very respectful of the culture there and follow the protocol. I’m very happy being a Krishna devotee….it’s really not something anyone can “give permission” to do. I’m sure some people would not welcome me, but overall those at the temple are genuinely kind and helpful to me. BTW I love your blog and articles.
    Matt

    • Matt

      Once I began to learn about Hinduism, for the first time in my life, I felt “at home”, and things started to make sense for me.

      • Ambaa

        Thank you so much for sharing your story! I know exactly what you mean about feeling “at home.” :)

        I have a lot of family in North Carolina. Perhaps next time we’re in the area you can show me around your temple!

        • Matt

          I would be happy to meet you at the temple if you are ever in NC. I attend the Hindu Center in Charlotte. There are 2 more Hindu temples of different traditions, 1 in Charlotte and one just south of Charlotte in Matthews, I believe. For a southern state, the Hindu presence is impressive, because there are a couple more temples across the state.

          • Ambaa

            I never realized there was a Hindu presence in NC until I read Saffron Cross. It’s very encouraging. I’d love to live near my aunts but I’m afraid to live in the South because of how strong the Christian presence is!

          • Matt

            NC is becoming a bit better because of people moving in from other states. Unfortunately it is happening slowly. I’m shocked at the level of religious superiority complex in the south toward non-Christian religions. Often people are courteous, but “sure” you, a Hindu, are misguided and that you worship statues. Of course, too, they are certain you will go to hell if you don’t convert to their beliefs. Im also lgbt and that doesn’t put me high on their list either…..

          • Ambaa

            Those are some big challenges to deal with!

  • Sarah

    I couldn’t even tell you how I stumbled across your blog, but I did. This post stirred up a lot of questions in my mind.

    Religious-wise, my family is mostly Christian. Slightly different flavors of Christian, but they all believe generally the same way. My own beliefs, after a lot of soul-searching and studying and learning, are more complicated. A lot of what I believe is compatible with the Hindu religion. At the same time, a lot of it is compatible with other religions. I hesitate to say that I belong to this religion or that, I can’t call myself Hindu or a Christian or a Wiccan, but all the same, different things from various religions resonate strongly with me. A lot of religions, even some of the ones that some of my beliefs would fit into, would say that this is wrong.

    Where does “spiritual ritual” end and “cultural appropriation” begin? If I wish to wear a bindi as a mark of a spiritual belief, is that good enough, or will people assume that I’m using it as a fashion accessory, because I’m neither Indian nor Hindu? What about clothing and beauty things that belongs to another culture? I find sarees ad mehndi beautiful, but I seldom actually use either because I don’t want to be seen as “playing Indian,” which I’m not trying to do. What about hair covering? I don’t cover my hair in public, only when I’m praying/worshipping/performing a ritual at home, and that’s usually wrapped like a hijab. Is it still cultural appropriation when it’s done in private during religious practice? What about if I were to decide that I should cover my hair at all times, publicly and privately, on the weekday that I devote to a certain deity, but not other days? Would it matter if that deity had nothing to do with any religion in which hair covering is a thing? Would it matter which hair covering I chose (hijab, scarf, hat, wig)?

    A lot of why I don’t do these things, why I choose to still “blend in” is because I live with family, I live around family, and I do not discuss religious anything with any of them. Showing an outward symbol that is recognized as a symbol makes life more uncomfortable than keeping it private would. But if, one day, I decide to be open about my odd little set of beliefs, how much of what speaks to me would come across as “borrowing the pretty things” to others, rather than “this is how I show my spiritual belief”? Is it right to do something you believe is right but society views as “priveleged white person stealing from other cultures”, or is it right to deny your beliefs to prevent being seen as a terrible person? And in the end, does it matter what others think, if I believe that this is between me and the gods?

  • Sarah

    This is part of my problem with sarees as well. I feel drawn to the saree because of its grace and elegance, but at the same time I feel like an imposter if I wear one publicly. I felt more “justified” owning and wearing them when I was still married to an Indian man, even though he was born and raised in the US and wasn’t Hindu at all. (His family is, though, and he was raised Hindu but then his mother abruptly became Christian when he was 12 and he decided that he didn’t believe in religion anymore if you could just change your mind like that.) When he and I split up during his affair, I got rid of everything Indian he ever gave me, including several salwar suits, a few sarees, and a lot of jewelry. Mostly because I was angry with him and hurt over his actions, but also partly because I didn’t feel like I could “get away” with wearing them anymore, lacking that family connection. I do have one saree that I bought for myself when I was still married,
    but I haven’t worn it since because I feel like an outsider playing
    dress-up now.

    We have a daughter, and I sometimes wish I had kept those things for her, because she has a right to that heritage through her father.


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