Cultural Appropriation, Buddhism, and Compassion

Cultural Appropriation, Buddhism, and Compassion October 1, 2015

This post is in response to Tom Swiss’s two articles arguing that there’s “no such thing as cultural appropriation.”

Image credit: Famousdog (via Wikipedia)

Sometimes arguments about oppression and privilege feel like that optical illusion where the intersections of white lines appear to contain grey squares until you focus on them directly. By cherry-picking examples, treating dictionary definitions as gospel, and otherwise dissecting the problem beyond all recognition, those with privilege can make a plain and clear form of oppression disappear. Ta-da!

First, a few notes on cultural appropriation:

1. Crystal Blanton, like many other Patheos bloggers, wrote an excellent response to Tom Swiss’s article here. She shouldn’t have to waste her time explaining the same concepts to white people over and over again, but she’s quite generously taken the time to do so, so I recommend you read it.

2. Do you read Everyday Feminism? You should! It breaks down lots of often confusing anti-oppression concepts. Here are some posts for those who are genuinely interested in learning why we have the term “cultural appropriation,” what people mean when they say it, and why it bears little resemblance to the innocent exchange of ideas that Tom Swiss claims it is.

3. Reading the original post and the comments, it seems that for many people, the question of whether cultural appropriation is real boils down to whether white people can wear dreadlocks. Are white folks with matted locks the most obvious form of appropriation there is? Nope, and there’s nothing wrong with not instantly getting it. But that subtlety is exactly why it’s so dishonest to hold up this particular example as definitive proof that the entire phenomenon is made up.

4. Regarding the dictionary definition of appropriation: Look, I’m truly sorry that dictionaries don’t always reflect the popular definitions of words. I know it’s confusing. When I first got involved in activism, I made a fool of myself because the dictionary couldn’t explain to me why other activists didn’t like the word “liberal.” Once a friend of mine pointed me to Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings, though, I learned more about the word and a lot of pieces clicked into place. If it helps, defines “appropriate” as “to steal” or “take without permission,” which is much closer to the way it’s used in this context. But don’t fall prey to the lure of using the dictionary to massage ideas into what you want them to be. When I taught college English, my colleagues and I groaned every time a student started an essay with “Webster’s defines such and such as…” because it was always, without exception, a placeholder for actual thought.

5. Claiming that we should stop using the term “cultural appropriation” because it’s supposedly redundant reminds me a lot of the argument that we should stop using the term “antisemitism” to mean prejudice against Jews. I’ve been told–by non-Jews–that we Jews should just call it prejudice, period. Sometimes people point out that Arabs are Semitic, too, and yes, I’m not going to deny that the term is complicated and imperfect. But antisemitism and cultural appropriation refer to specific types of prejudice, and demanding that we stop using specific descriptors for specific phenomena is almost always an attempt to erase those phenomena. Pulling over a Black man is not the same flavor of oppression as making a Jew take a loyalty test, and plagiarizing an idea isn’t the same thing as wearing a Native headdress to Coachella. Imagine if the words “apple” or “pear” or “lemon” were banned in favor of the term “fruit?” It would lead to a lot of confusion and extra explanations that would have been avoided if we were simply allowed to use specific words.

Basic explanations of cultural appropriation abound, if you sincerely want to learn about it–and it’s clear, from Tom’s original post, that he doesn’t. (Otherwise he might have mentioned at least one kind of appropriation that didn’t happen to float across his Facebook feed.) The links above explain it all much more eloquently than I could, and I encourage you to check them out. What I really want to highlight here is how problematic attitudes like Tom’s are from a Buddhist perspective.

Now, I’ve been practicing secular Buddhism for about six years, but my practice is spotty at best and I’ve never formally taken refuge, so I don’t consider myself an expert. Furthermore, I know almost nothing about Zen, so maybe there’s Zen scripture somewhere that details why it’s okay to call people you’ve hurt “idiots” and dismiss their feelings and ideas as “brouhaha.” But it seems to me that, when oppressed peoples claim a thing exists, the compassionate and mindful thing to do is to listen to them. Put aside your instant emotional reaction, consider their arguments, and try and empathize. What experiences have they had that led them to their ideas? Why are they so passionate about those ideas? As a teacher of mine once said, try it on. How would you feel if you were fired for having cornrows while white models flaunted them? If a garment intensely sacred to your people, like a feathered headdress, was worn as a novelty item at a rock festival and then tossed in the trash? If your community and ancestors were parodied over and over again at Halloween stores? Cultural appropriation isn’t an exchange of ideas, it’s an exercise in power-over that mocks, denigrates, and commodifies another culture. If someone’s angry about an outsider’s treatment of their culture, that means they’re experiencing dukkha (suffering or agitation), and even a casual adherence to Buddhist ethics should compel you to understand and avoid adding to that dukkha. Is every single accusation of cultural appropriation completely warranted? Of course not. But the very least you can do, when someone is clearly suffering, is resist the impulse to blow them off and call them stupid.

Image credit Infrogmation (via Wikipedia)

Furthermore, the precepts of Buddhism are quite clear about issues like appropriation. The second precept, “to avoid taking things that are not freely given,” seems pretty cut and dry to me. It isn’t just a matter of whether you’re “stealing” someone’s sacred items. Those items must be freely given by members of that culture. (Think “yes means yes” instead of “no means no.”) So, jewelry made and sold by Native artists is kosher, but sacred headdresses are not. No reasonable Hindu is arguing that white people aren’t allowed to honor Kali, but that doesn’t mean they’re okay with white people making money off of Kali T-shirts. The fourth precept, “to refrain from false speech,” is one that I would especially urge Tom to meditate on. Both of his posts are riddled with strawmen, misleading examples, and false equivalences. His words, by wildly misrepresenting what cultural appropriation is, are actively contributing to oppression by giving people with privilege permission to take whatever they want.

I’ll end this post with a message directly to Tom. Tom, I can see, from your second post, that you’re feeling really angry and attacked right now. Most bloggers have been there, including myself, and yeah, it royally sucks. But can you see that everyone else involved is angry, too? Can you see that their anger is a direct result of your posts? This is exactly the type of karma that Sharon Salzberg describes in Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Seeds of love and compassion produce fruit of love and compassion, and seeds of anger produce fruit of anger, just as apple seeds produce apples and mango seeds produce mangoes. Please take a breath and find your compassion, because if you’re in any way at all serious about your Buddhism, then surely you can see that the seeds you’re planting are toxic. Take a walk. Take a break from the Internet. Even turn off comments if you need to. But please don’t return to this discussion until you’re ready to listen.

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