Appreciating Appropriation

I have read quite a lot about cultural appropriation but can I always tell if something is culturally appropriated? Is there a rule that seems to satisfy everyone? Do I yet have a strong and informed opinion about whether it was completely inappropriate for Adele to wear a Jamaican bikini and Bantu knots in her hair? The answer, I'm afraid, is "No."

In her book So You Want to Talk about Race, author Ijeoma Oluo broadly defines cultural appropriation as “the adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture." The grey area occurs, in my opinion, when it is not obvious that a culture has been exploited but rather has been an influence on creativity. Wearing an Indian Chief's head garment (war bonnet) for a student night out is a clear example of appropriation. But a white couple setting up an Indian restaurant, with Indian recipes and Indian decor, that donates some profits to an Indian cause may not be. Often, there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Yoga is one such grey area. Layla F. Saad writes in her book, Me and White Supremacy, "cultural appropriation rewrites history with whiteness at the center. So for example, though yoga has its roots in India as a spiritual practice, it is now seen as a predominantly white-centered practice that is focused largely on physical health." Diving deeper into individual examples can certainly lead down a rabbit hole. I recently read an intetesting account from The Independent by Lucy Stone, an accredited mindfulness and yoga teacher, who gave up her life in finance to teach children about mindfulness. She got one of her qualifications in India, where she studied traditional texts and learnt chants and mantras. She says that "The evolution and exchange of ideas, styles and traditions is one of the joys of an interconnected, modern, multicultural society – but we still have to be respectful." So is it then acceptable in this case that a white woman teaches others about another culture if it is done with good intentions? In this case, I would probably say so. But I guess it depends on the person's intentions, sincerity and awareness. Without that underlying respect and recognition from the teacher, they would just be using a culture's long history for personal gain. In a brilliant essay entitled Namaste, the first of a collection of brilliant pieces written in the book The Good Immigrant, author Nikesh Shukla, writes about cultural appropriation and his awkwardness about approaching these situations. He points out that "Chai" means tea. So "Chai tea" means tea tea. "Naan" means bread, so naan bread means bread bread. He talks about how a friend was delighted that Call of Duty finally set a level in Karachi, the city of his childhood, but was appalled to see that all the street signs were in Arabic. Not Urdu. "The effort put into making each follicle on each soldier's head stand out, making their boot laces bounce as they ran, the millions spent developing the game... At no point did anyone decide to Google the language of Pakistan". According to this account, the British seem rather guilty of butchering other cultures to suit theirs.

We just need to be sure we don't take.

Generally, I think we have to take each case on its own merits. By ruling out the use, the borrowing, or the reference to other cultures, we can deprive ourselves of education. From a global, inclusive point of view, or even from an anthropological point of view, we surely need to seek out new knowledge and enhance our cultural awareness. There are challenges we have to face as a globe, from climate change, to artificial intelligence, so there must be a happy medium where we share, cooperate, borrow and give. We just need to be sure we don't take. I recently asked a couple of my Hindu students if they could recommend a recipe or two for Diwali, with a genuine attempt to learn more about their culture. I read that Japanese people often celebrate Christmas with a strawberry shortcake so, again, I asked one of my Japanese students for a recipe. I hope that these acts build bridges and, as they come from a place of non-judgemental curiosity, enhance my own understanding, and hopefully even encourage the students to feel more recognised. By being intrigued, I have learned more about many different cultures over my 10 years of teaching and I hope that in my questioning I came across as sincere, not patronising. Reflecting on these, and looking forward, I need to ask myself if my acts are genuine allyship and not optical allyship. I also need to consider if my actions are are acts of tokenism or if they are legitimate attempts to understand other cultures deeply. The concepts of allyship and tokenism will be explored in more detail in future posts as they are definitely worth investigating.


All this is well and good but maybe we shouldn't get distracted over individual cases, debating whether or not some act is appropriate or not. In an interview with GQ this year, Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish) says: "There is little interest in the broader picture of imperial racism and white supremacy that forms the context. So it ends up being a reductive conversation about whether it’s OK for white people to do something, which is not my business.” So, going forward, we need to be aware of it. We need to question it. Above all, if we see it, we need to challenge it. Yes, the discussion of whether or not something is cultural appropriation is a conversation worth having for, to not, white centering continues to dominate the narrative. But, moreover, we should not miss the bigger picture. With better education, and better allyship, cultural appropriation should naturally decrease. So let's keep breaking white silence and keep listening to black voices.

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