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Debate: Is White People Practicing Yoga in Kurtas Cultural Appropriation?

Wednesday 19 September 2018, by siawi3


Debate: Is White People Practicing Yoga in Kurtas Cultural Appropriation?

A disadvantage-based measure of cultural appropriation moves us away from asking why someone used another culture’s totem or practice to asking what cultural appropriation does in substantive terms.

Shreya Atrey

16.09.18 - 13 hours ago

News of cultural appropriation continues to pour. White people don a black face at college parties, put on a sombrero, wear their hair in braids or cornrows, write fiction in a black voice, play Asian characters in movies, practice yoga in a kurta, play the yidaki and sing along to rap, K-pop and Sanskrit shlokas. Are blacks, Mexicans, Asians, indigenous and first nations people right to claim cultural appropriation or are we just being too chippy and missing the point?

The problem in answering this question is that there is no resolution on when cultural appropriation is wrong. Susan Scafidi thinks it is wrong without permission. She considers it most problematic in respect of minority groups who have been oppressed and exploited for their culture. Similarly, Maisha Z. Johnson thinks it is “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group”. According to Kwame Anthony Appiah, the problem is disrespect. To ridicule or insult the culture one is referencing from is to disrespect.

Each of the accounts misses something. Scafidi’s rests on a model of ownership which Appiah criticises as simply against the idea of how cultures operate and thrive, i.e. when cultural borrowing and exchange is possible. It also gives in to the capitalist modes of thinking, including the idea of intellectual property as owned by corporate entities. But Appiah’s own model of disrespect is also problematic, since it appeals to notions of sacredness or sanctity which are further bound up in archaic notions of blasphemy, placing limitations on democratic rights of speech and expression, including to offend, shock and disturb. Even Johnson’s definition seems too sweeping and unreal in believing in the mutually-exclusive categories of oppressors and oppressed. A blanket claim of cultural appropriation by an oppressed group against a dominant group, simply explained by the general difference in dynamics of power, seems to do little work in explaining what is wrong about cultural appropriation specifically and why it is different from other moral wrongs, say, of discrimination.

Culture is neither static nor owned

The thing about culture is that it is neither static nor owned. Culture is culture because it evolves. One way in which this happens in a global world is when culture travels or meets new purveyors, is shared and exchanged, and thus transforms itself in that process. That is just the essence of culture as it transpires and has nothing to do with appropriation understood in terms of ownership, possession or theft.

It is possible though, that the very process through which culture travels, between different groups defined by a significant difference in power, may appear to be misunderstanding, disrespecting, insulting or ridiculing it. But if we do not want to slip into controlling forms of expression and trampling over free speech and democratic rights, which too are morally significant, we must have a high bar for when disrespect, insult, ridicule or offence is actually wrong to be appropriation. This is also important if we want culture, as a normative concept to remain what it is, that which is shared by a group and evolves and transforms over time, moving between groups and contexts. What then should be the measure of cultural appropriation?

The measure of cultural appropriation, or when cultural sharing, borrowing and celebration becomes ‘appropriation’ as such, should be one of disadvantage. This means two things. First, disadvantage should be substantive, i.e. both precise and broad at the same time. It should be precise in that it refers to disadvantage in respect of a particular cultural totem or practice in question and not the general dynamics of power between two groups, important as it may be in the assessment of the former. It should be broad in the sense that a wide variety of redistributive and material harm, as well as harms of stereotyping, prejudice, social exclusion may be associated with that cultural totem or practice. The claim is that we are not imagining cultural appropriation as wholesale appropriation of entire cultures, but particular aspects of it when it leads to substantive disadvantage. Second, disadvantage must be relative or comparative in nature. The measure should be whether a particular group suffers disadvantage when it uses the cultural totem or practice in question as compared to someone who appropriates it.

Idea of relative disadvantage

So, black face and braids are not okay on non-blacks. Because colour and braids have been used to demonise and oppress blacks, it counts for substantive disadvantage. When Kim Kardashian dons a black face or countless other white celebrities and others wear their hair in braids, they escape the disadvantage attached to those attributes because they are not black. This counts for relative disadvantage.

Such disadvantage may be lacking in the case of vuvuzela or rap culture, which have largely been celebrated. I doubt that asking for permission or consent or a show of respect will make a difference to lives of black people when non-blacks do not paint their faces black or wear braids or do it ‘right’ in some other way. What will make a difference is the removal of the disadvantage which has been attached to black attributes and culture, and then anyone can enjoy Black culture without being levied the charge of cultural appropriation.

Such disadvantage may be lacking in the case of vuvuzela or rap culture, which have largely been celebrated. Credit: Flickr/ep_jhu CC BY-NC 2.0

This yardstick also makes it clear that a Western person practising yoga or sporting a bindi or a kurta is not really engaging in cultural appropriation. These forms of culture lack a history of disadvantage when espoused by Indians themselves. Sure, India was colonised and much of this is seen as exotic now. But that is different from disadvantage. The general status of a country as relatively less powerful should not determine the specific question of disadvantage in a particular case of cultural appropriation like the practice of yoga by non-Indians. It is unproblematic not because it is done with respect, or that the International Yoga Day now recognises that yoga originated in India, but because it does not really contribute to the disadvantage of Indians.

The disadvantage-based measure of cultural appropriation thus moves us away from asking why someone used another culture’s totem or practice (whether unknowingly, without permission or knowingly to cause offence, disrespect or to ridicule) to asking what cultural appropriation does in substantive and relative terms.

Shreya Atrey is a lecturer in law at the University of Bristol, UK.