By Austin B. Hahn
Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption or usage of elements from one culture by another culture, and although it is generally understood as “Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance,” anyone can appropriate (Drabble, et al.). The topic has been a point of contention in social media. Franchesca Ramsey, an actress and videoblogger, spoke about the matter on MTV News stating that, “the main problem with cultural appropriation comes from dominant groups ‘borrowing’ from marginalized groups who face oppression or have been stigmatized for their cultural practices throughout history.” In addition, actress Amandla Stenberg stated in an online video from Hype Hair Magazine that appropriation occurs, “when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they’re partaking in.” Evidently, there are multiple viewpoints on what constitutes cultural appropriation, but one interpretation remains consistent: it happens when a dominant cultural group incorporates aspects from another culture, usually less dominant, that are not perceived to be their own.
The debate doesn’t just stop at social media. In September of 2015, a yoga class at the University of Ottawa was cancelled, according to an email from a representative, due to “cultural issues of implication involved in the practice” (Moyer). The representative went on:
Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced and what practices from what cultures (which are often sacred spiritual practices) they are being taken from. Many of these cultures are cultures that have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy, and we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves and while practicing yoga. (Moyer).
The Washington Post later cited a similar sentiment expressed by the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., who is leading an initiative called “Take Back Yoga”:
As the multi-billion dollar yoga industry continues to grow with studios becoming as prevalent as Starbucks and $120 yoga pants, the mass commercialization of this ancient practice, rooted in Hindu thought, has become concerning. With proliferation of new forms of ‘yoga,’ the underlying meaning, philosophy, and purpose of yoga are being lost. (“Take Back Yoga”).
In short, the advocacy group wants to sustain the practice’s cultural authenticity.
Other communities have also voiced their concerns over preserving the cultural customs that their ancestors once held dear to them. As stated by Hoodoo practitioner Madame Omi Kongo in an article from Broadly, a website dedicated to the publication of women’s issues, “Ancestry is extremely important. It makes up your spiritual frame” (Bess). Hoodoo, also known as conjure or rootwork, is an eclectic form of magic that was used as a tradition of protection by African slaves (Bess). Madame Kongo believes that “without an African ancestral link, the practice becomes something other than Hoodoo” (Bess). Several blog posts from people of color coincide with Kongo’s opinion on heritage and detest the appropriation of their craft by “white pagans and general magic practitioners” (Bess). Ironically, as Gabby Bess points out, a staff writer for Broadly, the practice utilizes African spirituality and also “stems from an appropriation” of Christian rituals that slaves had “newly encountered in the Americas.” Maybe a deeper issue lies in the argument concerning cultural appropriation. “We have scammers appropriating and selling our traditions,” says IHeartFREDA, a blogger who was cited in Bess’s article, “Our community is not a trend” (“things”).
Some critics argue that the ideology implies “you are only allowed to behave in accordance with the culture into which you were born” (Patterson). Jenni Avins, a writer for the Atlantic, contends that “we have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. . . . [T]he exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.” Furthermore, John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia University, asserts that “the debate over … cultural appropriation has roots in the justifiable resentment of white pop musicians imitating black genres for monetary gain,” but has now “morphed into a parody of the original idea.” McWhorter goes on citing Harlem during the 1920s when Caucasians used new styles of music they learned from African Americans to create today’s musical landscape and adds, “a stipulation that brown people in America must be shielded from [cultural cross-fertilization] will serve no purpose except to provide people with something to be upset about. It will keep happening.”
After examining both sides of the debate, they each have their valid points. Minority groups continue to be stigmatized today. For example, in 2013, a twelve-year-old African American female in Florida faced the possibility of expulsion because her natural hair was considered “distracting” (Sehgal). In states such as Ohio and Oklahoma, schools have tried to ban Afros (Sehgal). However, no sanction has ever been imposed against Caucasians by any public school system because of their hair. In spite of the fact that the United States is a multicultural nation, this double standard illustrates the cultural bias that ethnic communities still face in the twenty-first century.
On another note, telling someone what they can wear, how they can style their hair, or how they should conduct themselves based on their ethnic origins, regardless if they’re a part of the dominant cultural group, is not conducive to a progressive society. Doing so only creates more racism and separatism. No one’s culture is a materialistic possession that others have to ask permission to use or to incorporate into their lifestyle. Despite the efforts of some well-intentioned groups wanting to spread cultural awareness, labeling an entire race of people as “privileged” because of the color of their skin while ignoring socioeconomic factors and accusing them of stealing something as intangible and inconstant as culture fuels xenophobia. People are curious about other cultures in the age of rapid electronic communication. We cannot expect our children and future generations to be tolerant of diversity when they’re discouraged and shamed for exploring the cultural influences that compose the fabric of their nation.
By no means do I support perpetuating stereotypes, but taking historical events out of context, such as the exploitation or genocide of minorities from previous generations, and using racial identity to justify what is socially acceptable for someone contradicts any social progress we have made. By implementing a list of behavioral regulations according to group membership, we’re reverting to the pre-Civil Rights era. No one wants to be told what they can or cannot do because of their ethnicity just as no one wants to be told what public accommodations they can use because of their race, which is why we abolished the Jim Crow laws. Perhaps instead of telling people what culture they’re allowed to partake in, maybe we should focus more on addressing the root causes of cultural discrimination.
If someone cannot style their hair a certain way or wear an article of clothing because of their race, then we have failed at every effort to achieve equality.
“Take Back Yoga: Bringing to Light Yoga’s Hindu Roots.” Hindu American Foundation. Hindu American Foundation, n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.
Avins, Jenni. “The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 Jan. 2016.
Bess, Gabby. “Black Magic: Hoodoo Witches Speak Out on the Appropriation of Their Craft.” Broadly. Vice Media LLC, 23 Sep. 2015. Web. 26 Jan. 2016.
Drabble, Margaret, et al. Eds. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. 3rd ed. n.p: Oxford University Press, 2007. Oxford Reference. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
Hype Hair Magazine. “Amandla Stenberg: Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
IHeartFREDA. “things I have noticed online and offline.” Tumblr. Tumblr, Jul. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2016.
McWhorter, John. “You Can’t ‘Steal’ a Culture: In Defense of Cultural Appropriation.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company LLC, 15 Jul. 2014. Web. 5 Feb. 2016.
Moyer, Justin Wm. “University yoga class canceled because of ‘oppression, cultural genocide’.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 Nov. 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.
Patterson, Steve. “Why Progressives Are Wrong to Argue Against Cultural Appropriation.” Observer. Observer Media, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.
Ramsey, Franchesca. “7 Myths about Cultural Appropriation DEBUNKED! Decoded MTV News.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
Sehgal, Parul. “Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?” New York Times. New York Times, 29 Sep. 2015. Web. 23 Jan. 2016.