Lately, I’ve been thinking about cultural appropriation in the West and how that relates to yoga. But first, I want to preface this post by stating that I don’t find cultural appropriation inherently offensive, and in no way am I suggesting that only certain races can follow certain spiritual practices. Nor am I positing any kind of essentialist framework when it comes to race and culture.
With that being said, culture appropriation in N. America by those with privilege, especially white privilege, is undoubtedly risking disrespect. By commodifying other cultures, cultural appropriation can disavow history, or spectacularize history (e.g. like Che Guevara T-shirts) to benefit the appropriating party in a way that often repeats historical power imbalances.
Usually it reinforces colonialist dynamics under a guise of cultural exchange (although in other cases, as in appropriating N. American subcultures, it is about normalizing them and strangling their radicalism or challenges to the status quo). And today’s hyper-commercial, mashed up and de-historicized identity gives people an easy method by which to evade or sever all ties to the past and to their responsibility for their use of appropriated signifiers (hipster headdresses anyone?).
We do not operate in a postmodern vacuum. The values and narratives of the past, which rationalized the discrimination, oppression, slavery and genocide of other peoples, have helped construct the culture we live in today and are very much alive in the present. India, with its long colonial past and its growing power in today’s neoliberal economy, is a part of that living history.
I’m not suggesting that people with a colonial past should feel guilty about acts they haven’t committed. In fact, I think that this too, white guilt, is a cop-out, when it attempts to banish colonial power dynamics to the past and displaces today’s resultant inequities, allowing others to evade responsibility for mindful, responsible action in the present.
What does that mindful, responsible action look like? Many people have suggested that in order to address cultural appropriation, we must engage in respectful practice and more education. I fully agree that we are responsible for acknowledging history, learning from it, understanding it, and acting with it in mind.
However, for myself, being respectful and educating myself is only the first step. From there, concerted action toward social change and human liberation (as opposed to engaging in a paternalistic model of charity or development) must be undertaken. As much as our own selves benefit from integrating what yoga has taught us into everyday life, so too, must others benefit. It is not enough to just take.
I also believe we are responsible for working with this powerful tension between an individual and his/her historical and social context. For honouring our own unique pathways into spirituality and human cultures, as well as the historical legacy that brought us to those paths. We are not oppressed by our past, but it is only through acknowledgement and acceptance that we can find the opportunity to change the course of the future rather than to be evasive and reactive, to move beyond repeating history.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading this lengthy post! The following links on the topic that may interest you. If you know of a good link, article or book on the topic, please considering sharing it by adding a comment.
Reflective post from Yoga Vita with excellent debate in comments.
Toronto Public Library blog post about yoga patents in the west.
Racilicious breaks it down: why an Indian girl wearing a Madonna T-shirt is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi.
Digest of “White Priviledge: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh (pdf)
My Culture is Not a Trend – blog about appropriations of Native American culture
A great post from The Wild Hunt about cultural appropriation by pagans.