Blog Writer: Emilia Wheaton
Blog Editor: Kristen Kennedy Smith
The beauty of human ingenuity and creativity is evident in the myriad of the world’s distinct cultures, religions, traditions, artwork and customs. It’s said that “copying is the highest form of flattery” but when it comes to representing something of cultural significance that doesn’t belong to our own culture, there is a fine line between respectfully admiring and mindlessly copying.
Cultural appropriation, as defined by the Oxford American Dictionary, is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” What I see as important to focus on here are the words: unacknowledged and dominant.
In the United States and throughout the Western world, there is a clear divide between “white majority” and “colored minority.” This divide might better be described as a dominant culture and less dominant cultures. Though the current social movements are slowly chipping away at white supremacy as we pay rightful yet overdue homage and respect to the cultural diversity we are privileged to live amongst, the present and past follow a narrative of white culture dominating colored cultures.
Representing a cultural marker of the oppressed people who created that culture is a dangerous hypocrisy. Imagine yourself in the shoes of another culture; say you and your family are of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, native to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona long before the plot of land which is currently Arizona was robbed from your ancestors. At this time, your ancestors were forcefully stripped of their culture; children were taken from families and forced to learn the language, values, religion and culture of their colonizers. How many elaborate and beautiful headdresses must have been torn from Pascua Yaqui heads two hundred years ago? Native American culture has been diluted, disdained and ignored throughout the years, yet Halloween costumes representing Native cultures are now flying off the shelves. How do you feel seeing the children of your oppressors dressing up in a costume that resembles something your ancestors might have worn? Not great, I’m sure. It probably feels like a slap in the face.
Therefore, it is important to recognize your position in the current cultural hierarchy before wearing another culture as a fashion statement. If you pertain to the culture of those who have disenfranchised the culture you wish to represent, it’s probably better not to copy that culture.
Granted, there isn’t a formula or a flow chart you can follow to figure out whether you are appropriating culture. You may have good intentions when wishing to represent another culture if you aim to celebrate and appreciate that culture. Wearing a Pochahontas costume is a lot different than shopping at a Native-owned local business where you’ve had a chance to chat with the designer about the historical inspiration of a pair of earrings they have designed. Getting to know and understand a culture is key when trying to pay homage or respect to that culture.
Now, in terms of Yoga--the reason we are here at Affirmations and Innovations--it is also important to direct our careful attention to how we may avoid appropriating the Indian cultural origins of the practice Westerners have changed and claimed as their own. It is important to acknowledge that the ancient practice of Yoga does not promote the lucrative industry of sexy spandex leggings but instead promotes detachments from possessions. It is important to remember that yoga practice and spirituality was stifled by British colonizers in India. It is important to acknowledge that Sanskrit symbols and words have an origin with much richer history than the trendy t-shirt printed with an Om symbol. It is important to learn what Yoga truly is, where it originated, what the initial spiritual intentions were and to pay mind to the significance of all it’s symbols and traditions.
I highly recommend delving into the Yoga Sutras (the “rules” of Yoga) for a broader understanding of the philosophy and theory behind the spiritual and physical practice. There is such deep beauty, importance and brilliance behind the origins of Yoga. Anyone practicing Yoga owes it to themselves and to the founders of Yoga to become well acquainted with the roots that have fed modern Yoga to be the magnanimous force it is today.
Consider purchasing a copy of Yoga and the Sutras of Patanjali from a local bookstore or second-hand shop. Many translations and adaptations of this ancient text exist, though I am partial to this edition. Happy reading, happy practicing.
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