Culture Appropriation: Where is the line?

What is this new fad that is all the rage?

“Cultural appropriation is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon” (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Recently, there has been a large uproar about this phenomenon from Halloween costumes to age-old symbols of major sports teams. But is cultural appropriation such a bad thing? Are we just making a big deal about something that is inevitable? I think so. Using the term “appropriation” is a rather aggressive attempt to keep cultures separate I believe that the melding of cultures is bound to happen eventually. That being said, I do believe that people need to realize when they are experiencing a new culture, they are seeing another person’s way of life.

As a kid, I loved learning about different cultures. I was always intrigued about how society has evolved since the dawn of time. During my studies of the Middle Ages, my teacher got our class to dress up in costumes and pretend that we were at a banquet during that era. It gave us a perspective that textbooks couldn’t come even close to describing. I was dubbed the king of the banquet and so I sat at the head of the table and was required to order around the servants, make a speech and be “regal”. (In retrospect, I thought it was rather odd that my teacher made a little brown boy the head of an Eastern European Middle Ages dinner but whatever.)

What I didn’t realize at the time was that throughout school, we were only taught about European/Western culture and never even mentioned the other parts of the world. It’s interesting that we learned about the world we live in (Canadian/American History) yet we were taught nothing about the WORLD we live in. Yes, the history of our country is important, but almost all that information is irrelevant and useless compared to the knowledge of the different cultural practices that exist today. If we had been given some background about the cultures of the world, I do not think we would have to explain how taking aspects of another culture and using it as a form of entertainment is disrespectful.

Take yoga for example; this practice has been part of Hindu and Buddhist culture for centuries but it is starting to gain traction in Western society as well. The main issue is that while this a wonderful way of relieving stress and is good for both mind and spirit, it is slightly disturbing to see how this practice has been “westernized”. Ironically, this is made blatantly clear in a video making fun of the whole idea. Yes, the context makes the video funny but the underlying issue is unmistakable. People are using the practice to relieve stress but they fail to realize the depth of the spiritual aspect behind these ancient techniques.

Apparently, (I have not experienced this myself) yoga studios are referring to experienced yoga masters as “yogis”. It pains me to say this, but yogis are not “people who have been doing yoga for a long time”. In Indian culture, yogis are people who are both spiritually and physically elevated. To these individuals, yoga is more than just a way of staying fit but rather a way of achieving self-realization. They have worked hard to achieve their self-awareness and cannot compare to someone who is well versed in the number of animal-named poses they do relax. (downward dog, cow pose, hare pose etc.)

Now I’m not saying that becoming a yogi is a form of culture appropriation because that is not true. Anyone can become a yogi as long as they understand and respect what it means to be a yogi. It’s the same with any form of art. Take martial arts for example. You may be a martial arts master but it takes knowledge and wisdom to become a proper sensei. Mastering the art of yoga goes beyond the physical aspect and it takes more than memorizing moves to become a true yogi.

Yoga, however, is a rather tame example of culture appropriation in our society. There are many other areas in society where we may not have realized that we are being disrespectful to other cultures. Halloween has recently come under fire for it’s blatant disrespect of certain cultures. Although is a wonderful time of year where all the children and adults dress up in fun costumes and pretend to be someone else, the main issue is when people dress up as people from other cultures. (ex. Native American, a geisha or even a terrorist) At a glance, these costumes may seem fun and innocent but in reality, they are pretty offensive. Take this video for example of Native Americans trying on “Indian” costumes or this video of Japanese-American women trying on a geisha costume. In both videos, the participants are shocked at the mockeries of their culture in the form of cheap costumes. Their explanations of how degrading the costume has been tailored is a good indication of how disrespectful we are with other cultures.

Usually one would dress up as a fictional character from a cartoon or a historical figure but neither of the aforementioned costumes are fictional or historical! They are real and alive in today’s society and thus should not be made a mockery of with cheap costumes you can buy from a nearby superstore! That being said, there is no problem with dressing up with the clothing from another culture! If anything, people from that culture welcome foreigners to their society. They educate the newcomer in their customs and show them how things are done according to that culture. There is actually a pretty clear line between learning about a new culture and making fun of it. If one is dressed as, say a native or a geisha, but the clothing they are wearing is culturally incorrect or they pretend to be someone based on an incomplete understanding of that culture (oh Native Americans are like cavemen and geishas are glorified prostitutes), they are being disrespectful to that culture. Conversely, if one was to have the proper attire, ask questions on how to act and was aware that they lacked knowledge about that culture, then they would be experiencing a new culture without mocking it.

Essentially what I’m trying to say is that culture “appropriation” means that one is making a mockery or simplifying (for lack of a better term) a tradition and would thus be considered disrespectful. In doing so, you lose the origins of that tradition. If you were to receive the full experience from someone in that culture and shared it without changing it to fit you better, that wouldn’t be considered as “appropriation” but more like “acceptance”. Accepting a tradition into your own doesn’t make you an expert on the matter but rather a supporter of that practice!

We live in a multicultural society. No longer are we separated by oceans or borders and we should realize that society is constantly evolving and adapting to the different cultures that exist today. In a way, we are improving our culture by taking traditions of other cultures and integrating them into our everyday lives. But, no matter how complicated the culture is to understand, we must not ignore the meaning behind their traditions and be respectful of the knowledge we receive. If everyone approaches different cultures with an open mind, maybe someday all cultures will fuse together to form one worldly society.

“Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbour is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.”

– Paulo Coelho

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