I do yoga, am I a racist?

Dear people on the internet,

Go read Samhita’s post. Try to think about it beyond “I’m white and I really like Indian food. Am I culturally appropriating? Please, wise Indian lady, answer me!”

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74 comments for “I do yoga, am I a racist?

  1. October 23, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    There’s actually an easy answer to this question: if you do yoga or eat indian cuisine, you’re not appropriating. If you’re Italian/Irish like me and find yourself walking down the street in a sari, decked out in bindi, reciting the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit, you are appropriating. Mad props on learning Sanskrit, though.

  2. October 23, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Personal Failure, how are those two examples different? If you don’t advertise your love of Indian culture then it isn’t appropriating? What about if you walk down the street with a yoga mat?

  3. Jysella
    October 23, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    SmallDuck – what are you getting at? That walking down the street with a yoga mat IS appropriation? I’m honestly curious, not trying to be rude.

    Jill – thanks for the comment about not going “I like Indian food, I’m not racist!” In all the discussions of cultural appropriation I’ve been in, comments like this are about 75% of the responses.

  4. October 23, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Hm. I feel the same way about the red-bracelet Kabbalah people. I mean, it’s somewhat flattering until it…isn’t. Can’t tell you exactly *when* it isn’t, but you know it when you run into it.

    Yoga’s a bit tricky. American yoga has so utterly little to do with anything “authentic” by this point that it’s kind of it’s own little sub-culture. Doesn’t mean it isn’t annoying to people of South Asian origin, for sure.

    My personal squeechy line gets crossed when the yoga instructor wants to start throwing religion soup into the mix and chanting in Sanskrit. First of all, I’ve got a religion, thanks, and second of all, what the *hell* are we all doing mouthing someone else’s sacred scriptures after gutting them to make them as soul-less and New-Age-appropriate as possible?

  5. October 23, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    No, I don’t think carrying a yoga mat or dressing in a sari is appropriating in itself. I think the appropriation starts when a person starts exotifying, othering, and objectifying the practices and the culture and people from which it comes from. Also, when histories of colonization and oppression are ignored, appropriation becomes almost unconscious. Seems similar to the belief that just mentioning race is in itself racist. When you ignore race, you ignore racism. Likewise, for example, if you’re Dutch and cook a lot of Burmese food but ignore the years of colonization and violence perpetuated by the Dutch against the Burmese (then Myanmar) people, you are appropriating.

  6. October 23, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    My personal squeechy line gets crossed when the yoga instructor wants to start throwing religion soup into the mix and chanting in Sanskrit. First of all, I’ve got a religion, thanks, and second of all, what the *hell* are we all doing mouthing someone else’s sacred scriptures after gutting them to make them as soul-less and New-Age-appropriate as possible?

    That’s my line for yoga too. I like yoga, it helps my body and it relaxes me in ways other forms of exercise don’t. But I don’t know what those oms and chants mean to other people and I fell uncomfortable when they’re thrown in when the yoga is being done as exercise mostly by white people like myself.

  7. Jason
    October 23, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I’m a little mystified why South Asians have these attitudes.

    I’m an American and I don’t get upset when Indian DJs use American hip-hop samples. I don’t get mad at French people for listening to jazz. In fact, I don’t get upset either at American culture being either celebrated or disparaged by others. What’s it to me, really?

    Yes, there’s a deeper point I’m avoiding – but to be fair I don’t think Samhita has made it.

    I certainly know what cultural appropriation is. But to be particularly upset about it in America is kind of missing the point of what American culture is…

  8. Mandolin
    October 23, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Say it with me, Jason. Cuh-low-nee-uh-liz-um.

  9. October 23, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    @Jason: Your first problem is that you seem to have decided that South Asian and American are mutually exclusive categories.

    Samhita is just as much of an American as you are. It’s incredibly racist to presume otherwise. It’s incredibly insulting that you presume she doesn’t have a grasp of American culture.

    Cultural appropriation is really very simple. It’s about people, not things. The things are not important. The people are. If the people are disrespected and demeaned when you take their things, then it’s harmful and you should stop it.

  10. October 23, 2009 at 2:57 pm


    Don’t you think historical colonial relations are significant here? It’s not exactly like the Western European culture that America grew out of has a reciprocal, symmetrical relationship with India. So comparing their use of elements of our culture with the wholescale appropriation of their culture you’ll see here seems a tiny bit disingenuous to me.

  11. Manju
    October 23, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    “I’m a little mystified why South Asians have these attitudes.”

    South Asians don’t have these attitiudes, Jason. Progressives do. Not the same thing.

  12. October 23, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    (a) It’s not “South Asians” or “progressives” who have “these attitudes.” It’s Samhita’s experience and her feelings that she’s writing about. She made no universal statement about the opinion of all people.

    (b) I get the feeling a lot of people don’t really understand what “these attitudes” are actually about.

  13. October 23, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I’m an American and I don’t get upset when Indian DJs use American hip-hop samples. I don’t get mad at French people for listening to jazz. In fact, I don’t get upset either at American culture being either celebrated or disparaged by others. What’s it to me, really?
    To use your examples I think the point may be:

    When Indian DJs use American hip/hop samples are they then acting as if they know everything about American culture (or even just the music)?

    Do French people that listen to jazz suddenly believe they know all there is about the originators of jazz music?

    I don’t see anything wrong with liking the music, animation, etc… of other cultures in and of itself however….

    I myself am a big fan of japanese anime and have been since my early teens (that’s when I discovered it for myself). At that point I became that silly kid that suddenly fell in love with Japanese culture simply because that’s where the anime came from. Oh god I even was at the point where I thought I was an authority on all things Japanese. But then I grew up and realized how silly, and rude, I was. I still very much enjoy anime but that alone does not make me knowledgable about the culture of people it came from.

    …when you go that far yes I would say its appropriating.

  14. Shelby
    October 23, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Hm. I thought Jill’s post was saying something more like (and of course, correct me if I’m wrong, Jill): “Don’t assume that one person can/will/wants to give you a guidebook on how not to appropriate.” I know a lot of my white friends want me to give them some magical, one-size-fits-all answer to whether or not something’s racist. But, um, it’s not my job to give you a moral compus. And POC are individuals so you’ll never get THE ANSWER for “is this racist?” Like Chava mentioned, everyone has their own “personal squeechy line” that blurs and changes all the time. For me, personally, some things just annoy me but I dont think they’re racist– or I just don’t think people need to STOP DOING THAT THING NOW! Like white ppl playing bongo drums. That annoys me. Do I think white ppl should stop playing bongo drums? No.

  15. October 23, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Not gonna read the comments, not gonna read the comments…

    • October 23, 2009 at 5:04 pm

      Yeah do NOT read the comments.

  16. oldlady
    October 23, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Samhita’s really good example that no one has mentioned is the recent incident of the sweat lodge deaths in Sedona. That is an example of appropriation—-a sacred ritual turned into a commercial enterprise to profit a charlatan.

  17. gussie
    October 23, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Is something racist if it is annoying?
    Someone can be highly annoying and totally harmless, I should know.
    Racism is defined by the abuse of power or so it was taught in college.
    Stereotyping is the judgment based on group affiliation whether or not power is abused but again blame my professor if this is off.
    Maybe a new term is needed, people who cheese us off because they are pretencious.
    Flake works for me. Wait that came out wrong.

  18. Manju
    October 23, 2009 at 5:17 pm


    Yes, Samhita’s offering her own opinion but if we’re making an argument about offensiveness toward an identity group, it helps to have a majority offended among that group, no?

    the problem i have with the whole appropriation/orientalism/exoticism thing is i can’t get any confirmation from the natives. i mean, if i show stuff progressive bloggers find offensive to my mom or grandmother they almost always think its wonderful. gwen stefani wearing a bindi? they’re on it like brown on rice.

    But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Samhita is wrong. It just puts her in the uncomfortable position of being as condescending as the neo-colonialists she abhors. But i feel her pain. I get outraged over Che Guevara T-shirts but if the Cubans don’t mind who am I to complain? It happens.

    Intellectual vanguards exists. Its possible they see things the rest of us, being victims of an omnipresent social construction, simply can’t. Of course, the other possibility is that they’re wrong, or are themselves are (ironically) imposing a western philosophical system on non-western people, a form of cultural imperialism. After all, was Edward Said really seeing things thru Palestinian eyes or Martin Heidegger’s?

  19. Jay@racialicious
    October 23, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Cultural appropriation is really very simple. It’s about people, not things. The things are not important. The people are. If the people are disrespected and demeaned when you take their things, then it’s harmful and you should stop it.

    *cough* Avatar the Last Airbender movie *cough*

    And no, I don’t care the M. Night Shyamalan is directing it. It speaks volumes when you have so much contempt for Asian peoples that you’re only willing to include them as minor characters or villains.

    I remember reading an argument between a Japanese American and a Japanese about the use of the racial slur for Japanese. The Japanese had essentially told the Japanese American off by saying “we’re real Japanese and we think it’s okay, so buzz off”. But essentially Japanese don’t really feel the impact of the slur (they don’t get subjected to it nearly as much), so is the effect on them as valid?

    So here we have a difference of viewpoint. This is a problem with TCKs in general I think – both of the original cultures think they’re the “other”, and they have no collective power to rail against it. Thus they’ll get impacted by a lot of the things that won’t bother either of the cultures since human in general are selfish.

  20. October 23, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Does it matter how individual yogis (current and historical) define their own schools of yoga?

    Presumably, some yogis want to spread their art to anyone who sincerely wants to learn. If that’s how they think about it it, then that spirit of inclusion is part of their culture/tradition. In that case, saying that only Indians should practice yoga would distort the original spirit of the enterprise.

    To use a rough analogy… Some religions proselytize aggressively, others you have to be born into, most are somewhere in between. I imagine different schools of yoga vary along this spectrum, too. It’s icky to see outsiders practicing Kabbalah because the originators viewed it as a sacred tradition reserved exclusively for those who had completed intensive study in mainstream Judaism. Someone who goes to a New Age workshop and calls themselves a Kabbalist is disrespecting the original tradition.

    If the originators (or current practitioners) of a certain school of yoga see their own tradition as being inherently inclusive, then it seems appropriate for a non-Indian to practice that kind of yoga (assuming they maintain a suitably humble and self-aware attitude about it).

  21. shah8
    October 23, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    I read the comments.

    They made me cringe, although to be fair, I don’t think Samhita structured her ideas with the necessary strength and fine-tuning…

    The broad angle of the issue is taken care of by re-reading the fable The Emperor’s New Clothes.

    The narrow angle of the issue is this:

    You don’t get do both the activity/aquire the item and appropriate the meaning without aknowledging or being accountable to the society or societies that created the meme.

    This means that I can drink all the fancy Darjeeling and Dancong teas I want, and I can even do it gong-fu! I just don’t claim to be authentic or otherwise do anything but drinking a tea I like to drink the way I want to drink it. After all, how one takes tea (even leaves, cup, and hot water) can be staggeringly diverse, even in Darjeeling or Fujian. If I *do* claim to be authentic, it only means that I researched and otherwised steeped myself in the ideas surrounding Indian or Chinese tea, and I don’t claim any more authority than I can safetly assert. I certainly do not claim to be more right than someone else unless that’s an actual checkable fact!

    The issue usually arises because socially dominant people, like the king in the aformentioned story, can assert their correctness with something close to impunity. Much of this is media driven–all the talk about new-age is rather more about media promulgated (and accepted as proper/improper) images of new-age activities. Seriously incorrect perception of people result from the confused jumble of memes passing through the airwaves. This, also, isn’t wrong either, most new culture/language is a result of incorrect or mixed up old cultures. Where cultural appropriation occurs is when we stick to our incorrect notions publicly and use our social power and hostility to win an argument. This hurts people, and it is recognized as rude because most of what matters about people are their ideas and senses of themselves and others.

    Nobody wants their religious tradition tainted or thought of as dangerous/decadent because powerful people insist that a sacramental drug is just people who want an excuse to get high or because idiots with more authority than sense gets people killed as a result of their quackery. Another example, on a tangent more specfic to black people is that in Japan, if a black man is of any size, they sometimes are referred to or addressed, often insistently, as Bobby Sapp. Bobby Sapp is a media personality in Japan who plays the role of a big, semiliterate, and maybe violent person on tv commercials and talk shows. To be thought of as not you, but some stupid lug on tv is aggravating at best and hurtful at worst. Alot of what cultural appropriation is really about is critically percieving our media soup.

    This is just not hard. There is no do this it’s bad, do that it’s okay. It’s only about not being an asshole to others, even if you have the power to get away with being an asshole.

  22. squirrely
    October 23, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    I think one of the reasons progressives/hipsters/posers fall in love so easily with other cultures, to the point of absurdity, is that it is so much easier to find the flaws in your own background or cultural space. For example, we all spend hours deconstructing the problems with suburbia/exurbia, whiteness as a power structure, the mass-produced sweatshop crap from the Gap. Who would want to live in that mess, after uncovering all it’s flaws? Other cultures have just as many “flaws” but they are invisible unless you’ve lived them. So we can find more spirituality in yoga than Methodism because we see all the cracks in our local church, but yoga is just far enough away from our own experience to be shiny and clean. We have the privilege of loving Mexican food because we are not so poor that we have to eat rice and beans every damn day. Taking the weight off, not participating in the fucked-upedness that is our own familiar world, that feels better to some people. Our own culture, well, that shit’s weighty. No matter what culture you call your own.

    It’s not a singularly American trait and I think we all need to be a little more generous with each other. Every culture takes holidays in another person’s shoes when given the chance. As colonialism progressed, westerners got a lot more chances to be idiots in this arena. But we don’t own the field.

    And after all, learning to love Mexican food is a whole lot better than forcing Mexican immigrants to “cook like us” and eat nothing but casseroles and jello.

  23. squirrely
    October 23, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    Since someone mentioned Edward Said, I’d be interested in what people think of “Provincializing Europe” by Chakrabarty.

    Of course, both were dudes, and miss major points for thinking man=universal experience.

    But an interesting and thought-provoking read, nonetheless.

  24. October 23, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Wow. This thread is painful to read.

    Okay folks. I mean okay, US-born and raised white folks. Let’s imagine someone else’s experience. She was born here to recent immigrants, or maybe born somewhere else and came here early.

    Her parents and grandparents have different clothes, but she doesn’t wear those close, because those clothes would make her look too different. She would get picked on and it would be harder for her to fit in. But some white kids wear those clothes, and they don’t get picked on. For them, it’s cool.

    Her parents and grandparents have different hairstyles, but she doesn’t wear those hairstyles, because those hairstyles would make her look too different. She would get picked on and it would be harder for her to fit in. But some white kids wear those hairstyles, and they don’t get picked on. For them, it’s cool.

    Her parents and grandparents have different religious beliefs, but she doesn’t publicize those, because those would make her seem too different. She would get picked on and it would be harder for her to fit in. But some white kids pull terms and symbols from that belief system as fashion, and they don’t get picked on. For them, it’s cool.

    Her parents and grandparents have a different language, but she doesn’t use it around her white peers, if she knows it at all, because that would make her seem too different. She would get picked on and it would be harder for her to fit in. But some white kids pull words and phrased from that language, often misunderstanding and mistranslating. They don’t get picked on. For them, it’s cool.

    Her parents and grandparents eat different food, but she doesn’t eat it around her white peers. That would make her seem too different. She would get picked on and it would be harder for her to fit in. But some white kids eat that food. They don’t get picked on. For them, it’s cool.

    As she grows up, bits and pieces of her culture become trendy, and some of her white peers participate in elements of it because they like a certain piece of clothing or a certain kind of food. But others identify with it. They ascribe certain essentialized characteristics, often based on common stereotypes, to that culture. Then, they try to make those characteristics rub off on themselves by surrounding themselves with bits and pieces of that culture. Their understanding may be flawed, but it may even be pretty good. But those people are not just participating in her culture. They are taking it, claiming it as their own, interpreting it, and using bits of it as pieces of their own identity.

    If you were her, wouldn’t you be a bit … perturbed?

  25. October 23, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    @Thomas: yep, that’s about it.

    I was subject to nonstop racial abuse and harassment throughout my childhood. Then, as I grew into adulthood, I realized that the things that made hated and different had suddenly become cool. Not that I’m cool (unless I agree to act as a kind of free interpreter of those things). The Japanese things are really cool. But not Japanese-American people. We’re just not Japanese enough.

    Same thing with Avatar: Asianness is cool. Asian people are not.

    In studies of African-American cultural appropriation, the phrase “everything but the burden” sums it up nicely.

    If you’re familiar with this dynamic, you start to develop a healthy distrust of anyone who thinks your heritage culture is cool. Because the next step is often that they’ll dehumanize, exploit and insult you. They might just use you to get those things they think are cool.

    Personally, I start off with the assumption that anyone interested in Japanese culture is a jerk, and I should avoid them. However, it’s very easy for people to redeem themselves from the automatic distrust position, sometimes in only a few seconds. For example, if they talk about being aware of cultural appropriation issues, they’ll move quickly into my “probably not a jerk” category.

  26. Mangotastic
    October 23, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    the problem i have with the whole appropriation/orientalism/exoticism thing is i can’t get any confirmation from the natives. i mean, if i show stuff progressive bloggers find offensive to my mom or grandmother they almost always think its wonderful.

    That’s true– my mom is the same way. HOWEVER, I think there’s a huge difference between immigrants and 1st gen’ers. I think that a large part of the immigrant experience, particularly the South Asian immigrant experience, is our status as the model minority. Our parents made it to America and are damn grateful to be here– so there is a tendency to ignore or diminish obstacles posed my racism etc. They want to believe in America as the land of opportunity– by ignoring instances of racism, they can seamlessly believe in the myth of the model minority and secure their place in America. So why bother about the Gwen Stefani’s bindi?

    But for 1st gen kids, at least for me, it’s very different. I totally identify with the hypothetical girl in Thomas’ post. My teachers and friends would gush about the outfits I came wearing to the “diversity day” celebrations, but the fresh-of-the-boat types in my classes who were still wearing shalwar-kameezs on a daily basis would get made fun of. I was always painfully aware of how my mom in her traditional clothes stuck out during parent teacher conferences. When I was younger and wore henna, the kids in my class would ask if I drew on myself with a marker. I’d insist my mom not ever give me dinner leftovers for lunch because I was afraid that my friends would think it looked or smelled weird. Now my college friends think it’s the coolest thing ever and are begging me to do henna designs for them and want to go out for Indian/Pakistani food all the time.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really think that’s great– I love playing around with henna and doing it for my friends and love it that we can go to South Asian restaurants because I barely eat anything else. But if someone made fun of them for having henna or eating desi food, they could always shrug it away because it wasn’t actually part of them. It wasn’t what their mother wore or what their kitchens at home smelled like.

  27. oldlady
    October 23, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Right on, Thomas.

  28. roses
    October 23, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Thomas, thank you for spelling it out that way, it helps a lot with my understanding.

  29. October 23, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    I’m a white woman born in North America, so I don’t at all mean this as a guide (as it’s not my place to make one), but this is the kind of mental process I try to use internally to check myself:

    I tend to think if interest and engaging another culture is done with caution and respect to better understand people of that culture as people and find connections with them, it’s not likely to end up as appropriation. If it is a process of idealizing a culture and othering people of that culture to serve the outsider’s desire to frame their own life as more exotic or what have you, it’s appropriation.

    White folks talking about how mystical India is aren’t talking about India or Indian people, they’re talking about themselves, and how their experience or understanding of this idealized world makes *them* special. The irony there is they probably then have less of an understanding of the people who make up the culture they’re allegedly so interested in.

    I think *internally* is an important part of this process, too, because expecting others to define our experience of them for us is an unacceptably privileged position to take (and centers the discussion of their culture in me, which is, well, appropriative), yet one people do again and again. I believe some of my most useful work as an ally (a word I really hate, instead I’d probably use ‘friend’) is done on myself, and without ever opening my mouth. Listening and learning goes a long way.

    And, of course, this also requires that if people call me on something they find appropriative, I STFU&L instead of trying to explain why it isn’t. None of this stuff means anything if I am more ready to dig in my heels because it feels bad to be wrong than I am to hear the experiences of others.

  30. Kyra
    October 23, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    There’s a legend of sorts (might’ve been real; not sure) about some Medieval European guy who tried to invent a flying machine by gluing feathers to a wooden, vaguely wing-shaped structure. And, unsurprisingly, it didn’t fly.

    Cultures are like flight that way. Covering something in feathers doesn’t make a bird; to fly, you need to look beneath the feathers and understand the physics and aerodynamics of flying, and build with that in mind.

    I have a tendency to go all kid-in-a-candy-shop about the beautiful things that cultures come up with, most specifically clothing and dance and religion. When I was younger, there were a few times when I found a specific culture so fascinating that I wanted it to be my own. Luckily, my interest always waned before I could make an ass out of myself, and now I (hopefully) know better. Thinking back on it, however, I notice that there was always a moment (or many moments) of disillusionment, when I discovered some aspect of the culture which I really did not like, and here is where one particular aspect of appropriation comes into play:

    Appropriation would be saying “I dislike these aspects of (culture), so I will reject, ignore, or change them, but this doesn’t make me any less (culture); in fact I am a better (culture) because I have removed the bad parts of it” and acting in accordance with that.

    Respect would be saying “I dislike these aspects of (culture), so I will learn about and try to understand why they are important to (culture), and if I cannot embrace them then I will limit my immersion in this culture to a level where my rejection of these aspects is not an insult or a violation.”

    That, and, of course, understanding the people and the history and the people’s experience as people of that culture. People are the heart of any culture, and understanding them might be much more labor-intensive and less glamorous than putting on a sari or waving a katana around, and less ego-feeding than correcting people on their pronunciation and lecturing about whether geisha were prostitutes, but it’s the best way to live up to whatever amount of different cultures you might want to add to your life.

  31. October 23, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    I’m suddenly reminded of my (white) friends and acquaintances in college who fancied themselves “rastas”. Including several women. Mostly, it appeared they wanted to dignify their obsession with pot with some sort of exotic mystical spirituality.

    Then someone explained to them the struggles of women in Rastafarian culture. Suddenly, they weren’t deep mystical rastas anymore.

    Cultural appropriation: yr doin it rong.

  32. tinfoil hattie
    October 24, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    In the comments on both sites, everyone seems to be so sure that what other people are doing is “appropriation” or “not appropriation.”

    The smugness is a real howler.

  33. shah8
    October 24, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    As an added note, The Big Bang Theory had an episode that really touches on the ideas of appropriation a few weeks ago. Only that, in Howard and Raj’s case, goth culture could and did hold them partially accountable, in terms of whether they got laid or not. They, of course, were not held accountable within the story, for the douchtastic attitudes that they had demostrated to the victimized goth girls.

    Then there is the running gag on how Sheldon knows more about Indian culture than Raj and how that pissed Raj off…

    Is there a feminist blogger who does Dollhouse? The episode last night approached creepy sublime and I’ve already enjoyed excellent commentary on TWOP and would like more/more sophisticated thoughts.

  34. jem
    October 24, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    So a Korean kid who walks down the street with baggy clothes and a backwards hat listening to American hiphop is appropriating? Look, I was in Japan and saw some uses of Christianity that I know would send the more religious types into a frenzy over but I thought it was interesting the way they took it and made it their own. Culture is a fluid entity and belongs to no one and trying to say “That person is stealing something that belongs to me” is a ridiculous position to have.

  35. Sid
    October 24, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    That is an example of appropriation—-a sacred ritual turned into a commercial enterprise to profit a charlatan.

    Yes, its called Bikram Yoga. I am always surprised at the number of my otherwise progressive friends who espouse how awesome it is without realizing how much of a douche the dude is. While on a personal level it is annoying/disappointing to see so many South Asian things appropriated and extricated of their context/meaning by Western consumer outlets: yoga, chai, the sandals, kurtas, et al, however it doesn’t mean engaging with those things is racism. What’s really irksome are the yuppies/hipsters who feel the need to comment on the authenticity of said items b/c they have friends or have visited the native areas of said cultures. It’s very annoying that hipsters listen to pop music in another language announcing its beauty when if that music was in English they’d be decrying it as just more top 40 crap or corporate kaka. But even they don’t get my blood boiling as much as people like Tyler Cowen; people who eat ethnic food and then snobbily purport to its “authenticity,” who feel the incessant need to

  36. Joy
    October 24, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    I find Thomas’s post (25) the most offensive personally. As a Korean-American, I find Thomas’s description belittling, and it removes all agency from this fictional woman. Guess what, some of us don’t dress in traditional clothes because we LIKE american clothes. Some of us are glad people are starting to embrace our culture some, so that our kids perhaps aren’t going to be embarrassed about eating kimchee. Brittney Spears wearing han bok…meh, who cares. More korean restaurants…great. More people accept Buddhism, even if they are usually grossly misinformed…not great, but not evil colonialism either. These two threads seem to be stereotypical progressive hand wringing and uptightness over nothing. And I consider myself a progressive as well (though I’m sure, without knowing me at all, many will disagree). And I’m not trying to discount Samhita’s post—yes it’s her experience. I just completely disagree with her. The comments on her post didn’t seem all that offensive either. The whole point of comments is to have a dialogue. But if some people start asking questions then it’s

    ****“I’m white and I really like Indian food. Am I culturally appropriating? Please, wise Indian lady, answer me!”***

    No wonder white people are too fucking scared to talk about race. Don’t get me wrong, I have heard some really ignorant clueless white people questions, but (and I’ll admit I didn’t carefully read EVERY comment) overall the original thread wasn’t that bad. This is what I hate about the liberal blogosphere (and why I don’t comment very often). If you’re not simply adding to the echo-chamber, then you are WRONG!!!! (let the “then don’t read our blogs!!!” begin)

  37. Manju
    October 24, 2009 at 11:55 pm


    You’re right about our parents being generally very grateful to be here in America, and thus as “guests” feel it impolite to complain…whereas we feel as entitled to equal treatment as any other American. But I don’t think that fully explains the disconnect.

    First of all, many of the older generation actually experienced colonialism, so they would have knowledge of relationships of domination that we could barely begin to imagine. Its unclear why they wouldn’t be sensitve to foreign approprators in India. Even among younger immigrants, the consensus appears to be that the UK suffers from a colonial hangover while the US is a place where you get treated like an individual. A British Obama is a long way off, they calim. My family left the UK in part to escape the complexities of living in the land which used to be our colonial master.

    Also, its unclear there’s even a consensus among the first-gen born in the usa. Experiences with American racism differ wildly, with some testifying to it being an everyday occurance and others experiencing none at all. For most apolitical people, cultural respect is somewhat commonsensical and not too much different from the sensitivities the majority have. submerge a crucifix in urine: you got a problem. Gwen stefani in a bindi: you go girl. that Temple of Doom scene got almost universal condemnation, for example.

    But among the subest of first-gen immigrants who are progressively inclined the sensitivity is off the charts, probably because of person experiences mixed with a philosophy hyper-tuned to subtle differences in power. So, for the appropriators looking to amend their behavior, I think listening to POC beyond the confines of the progressive world is important. Diversity problematized the notion of appropriation because it reveals the sensitivities being violated are not necessarily emerging organically from the culture, but from a political mindset. And that OK. For most here on these boards, progressive values are your values, so you may very well want to conform to them. But that not quite the same thing as being attuned to another culture.

  38. October 25, 2009 at 3:37 am

    Regarding the holy grail of authenticity in food, a sign I saw last week on vacation made my head spin. A resort advertised that its restaurant had “the most authentic Thai food” in the area. Funny thing is, the area in question was Phuket.

    I still can’t figure it out.

  39. PTS
    October 25, 2009 at 4:19 am

    But I want to note how unfair the whole discussion is to those of us who don’t have the decoder ring.

    So, some non-privileged group has some feature that has appealing features. Perhaps they have food that uses spices and taste combinations Northern Europeans. Or perhaps they provide a way of working out that is more spiritual and less goal-oriented than those typically available. Or perhaps the traditional clothing actually make more sense than historically Northern European styles given the clime (Arizona isn’t a lot like Northern Germany).

    So, the privileged person thinks, “This is truly excellent food/exercise/clothing. I will consume this.”

    So they do. They were the article of clothing, eat the food, enjoy the exercise regime. Perhaps, they unfortunately imbibe some stereotypes or non-nuanced views about the culture that produced these items or practices.

    Then, someone comes along saying, “You are appropriating. You are stealing my culture. You are engaging in an activity that deeply offends me.” More than that, the member of the appropriated culture claims to have AUTHORITY over what counts as appropriation.

    So, the misguided but not wicked privileged person asks, “So should I stop doing the exercise, eating the food, wearing the clothing?”

    The victim of the appropriation says, “Well, no. I wouldn’t say that. I would just say be aware of what you are doing, and be more nuanced in your appreciation of my culture so that you are less offensive.”

    To which the privileged person says, “Fair enough, how do I do that? Where can I get some knowledge about how to consume these items and observe these practices without being offensive? Where can I gain more nuanced knowledge about the situated role of these practices/items?”

    And then the non-privileged person says, “It isn’t my job to educate you. POC don’t have to suffer the indignity of explaining ourselves to white privileged appropriators.”

    And there we are, trapped. The person who is a member of the culture that originated these things we now enjoy has claimed absolutely authority over whether our behavior is offensive or not. They know what appropriation is when they see it and they have no qualms about letting us know when we have crossed the line. A line they have drawn and we can’t see.

    Yet, it is EQUALLY offensive when we ask how the line was drawn and ask for assistance in not crossing over it.

    I am sorry, but I don’t see how someone can have BOTH the absolute authority to declare an action or a behavior appropriating or offensive and also claim that they can then rightfully abdicate any responsibiltiy for explaining why they made the declaration.

    Now, I must say I am more sympathetic to the latter claim than the first. I think it is somewhat insulting and can even be demeaning to be always asked, qua member of a culture, to explain oneself to “tourists.” But immunity from having to explain your culture to tourists brings a responsibility to understand how “appropriators” view their appropriation and be a bit sympathetic. Or so it seems to me

    So…what is a privileged person who has a genuine desire not appropriate in a problematic way supposed to do? Never go outside their own culture? Ignore claims that they are offensively appropriating? I am genuinely at a loss here.

    And here’s the thing, if I end this post with the question: how do we live in a cultural diverse world (both diverse in terms of there being many cultures and considerable and growing diversity within cultures) in a way that allows us to enjoy and respect each other’s diversity, then there is a sense in which THAT question might be offensive. After all, I am really asking that question of the women and POC who visit these comment boards. So, again, how does one have a constructive dialogue if the request for that dialogue can itself be seen as appropriating behavior?

  40. PTS
    October 25, 2009 at 4:21 am

    God, the first couple paragraphs are very typo-ridden. I really must preview my posts.

  41. Dianne
    October 25, 2009 at 8:32 am

    If you’re Italian/Irish like me and find yourself walking down the street in a sari, decked out in bindi, reciting the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit, you are appropriating.

    In general, I agree, but I would mention an exception…If you’re wearing a sari and reciting the Bhagavad Gita while walking down the streets of New Delhi on your way to finishing up your citizenship requirements you’re not appropriating, you’re integrating with your new home’s culture. Well, walking down the street reciting the Bhagavad Gita is a little strange in any culture. Maybe walking down the street chatting on your cell phone in Sanskrit or Hindi or one of the other local languages.

  42. Dianne
    October 25, 2009 at 8:59 am

    That is an example of appropriation—-a sacred ritual turned into a commercial enterprise to profit a charlatan.

    It strikes me that the “go into a sweat lodge come and have a mystic experience” thing is a bit like if a bunch of…I’m not even sure what group, maybe Chinese or Indian billionaires, anyway a group of people who are both not Christian or even from a Christian predominant culture and clearly very powerful, tried to get in touch with the mystic ways of Catholicism. And their way of doing this was to hire someone to dress up in fancy robes and feed everyone crackers and wine and claim they’d participated in communion. Both offensive and seriously missing the point.

  43. October 25, 2009 at 9:55 am

    I’m an American and I don’t get upset when Indian DJs use American hip-hop samples. I don’t get mad at French people for listening to jazz.

    It’s a second-level appropriation at that point.

    You *did* know that hip-hop and jazz both originated in black American culture and was appropriated by white American culture before going out into the world, right?

  44. Tom Foolery
    October 25, 2009 at 10:05 am

    I love PTS’s line of questioning here, and I hope somebody addresses it.

  45. shah8
    October 25, 2009 at 10:40 am

    PTS‘s line of questioning is seriously passive agressive, with plenty of fallacies built around the assumptions one may have of who has the power to do what to who, instead. I take it about as seriously as I do MRA guys, who kinda miss the point by assuming that all power relationships are zero sum.

  46. Azalea
    October 25, 2009 at 11:16 am

    This is such a pricky situation. My cultural and racial background is diverse so that really changes my perception of things like this.

    Because most of us are arrogant enough to presume we know someone’s genetic makup just by looking at them, we can easily assume that someone is appropriating.

    I think that’s the first an done of the biggest flaws in this.

    The second is, being an American doesn’t make you an expert on American culture or even mean that you can speak english or know American history.

    Asia is a huge continent with different cultures, languages, people, religions and traditions in different places. Africa is a huge continent with different cultures, languages, people, religions and traditions. Knowing all there is to know about any single country is a huge feat that only scholars typically know because they study the history and the present state of the country- regardless of whether that scholar is actually from the country or not.

    How do you fele about CISMALE gynecologists or abortion providers? Sterile/infertile obstetricians? Women officials for male only sports? Blind artists? Deaf muscians? These are all people who would be authorities on something or someone they NEVER EVER could physically experience and it made them no less an authority than those who could/did.

  47. Glauke
    October 25, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    PTS, I hope that when I end up in that situation, I will do approximately this.

    “ouch. I didn’t realise. Of course you’re not required to teach me. I’m so sorry, I’m an idiot” (knowing myself, I would blush)

    And return to the library. What more is there to learn?

    Return to the google query “unpacking knapsack”.

    Check Womanist Musings.

    Reassess my own behaviour. Where did I go wrong? How can I fix it?

    No guarantees, but this is roughly what I hope I’ll so.

  48. PTS
    October 25, 2009 at 5:25 pm


    Precisely my point. My attempt to explain where some of us might be coming from has been met with veiled accusations, blanket assertions that I am wrong without any justification whatsoever, and guilt by association with people I find politically repugnant. At no point did I make the claim that power is a zero-sum game (in fact, my question at the end assumes that it isn’t), I was merely pointing out a tension between a) individuals claiming absolute epistemic authority over what is “appropriating” or “offensive” and b) those individuals claiming immunity over having to explain–in any way–why they are making the claims in a) or b).


    Excellent. I think this is a good start. I would make a couple points though:

    1) Some people would assert that going to the library to learn more about another culture is itself appropriating. “Oh, you think you can take from my culture because you read a book or visited a blog, do you?” etc etc

    2) The broader point is this. If each individual member of the culture claims authority to say what is offensive “to them” or appropriating “to them,” then no amount of education can be sufficient. After all, if this comment thread has shown us anything, it is that different people–even within a culture–have radically different conceptions what it is to appropriate. So, are we supposed to simply bump around getting accused of cultural threat? And then, each time simply return to the library to read a book?

    3) And then, what books? Which books? Do those written by westerners? Western educated members of the culture? POC who live in the United States? What about the books about those cultures that are in favor of even broader appropriation? Are those books wrong?

    4) Finally, I want to be clear. I think POC and others who are in a disadvantageous position are owed a lot of epistemic deference on this front. If a POC makes a claim that something is ‘offensive’ ‘racist’ or ‘problematically appropriating’ then they are quite likely to be correct. We should acknowledge the situatdness of knowledge and see that they are likely to be able to see subtexts that white privileged people cannot. However, the deference is not infinite. Individuals can be wong, mistaken, or oversensitive. Individuals can be uncharitable, operating in bad faith, or just plain mean.

    And that’s why we have to be able to have a conversation about these things without the claim for a dialogue to itself be considered offensive.

  49. October 25, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    PTS, a few things.

    I don’t think anybody thinks of education of all things as appropriation. And yep, you’re right, each individual member of a culture gets to claim authority as to what is offensive to them. And it differs widely, because non-white people, much like white people, are not a monolith.

    As for which books, well, presumably you either have or can develop research skills and can use those to determine how a particular source might be valuable to you. There are lots of reading lists and such about, and it’s not hard to determine who the most respected writers on a topic are. It’d be a good idea to find resources from a variety of perspectives, all the while prioritising the voices from the actual culture.

    I think it’s pretty evident you’re having trouble with that idea: why did you say ‘POC who live in the United States’ in particular? Or how about ‘they are quite likely to be correct’ or ‘individuals can be wrong, mistaken, or oversensitive’? The former indicates that you’re thinking non-white people might actually be incorrect about their own experience of the appropriation of their own culture. So who’s going to judge correctness? Usually white people appoint themselves the impartial party here. As for the latter, if you’re using the ‘oversensitive’ argument, you seriously need some racism 101.

    At the end of the day, you cannot learn every person’s opinion on everything. You can, however, make a sincere effort to learn about different cultures and ideas around appropriation, then shift your thinking when you come into conflict with a marginalised individual, where you should of course prioritise their views and feelings. So whether white people – I assume you mean ‘white people’ by ‘we’ – are supposed to simply bump around getting accused of cultural theft or not isn’t the point: the point is centring non-white people and our feelings. Whether white people mess up is your problem, yours to negotiate more carefully.

    You’re looking for a monolithic viewpoint, and you’re not sure where to find that, and in the mean time you’re asking your particular approach be used in the dialogue. So, firstly, you’re not going to find a monolithic viewpoint, all you can do is negotiate this as respectfully as possible. Secondly, I’d recommend taking your own advice and deferring to non-white people on how these conversations should go forward. Above all, non-white people are never, ever obligated to educate you.

  50. shah8
    October 25, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    You know, you do have to accept that you might be wrong about something, and lose a bit of public face now and then. No biggie. No one owes you either their pain or their labor in service to your awareness.

  51. tomoe gozen
    October 25, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    I agree completely with joy, being half korean/half japanese myself. Meeting non-Asians who are a bit more informed about my cultures than well, older types who assume that I might have had relatives who attacked Pearl Harbor, or people who were raised by such is refreshing.

    What remains offensive to me are ‘sweet’ ‘progressive’ types that feel it’s their job to be pre-emptively offended for me, often times without knowing the ins and outs of what someone else is appropriating/borrowing. See the Oppomax and like clueless white girls… Nearly as bad are non-Asian POC who would be appalled by a stereotypic notion about themselves, but ‘expect’ behaviors out of me- calmness, ‘intuitiveness’, deference to men that simply isn’t there- and act surprised when they don’t see them.

  52. kiki
    October 26, 2009 at 12:11 am

    Are people really saying that I need to learn everything there is to know about India before I can eat some curry?

  53. Dana
    October 26, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Hmm, I really don’t think it’s as hard as you make it sound PTS. You just have to use a little thing called empathy. To be fair, I compulsively analyse everything I do in my life, so it’s not a big deal for me to turn over in my mind how appropriate or not it is for me to engage in a certain activity – and most importantly, the attitude I take.

    I do Astanga yoga. It is the only way I can force myself to stretch, it feels great and helps with the joint pain I get from my natural lack of flexibility. The couple who run it I believe are Buddhist and I enjoy the feeling of ritual in the movements, but they do not integrate their beliefs into their teaching beyond mentioning the origins of certain things and I do not believe I am appropriating to enjoy an activity which helps me physically and psychologically.

    I cannot please everyone all the time, but I can make an informed decision about whether I’m being a pretentious git or not, and live with anyone’s irritation – I am certainly open to constructive criticism if it comes down to that.

    If I thought I was more authentic and what I did was super deep, man, because the white couple who teach me yoga are Buddhist, then I would be a prat. If I thought I had the right to preach to other people about what yoga and Buddhism really means because I do yoga then I would be appropriating.

    Seems a clear emotional distinction to me, but I could be wrong. Everyone’s wrong sometimes. :D

  54. October 26, 2009 at 2:45 am

    kiki, that’s pretty disingenuous.

  55. PTS
    October 26, 2009 at 5:38 am


    I specifically said that POC who make claims of appropriation are due considerable epistemic deference and are very often correct. This seems to me to open up the possibility that I could wrongfully appropriate and be rightfully upbraided for doing so.

    I don’t think you are reading me very carefully Shah8. In fact, I don’t think you are engaged in good faith dialogue. Unlike you, I think that people do owe each other that.


    I think that’s fine, but it may be a bit complacent. I absolutely grant that we should try to be educated and empathic and do our level best not to be jersk

    On the other hand, people aren’t always that great at knowing when they are being jerks. After all, I suggested that POC are owed some epistemic deference and may very well be able to see things in a particular subtext that I can’t. Sometimes, other people really do know better than we do. And most of the time, we benefit from a diversity of perspectives.

    Now, I think you will say. Sometimes, people are just unreasonable and we have to just ignore them.

    But that precisely what I said. I am just saying we would do a much better job of not being jerks to each other if we thought it was okay to ask for help at not being a jerk. But some people are saying precisely that, and I worry about the tenor of those comments.

    Let me put another way. I think the following inconsistent triad has been put forth in the comments:

    1) Appropriation, in some forms at least, is morally reprhensible and ought to be avoided.

    2) Appropriation is purely subjective and some individuals have unimpeachable authority to make claims that their culture has been appropriated.

    3) Those who make those claims have no obligation to explain or justify those claims and are under no obligation to help others avoid appropriation.

    I simply cannot see how all three of those things can be true. Dana, I am pretty sure you would reject (2). That’s the one I would reject, but I just think we need to be clear and upfront about it.

  56. PTS
    October 26, 2009 at 5:41 am

    I would edit 2) above to say the following actually:

    **2) Appropriation is purely subjective and some individuals have unimpeachable authority to make claims that their culture has been appropriated. Further, people within the authoritative epistemic group–as a matter of fact–have radically different conceptions of what constitutes appropriation.**

  57. October 26, 2009 at 8:15 am

    PTS: you are the one who is arguing in bad faith. There is little point in having a conversation with you, because you’ll just keep throwing out straw men and slippery slope arguments which end up in “but you’re telling me white people aren’t allowed to have nice things without feeling guilty”. You need to get clue and start realizing that the stakes for you are very low, and the stakes for people whose culture is being appropriated are a LOT higher. Instead of complaining about how complicated this all this, try to think that people of color who grew up as minorities have had to navigate the complicated stuff since they were barely conscious.

    Here’s some points of my own.

    1. All people of color do not agree on everything. The fact that this SURPRISES you is ridiculous. It’s a pretty basic point.

    2. cultural appropriation is subjective. And so is everything else involving the emotions of human beings. Expecting some black and white law saying exactly what you can and cannot appropriate/use is like trying to solve a trigonometry problem using only empathy and compassion.

    3. The practice is complicated. The theory is simple. Show people RESPECT by listening to their concerns. Realize their stake in the matter might be a lot higher than yours. Don’t respond with dumbass fallacious parallels like “I saw a Chinese guy eating a hamburger the other day… HA I GOTCHA!”

  58. kiki
    October 26, 2009 at 9:39 am


    Well that is essentially what people are saying.

  59. MaryC
    October 26, 2009 at 9:43 am

    That thread really got painful. Actually it was very meta — a discussion ostensibly about cultural appropriation got appropriated by guilty-feeling white people.

  60. jemand
    October 26, 2009 at 10:45 am

    tomoe gozen gets annoyed when others not in her culture decide to get offended for her. This seems very logical to me. Isn’t it a little bit arrogant for so many western/white people to be going on and on about this topic, what is and isn’t offensive and what is and isn’t a good line for deciding appropriation, even if it’s “listen to them” when the very fact that they keep talking and monopolizing the conversation kind of undoes it? I very much liked the first story– it was authentic and it was from someone who lived it, who knew it. But then after that we’ve gotten into a lot of people like me* talking about “others” and in fact it’s gotten completely derailed from the original story and those voices from outside my culture have been pretty subsumed. And that’s who I was most interested in hearing from.

    * and yet I comment. yay hypocrisy.

  61. October 26, 2009 at 11:35 am


    No, that’s not what people are saying. At all.

  62. Sheelzebub
    October 26, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Here’s a thought: stop treating another culture or faith like a freaking fashion accessory.

  63. Kai
    October 26, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Hi, I’m a hamburger-eating Chinese guy. Whiteness is about colonialism, about having power over others and taking stuff from them without permission; so it flies in the face of whiteness to suggest that people of color actually have thoughts, feelings, and judgments about the practices and uses and manifestations of our own cultural traditions. White folks can’t imagine that when I see them eating Chinese food (never mind Buddhism, that’s a whole tome unto itself), my inner response is more complicated than feel-good flashbacks of Woody Allen movies. My personal connection to and lifelong study of thousands of years of history and culture (in which food is a big frakking deal), my experience of a lifetime of white racism, and my anti-colonial anti-racist analysis of today’s global politics, enter the picture. That’s just how it is, and white folks have no say in this reality despite their frustration at not having control over every area of discourse. Life makes no sense to some white folks if you’re telling them they can’t just trample anywhere they want leaving behind a swath of torn-up earth and decimated gardens and stolen harvests and poisoned streams. That’s some people’s whole approach to life. Just look at the history of whiteness.

    Once again, please refer to the classic Glosario entry for Wite-Majik Attaks. This discussion features a mashup of them.

  64. Manju
    October 26, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    “Here’s a thought: stop treating another culture or faith like a freaking fashion accessory.”

    I got a problem with this. First of all its unclear why when the west exports their culture, which sells in India like hot naan, its considered cultural imperialism but when the the reverse happens its appropriation. i know, the power difference justifies the double standard, but frankly in a world where India and China are largely predicated to be the next economic hegemons, this argument is looking strained. I’m bothered by the easy denial of agency to POC in leftwing thought. When whites make their culture into a “freakiing fashion statement” for the rest of the world to consume its them doing it, but when other cultures are commodified its still whites doing it. POC always seem to play a passive role in this scheme. I wonder if these power theories are really a disinterested awareness of truth or subtle bigotry in and off itself.

    Indeed, many POC have no problem with others treating their culture as a fashion statement. A whole cottage industry has developed, among some of the poorest of the poor, often fueled by microloans, selling their cultural commodities to the west. i have relatives still in the village and have yet to hear a complaint. and no, arundhati Roy doesn’t speak for them.

    Now I understand such commodification may violate your values as progressives, and that your prerogative. You have every right to argue for a moral system you consider superior even if the majority of POC disagree. But if you’re arguing this in order to align yourself with POC, its unclear to me why Samhita or Kai’s sensitivities should be privileged above my villager relatives.

  65. October 26, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    @Manju: your argument only makes sense if you’re holding POC up to a much higher standard of uniformity than white people.

    Yes, we have different opinions about what constitutes cultural appropriation and whether cultural appropriation even exists. That’s because we’re very different people who have very different life experiences. Just because, say, SOME Indians are privileged does not mean all Indians are… that would be subscribing to a race-trumps-everything-including-class argument, which I don’t believe in.

    And it seems to me you’re wielding your villager relatives as a symbolic bludgeon in much the same way that you accuse progressive white people of wielding the construction “people of color”.

  66. October 26, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    And I’ll make it even clearer for you. I do NOT presume to speak for your villager relatives. I do not presume to speak for any of my OWN relatives who, similarly, have a different stake in the matter than I do, or no stake at all. I’m speaking for myself, and I’m also speaking for people of color with roughly my same background who agree with what I’m saying, and I’ve found that a) we are not rare b) we are often allied with white progressives, sometimes in opposition, but not puppets of them, contrary to what you conservative/libertarians love to claim.

  67. October 26, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I find this talk about culture very interesting. I grew up in India and then moved to the US. Now that should make me “authentically Indian”- only that it is quite not that way. I grew up in a non- religious mixed( my parents are from different parts of the country) household. As a result, even though I grew up in a world of temples and festivals, how we marked these things at home was markedly different. Also the regional influences of the small town I grew up in marks a lot of the Indian culture I know. It is only moving to the US and marrying my husband, who is from yet another part of India that I got to see a richer diversity of “Indian culture” Would it be appropriation on my part if I were to cherry pick things I like from experiences I have had and people I met? Also my understanding of culture is that too often it is an interpretation by individuals and families, maybe. Commodification of the sort manju discusses happens and probably is all in part of the spread of said culture. And then there is the recency effect also – is Bollywood as much a part of Indian culture as the ancient temple dances are? Pardon me for making it into such a mishmash, but these are questions I very often ponder because I do not really know what is “my” culture, nor of the children I may have some day.

  68. tomoe gozen
    October 26, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    you know, i feel rather proud when I see whites and non-asian POC eating korean food, so long as there’s no stale attempts at ethnic humor or “look at me i am such an ally/i am so cosmopolitan” auto-back patting involved.

  69. PTS
    October 27, 2009 at 6:46 pm


    I am going to try and be as clear as I can. You seem to be adding

    1) At no point did I complain “White people can’t have nice things without feeling guilty.” Nor did I ever say anything similar. In fact, I said that most, probably a vast majority of claims of appropriation are quite justified. That’s what all the stuff about “epistemic deference” means. My question has always been, in a multi-cultural society, how can we respect and enjoy our differences without hurting each other?

    2) Nowhere did I express “surprise” that POC disagree about appropriation. I did use it as a fact in my argument. You are reading something into my comments that aren’t there in order to paint me in a worse light.

    3) I grant that the principle “show respect” is easy to say but difficult to put into practice. It is especially hard when people disagree about what it is to show respect. People aren’t necessarily evil if they disagree.

    4) You say the stakes are much higher for POC than for me. And you are, of course, correct (though, for people who economically depend on my consumption of their products, the stakes of this discussion can be quite high but never mind). I have already granted, multiple times, that POC who make claims of appropriation should be given great deference concerning those claims. I don’t know how much clearer I can be about this.

    5) You say “strawmen.” Like what? I was objecting to the claim that people are always already and necessarily correct when they make claims about wrongful appropriation. That is a claim you endorsed. If you endorse it, how could it be a strawmen?

    6) I certainly never said ANYTHING like “I saw a chinese guy eat a hamburger, so everything is okay.” That is simply slanderous.

    Let me use an analogy: hurting people’s feelings in the context of ordinary friendship. Hurting people’s feelings is usually a bad thing to do. Whether one has hurt some person’s feelings depends on the person whose feelings are hurt. However, it is not always the case we have to be deferential to another person’s feelings. Sometimes, only sometimes, we are justified in hurting people’s feelings. Sometime people think they are being wronged when, in fact, they aren’t. Sometimes people demand too much of us. Sometimes, people just have to live with their offense. That, SOMETIMES, happens. In a friendship, the answer is to TALK. It is to have a conversation about what the proper boundaries are, how people got hurt and why.

    As it happens, I think this happens far more with ordinary friendship than I think it does with claims of appropriation, but I still think it happens. And this is often indicated by the fact POC will often themselves disagree about whether something is appropriation or not. So, if I am trying to respect a POC’s feelings on the matter, which one’s do I respect?


    I agree consulting the actual culture would be the best way to go (as to whether people make the claim that education itself is appropriating, since I have heard that claim actually made by Middle East scholars re: Said and the Orientalists, I will just have to disagree with you on that), but sadly, people often lack the language skills for that. And that is, of course, yet another indication of the differential power of white privilege. But Further, negotiating Indian culture as it exists in the USA, for example, seems to me somewhat different from negotiating Indian culture in India since cultures are necessarily affected by their socio-economic and political milieus.

    There is an important conflation you make in your response that is indicated by my inconsistent triad. First, you talk about people’s “experiences with appropriation” and then, later on, you talk about white people “messing up.”

    Can a person be wrong about appropriation? It depends on what one means by appropriation. If by “appropriation,” you mean “when people feel like they are being appropriated,” then the answer is no. No one can be wrong about whether they feel their culture is being appropriated. But if you mean by “appropriated” something like “an action that involves wrongful cultural threat or domination” then people can be wrong about that.

    And you agree with me, because you rightfully think the claims that American whites are seeing their culture appropriated are bunk. And they are bunk. But, of course, evangelical whites, for example, certainly do FEEL like their culturel is being stolen. But they are just wrong.

    Furthermore, people can have reasonable disagreements about whether something is an instance of wrongful cultural threft or domination. The best way to work this out is to not respond to a request for dialogue like it is yet another move of cultural imperialism. But let me say yet again that–in those dialogues–whites have to acknowledge that what SEEMS reasonable to them may very well not be. Whites need to acknowledge that their uprbring can make it very hard to see when WRONGFUL appropriation is occuring.

    To put it another way, while I do think it is possible for POC to get it wrong about whether wrongful appropriation is going on, I don’t think it is very likely or occurs very often that a POC will feel that something bad is going down and there is nothing morally problematic about a white’s actions. However, I do think there is a wider space for reasonable disagreement than perhaps others do. But I take this as representative of the complexity of privilege and former colonial relationships, not as a failure to acknowledge it.

    And with that, I think I have explained myself quite thoroughly.

  70. Banisteriopsis
    October 28, 2009 at 6:33 am

    To put it another way, while I do think it is possible for POC to get it wrong about whether wrongful appropriation is going on

    It’s not your decision to make.

    > 1) Appropriation, in some forms at least, is morally reprhensible and ought to be avoided.

    > 2) Appropriation is purely subjective and some individuals have unimpeachable authority to make claims that their culture has been appropriated.
    Yes. Because it’s their culture, not yours. You may offend a particular person, who may or may not be representative of a larger point of view.

    > 3) Those who make those claims have no obligation to explain or justify those claims and are under no obligation to help others avoid appropriation.
    Yes. There are resources available to you. You obviously have the internets.

    Using more words doesn’t make you any more right. By thinking you need to explain more, rather than showing an appreciation of what people who know more than you about it are telling you, you’re expressing privilege. I recommend bookmarking Radicalicious and reading it often.

  71. October 29, 2009 at 7:34 am

    I grew up in hippie culture in Vermont in the 1970s. Yoga was part of my culture growing up, having been *previously appropriated*. That said, it is part of my culture, and my life, though I’m Irish as the day is long. I don’t wear saris around, though I do wear an Irish Ruana regularly. When I go tribal, which I do like to do, I go Celtic and Pictish and Norse and Scots, all heritages which make up my background.

    The US is *not* a “melting pot”, it is a tossed salad (with WAY too much iceberg lettuce), but it is also an empire just as the Roman and British empires were, and as such, much of what was once the culture of subject nations (or nationalities) has become uniquely American. Good examples are pizza and St. Patricks Day, to pick on two European ethnicities that were at one time discriminated against minorities in the US. Yoga I think falls into that category better than does the wearing of a sari or Native American sweat lodge ceremonies. Whole schools of yoga have sprung up in the US that are American with Indian roots, rather than Indian. Much like Buddhism or Christianity, Yoga (though not exactly a religion) appears to be adapting to the culture in which it finds itself.

  72. October 29, 2009 at 10:11 am

    I think the view is often what makes the difference between appreciation vs. appropriation. Personal experience: When I was younger (like, middle school), I used to be really interested in Indian culture, religion, music, etc., and a lot of that waned when I actually got to know people who were Indian (which, coming from metro Detroit, isn’t too hard). I think it’s because I started to see how weird it was for white people to appropriate their culture and pretend to be experts on it, and how incredibly colonialist that was. I don’t think the degree to which people enjoy a foreign culture is the problem; for example, I’d argue that a white person whose interest in Indian religion drives them to actually convert to Hinduism or Buddhism, and to do some actual research on those religions and make an actual effort to follow them more closely, is being a lot more sensitive than, say, a white person whose idea of “Buddhism” is limited to owning a book about it and/or wearing karma beads and/or having a “Free Tibet” sticker on their car. The former is a lot more sensitive because it shows appreciation for the complexity and nuance of a culture, and an understanding that one is coming into it as a foreigner. The latter, treating a complex culture as just a fun little pastime, seems a lot more colonialist and racist, imho. The ideas I think you have to understand are that a) this is an entire culture we’re talking about, which is just as complex and, in the case of India, much older than Western culture, and b) that as a white Westerner, it’s on me to prove to the natives of that culture that my motives are genuine and not colonialist or appropriating. And that includes doing the research and realizing that I’m not an “expert” by any means just because I know more than most white Westerners.

    Beyond Indian culture, my sister is really active in anime fandom (she’s been to a lot of conventions) and I’ve noticed an eerie similarity in the approach some Western anime fans have toward Japanese culture.

    P.S. In response to earlier comments about native-born vs. American-born people of a certain ethnicity and who is the “real” one: I’m of Polish descent on my mother’s side and there was a girl in my high school who was actually from Poland who made it clear to me on multiple occasions that, because I’m not 100% Polish, because I grew up in America and I’m not Catholic and I don’t speak the language, I’m not “really” Polish. I couldn’t help but find this incredibly degrading, especially since my mom has a degree in Polish language and has spent a significant amount of time studying Polish history and culture, including studying in Poland itself – and had she had her way, my sister and I would know the language and be more familiar with the culture, but my bio dad wouldn’t let my mom do this. Of course, I can also see how as someone raised in that culture, she’d be a bit bothered by the fact that someone who is essentially an outsider to Polish culture despite being ethnically Polish would appropriate it as their own culture too. But I also think that her assumptions about me had racist and nationalistic undertones, especially how she taunted me by saying “I don’t speak ‘American Polish'” when I pronounced my family’s name the American way. I wonder what other people here think about that – is, say, an American of a certain ethnicity who wants to get in touch with their “native” culture guilty of a form of appropriation? (I’m not comparing it to Western appropriation of non-Western cultures by any means, but since the issue was brought up I’m interested in what people have to say about it.)

  73. Anne
    November 21, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    I know it’s been three weeks since the last comment was posted but I was reading Bell Hooks’s Teaching to Transgress and this passage made me think of this thread again. Hooks writes about her concern when her work’s being engaged with by white male scholars is considered by others as opportunistic appropriation:

    “If we really want to create a cultural climate where biases can be challenged and changed, all border crossings must be seen as valid and legitimate. This does not mean that they are not subjected to critique or critical interrogation, or that there will not be many occasions when the crossings of the powerful into the terrains of the powerless will not perpetuate existing structures. This risk is ultimately less threatening than a continued attachment to and support of existing systems of domination […]” (131).

    I was wondering whether Hooks’s statement could help clear things up a little, or at least offer a theoretical frame of reference. Would some of the behaviours mentioned as cultural appropriation in this thread also constitute a form of border crossing which is liable to help negociate a new understanding?

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