Several days ago, a story about a yoga class at the University of Ottawa that got canceled because of concerns over "cultural issues" swept the Internet in a tidal wave of outrage. Original reports were that the free class for students with disabilities had been scrapped because some students and volunteers were uncomfortable with what they considered to be a form of cultural appropriation, since yoga originally stems from Indian spiritual practices.
Predictably, the story got a lot of attention from people on both sides of the issue, and was debated furiously on social networking sites. Updated reports indicate that the yoga class was dumped for a more pragmatic reason: low attendance. But whether that's the case or not, the original flap highlights how incendiary the concept of cultural appropriation has become in recent years, and how divided people are on the issue.
Doing an Internet search on the term reveals that opinions are mixed and passionate on both sides. Some people argue that any use of cultural elements from a culture other than their own is oppressive, especially if that culture has less power than the one doing the borrowing. To use a word often invoked in such exchanges, that is seen as "problematic." For instance, a writer for the "Everyday Feminism" website feels that even exploring the foods of cultures other than a person's own puts an individual at risk of oppressing people, which would probably be seen as an extreme point of view by many people.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who don't think there's anything wrong at all with taking those cultural elements and using them in any way they want, which is basically the way things have historically been with mainstream, dominant culture in this country.
Naming a professional sports team "The Redskins" might have been acceptable in America decades ago, when insensitive portrayals of minorities were the norm, but it doesn't look good today. But American culture isn't static, and sensitivities change, as they should. Buying a borderline racist "sexy Indian" costume isn't going to land a white person in jail, but it does make that person look like an asshole to a lot of people.
And honestly, while those are examples that get cited as forms of cultural appropriation, they are extreme cases that really border on racism or a stubborn reluctance to change with the times. While it's obvious not everyone agrees, more and more people believe there's a line between respectful cultural exchange and disrespectful appropriation. The difference between something being shared, and being stolen. Where that line is crossed is really the contentious issue.
Is it unacceptable that white foodies might want to experience authentic ethnic foods from outside of their own culture? Is a white person with dreadlocks taking something that's not his to take? Is it socially acceptable for a white American to explore spiritual paths that originated from minority cultures? Is a white woman who gets into belly dancing oppressing another culture? Well, it depends on who you ask, but many people would say all the cultural elements in those examples are off limits to some folks.
Not everyone agrees that cultural appropriation is the insidious, harmful social ill that some extreme supporters of the concept believe it is. Cultures have always cross-pollinated, they would argue, and even in the cases where the exchange wasn't mutual, it often resulted in positive things down the line. Look no farther than American popular music for examples. The blues developed from the oppression that blacks experienced in early 20th-century America. Eventually that music led to the rise of rock and roll, which was quickly "appropriated" by white musicians and embraced by young white kids. A few years later, a few white rock stars began to champion the blues musicians who had inspired them, leading to their exposure to wider audiences. That's a simplification of the history, but the point is that musical culture benefited from that appropriation. Not everyone agrees either.
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Would it have been better to deny the world bands like The Beatles or Led Zeppelin? While cultural sensitivity is a very good thing, cultural exchanges often are, too, and will happen whether they're looked at as universally acceptable or not. It's part of an ongoing and continual process that almost all cultures seem to be included in. The issue is more one of respect for those cultures and the things taken from them than of thievery, in my opinion. I'm also mindful that my opinion is shaped by my privilege as a white male, so it's limited by my experiences, and is not the final word on any of this.
Looking at the yoga story that was making the rounds, that opens a whole other aspect to the issue. Can spirituality "belong" to a specific group of people? Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in America, and its roots are in the Middle East. Is a Hispanic guy from Texas out of line when he practices Buddhism? Aren't spiritual paths, a universally human experience, open to anyone who believes? I once had a roommate from New Jersey who was a follower of Native American spiritual practices. He seemed serious and observant of those beliefs, despite being of Italian and Irish ancestry. Where is a line drawn?
And that's a question that seems to come up more and more often. It's probably a good thing to explore this stuff, but it's unlikely there will be any general agreement on what's "okay" and what is not anytime soon.