Correspondent Yamini Ranjan gets three takes on cultural appropriation.
Dr. Eve Dunbar, Professor of English at Vassar College
Claudia Fox Tree, professional educator and social justice activist
and Harpinder Mann, yoga teacher, mindfulness educator, speaker, and community builder
Yamini Ranjan: Thank you for doing this with me. So you spoke about a seepage between culture appropriation and culture appreciation. How do you define culture appropriation in today's context?
Eve Dunbar: Historically, especially in the United States, there under racial segregation and class segregation, all the different ways in which we've figured out how to compartmentalize and limit people. There was a possibility for cultures to exist with very little and by cultures, I mean marginalized cultures very little kind of interaction with or intrusion upon by the mainstream, by white people in particular.
And so it was possible, especially when we're talking about black culture, for black people to develop a different way of singing, a different way of reading, a different way of dressing, all of these kind of cultural forms that had very little exposure or to which white people had very little sort of organic exposure.
But that said, there's always been an interest by the mainstream in marginalized cultures. And so you can begin to see, for instance, if we take the early 20th century and black music, you can begin to see white audiences clamoring for what sounds like a different and a new sound in the form of like blues or jazz, and wanting to listen and be exposed to that culture. To the point of then trying to appropriate the culture and disseminate or sell the culture amongst themselves.
So you get figures like black music and black sound begins with an interest in listening or hearing or being a part of something that's so different from what you've known. So it begins with an appreciation. And then I think commodification turns it into appropriation.
Yamini Ranjan: I wanted to understand this as examples. What might be some of the instances of appropriation that can hurt, sentiments?
Eve Dunbar: I think that there are a lot of ways to do damage to a culture through appropriation. One is fiscal, right?
Yamini Ranjan: Money.
Eve Dunbar: So if I am doing black music, as I have been taught to do black music within my community and I sing the best songs, and you, as a non-black person, hear me singing the best songs and you come to my community and extract those songs and then reappropriate them in a kind of more mainstream with a white artist who then goes on to make millions, I've been fiscally damaged because I have received no financial benefit from my culture. That's an easy way.
I think, socially, right? And we talk about this with the browning of the nation. So women of color have been marginalized, penalized, violated, in a variety of ways for not fitting standards of beauty as we understand them through a western lens, a beauty lens. You know, blonde, blue eyed, fair skinned, having features that meet that beauty ideal of the West.
And yet, as we see in popular culture, turn to features that had historically been affiliated with black women or women of color, Latino women, being idealized or valued, I think there's some emotional hurt. So if I have full lips and historically full lips have been made a mockery of through like a minstrel tradition, getting your lips filled, getting lip filler.
Yamini Ranjan: Botox.
Eve Dunbar: Yeah, getting cosmetic surgery to have these more now, I think we would say beautiful, sexual, like feminine features allows you to be famous and for me to be historically maligned, that causes some emotional strife, some sense of worth that's being diminished. So there's all sorts of ways, like financial.
Yamini Ranjan: Dr. Dunbar, what's the best way to educate ourselves and others about cultural appropriation? How do we find the roots and origins?
Eve Dunbar: I don't know. I think it's tough. I think it's very difficult to figure out how do you participate in something that is not that doesn't originate in whatever you imagine your culture to be or whatever it is in a respectful way. And I think that that self-education, if you really, really do enjoy and love something, then if you educate yourself, then you can become a voice for education, for rectifying the appropriation and the just kind of blind consumption of other cultures. This is not, you know, there's cultural exchange. And that's been happening for centuries among humans, that we exchange elements of who we are and who or what our culture is. It's when things get completely severed from their culture that the appropriation or the hurt can happen.
Yamini Ranjan: My next question is do you think culture appropriation should legally be prohibited, that there should be guidelines?
Eve Dunbar: How do we do that? I don't see how you police the boundaries, cultural boundaries. I don't know. I think that's interesting, right? That you could imagine policy that says if a culture makes or invents X, Y or Z, you can't reproduce it. And yet, I don't know how you police that reproduction.
I like the idea of it being something more than a personal choice to behave appropriately. But I don't know how you legislate it in a growing, globalizing world. It's inevitable that certain elements of certain cultures are going to break out of their kind of home base and disseminate. And I think, again, are we lucky, right? And how do we ethically consume, participate, engage with things that are unlike what we have grown up with, that that's part of the experience of being human.
But I do think that, yeah, humility is probably key. And being aware of the tensions and the you use the words the sentiments, the feelings, that people have at that process, I think is an opportunity.
Claudia Fox Tree: (Tribal language introduction) So my first language is German. And I even said that in my opening statement. And I am learning my tribal language, which happens to be a Tiano variation of my tribal language. And in that language I said, Greetings. My name is Claudia Fox Tree. By the way, I use she/her. And that my lineage comes from the island we know is Yurumein in the Caribbean and that I'm a council member for the Guainia tribal community. So I want to acknowledge that I am doing this interview on Colonized Land that was originally lived on by Indigenous people, including the Pawtucket, the Penicuik, the Agawam and the Massachusetts that I know of so far.
Yamini Ranjan: Thank you so much, Claudia. When someone shows initial interest and then goes onto get into the culture appropriation side, there's a very thin line and then that is broken so often. How would you define cultural appropriation?
Claudia Fox Tree: So I would not do a Eucharist in my classroom because that is something that is done in a Catholic church. And so there's a difference between these kinds of appreciation for appropriations that also has to do with time and place and whose thing it is that they're appropriating and that group's definition.
Having said that, cultural appropriation has a component of power in it. So it is when one culture has a lot more power, it's often the dominant culture. Here in the United States, we would say that the white European, often male, often heterosexual, dominant culture.
So it’s when a culture with power takes another culture's intellectual property or traditional knowledge or cultural expressions or artifacts without permission, without regard, that's like the first step of cultural appropriation. What really becomes problematic is when it gets repackaged and defined by the dominant culture so that the culture of origin no longer has a connection with it. As in it is now sold and marketed without a knowledge of where it actually originally came from.
Yamini Ranjan: Acknowledging it. Which brings me to the question of land acknowledgment statement that is being read in so many committees and organizations. I wanted to ask you, how do you think it feels right now? Does it feel performative? Does it feel valuable?
Claudia Fox Tree: I think it can be performative. Let me say that with the right intonation here. It can be performative and it shouldn't. So I have heard it be performative. You know, this is whose land we're on. I do workshops on it and that's not where we want to be. A sign in your building maybe could be performative. This building sits on Wampanoag land. Maybe. You could say more, but that'd be the closest to like that's okay, performative, that I would get. You've got a static side.
Even as a human being, I’ve got two things I want to say. First of all, we shouldn't expect, if we're in a place where indigenous people are hosting, that they are going to do a tribal land acknowledgment. Because we don't invite people in our home and say, let me tell you this is my home. Because you've just come and you know it's their home, right? So indigenous people, I don't have that expectation for.
People who are colonizers, which actually includes me because my nation's not from the land where I'm standing, need to recognize that they are on someone else's land and that those people are still alive. And by saying that, it's not enough. What have you learned about that group? Or what have you learned about native issues and causes? Or what have you learned now that's different from the last time you stood there to talk about what a land acknowledgment was? And in that way, you up the ante in terms of I'm doing a tribal land acknowledgment and I'm raising the visibility by telling you something about indigenous people. Then it becomes real. Then it becomes you're trying to be an ally and have a relationship.
Yamini Ranjan: Right. Oh, wow. This is so informative. So if a non-indigenous person wants to borrow elements from your culture, what questions should they first ask themselves?
Claudia Fox Tree: You know, why are you borrowing it? And what's the context of borrowing? Because giving credit is a big piece of it. The other thing is using it in the way that it's meant to be used, not some other way.
So here is an example. I'm going to say a word. I want you to imagine what this word means. It's an indigenous word. A lot of people think of it not as an indigenous thing. So here's the word Winnebago. Winnebago? Did you think of the Ho-Chunk people from the Great Lakes area? Because that's who they are. They lived in the past. They live in the present. They have many, many industries. Or did you think of a huge recreational vehicle? Right. So a Winnebago has been appropriated and used in a way that is no longer even connected to the original people. That is the extreme problem, harmfulness, of what can happen with appropriation.
Yamini Ranjan: I see. Wow. Yes, right. So, Claudia, how do non-indigenous people show up for indigenous people? How do we show up?
Claudia Fox Tree: It's a lot bigger than cultural appropriation. I mean, that's just a small part of the problem. And cultural appropriation is harmful because it's one of the extensions of centuries of racism, genocide and oppression. This is not somebody being offended that you're doing it. It is something related to being, yet again, oppressed by somebody doing it.
And the context is that indigenous native people never migrated to somewhere else in the world. It isn't like you're going to find a whole bunch of Wampanoag people in the middle of Germany, right? And so the context of this is the only place it needs to be and should be is where allies and people who want to support indigenous people comes in, that we need the voices lifted of the people whose land we're on. We’re on somebody else's land whose stories are misrepresented, misunderstood and have been totally formed through a dominant narrative instead of the people talking for themselves. So that piece of visibility is the best thing that our allies can do.
Yamini Ranjan: I want to begin with how do you describe cultural appropriation in terms of yoga and yogi practices?
Harpinder Mann: Yeah, absolutely. This cultural appropriation shows up in a number of ways in yoga. I feel the simplest way we see it is people just equating yoga as exercise. Yoga is a physical modality and it begins there and ends there for a lot of people in the West. And that's the biggest way that I see cultural appropriation showing up. But I'm sure we'll cover in this episode, there's so many ways in which it shows up and the way that we don't pay respect to the land that it comes from.
And we don't take the time to even care or think about what are the true intents and goals with yoga? Why would someone be on this path? Why is it sacred for so many people on this path? And I think to get away from how sacred it is, is where I come in and why it's so important for me that we try to bring back the reverence.
Yamini Ranjan: I really want to understand this, but authenticity is always welcomed. But what is your take on different fusion styles in yoga that is now very popular in the West? You know, do you see a blurred line between appropriation and appreciation? Because as a new person, as a new citizen, I felt like this was a great opportunity. They were doing so much to yoga that we didn’t back in India.
Harpinder Mann: There's a lot to unpack in just your question alone, I think there's this blurred line conversation between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation comes in when there are people of South Asian descent from India, from the Indian subcontinent, that come into these classes and they're just like, wait. Why is the studio heated? Wait. Why are we practicing what's being called Vinyasa?
Yamini Ranjan: Yeah.
Harpinder Mann: Right? Like, why aren't we practicing meditation? Why isn't there any pranayama? Like, where is the philosophy part of this? Like, why aren't any of those things elevated? And something else I was seeing going into these studio spaces, why is every teacher white? I was like --
Yamini Ranjan: Like not even one single Indian teacher.
Harpinder Mann: Yeah, and I took a course with Dr. Neil Dalal, and the course is called Decolonial Yoga. And he actually talks about how South Asians are excluded on purpose, are excluded from purpose from taking up spaces of power in these spaces, because then we would say, hey, you're not doing it right. And right is subjective. But it's like from our perspective, it being our ancestral practices, that maybe you should do it a different way.
And I find a lot of these people that have the power, they want to continue to profit off of it. They want to continue to do it the way that they've been doing it because it serves their interest. And who I appreciate in these conversations is those people when you're like, hey, maybe the and I actually saw this in a studio recently maybe in the picture of Buddha in the bathroom, maybe he shouldn't be in the bathroom. Like Buddha, this revered idol, this example of being an enlightened being, that then used himself being enlightened to serve others that were suffering, like revered by so many people, revered by me too, what's the place of Buddha being in the bathroom? Why? Right?
Yamini Ranjan: It hurts on a personal level. Why do you think that is? Do you think it is because I'm aware of that and people are probably letting it pass and letting it go because they don't come from that history? Do you think history is important? And what is the fastest way of educating myself? If I was not educated in the way I was, what do you think is the fastest way of approaching awareness here?
Harpinder Mann: That's a fantastic question. I think that's also a fantastic observation that you had where you're taking that set of why does this bother me? Why does it bother me? And it doesn't seem to bother anybody else. Why is everyone else practicing goat yoga, wine yoga, beer yoga? And they seem to enjoy it. So why can't I also just enjoy it too? Why do I feel angry about this triggered about this?
And I think to come from that space of, again, that contemplation is very important because there's a reason that you're being triggered. There's a reason that you're being like, wait, why is this happening? And where I want to affirm you here is you're not the only one. You're not the only one that feels like this is a problem.
And the specific example, say, of like beer yoga, wine yoga absolutely just makes me just shake my head. And I feel like sometimes with these things, I've gotten to a point where I just have to laugh. I'm just like, okay, okay. But when we think about, like the yoga philosophy and the yoga lineages, there's absolutely nothing about alcohol. When I think about the consumption of alcohol, to me, that's adding in more Maya, that's adding in more illusion. That's not helping to bring a sense of clarity.
And in conversations with people, I've had people say like, well, because we had beer yoga and wine yoga, at least more people came to yoga, right? And I'm like they didn't come to yoga. They came to an experience. Let's take the yoga off of it. Why don't we call it your beer Pilates? Why do we keep taking yoga and adding different things to it?
And I think the answer here is because yoga has become this thing that's easy to commodify, that's easy to market, and there's billions of dollars being poured into it. So people see that. They're like how do I get more people here? How do I make more money in the name of, well, at least they’re practicing yoga? They're not. They're not practicing yoga. It's an experience that we're having and we're creating more confusion.
Say we are seeing a little more clearly and we're able to see, hey, we're spiritual beings. When we drink alcohol, that isn't doing anything to connect us to that spiritual dharma that we have, that us as a spiritual beings. And I think for us, if we are experiencing feeling triggered or angry by these things, to let that be okay and not just brush it away and not just be like, oh, it's okay. I think more of us that feel this way need to keep speaking about it.
So when people are thinking about the cultural appropriation of yoga, sometimes they're looking for a checklist. Can I use Sanskrit? Should I say Namaste at the end of class? Can I wear a bindi? And what he says is a checklist is not enough. So the real inquiry and deeper work here is in understanding the roots, theories and history. So we can see how cultural appropriation happens as a result of colonialism, oppression and Orientalism, which have been internalized into us.
So I think maybe we can turn a little bit of time right now into talking about the definitions of colonialism and talking about how colonialism affected South Asia, how it affected the Indian subcontinent, and how that changed yoga and how that affected it. Because I think what we were talking about, like if a yoga studio is doing something that's making us uncomfortable, can we go and ask them, can you change and have that question? I think that's a conversation also of like oppression, who has the power? And that plays a part into cultural appropriation.
Because in cultural appropriation, it's looking at the taker and the taken. So it's the dominant culture that has more power that's able to take aspects of a culture and use it for their benefit without having to ask permission. And it's hard because yoga isn't actually like owned by anybody. There's no one to really truly ask permission for it. So I think like what we explore here then with culture appropriation is like the taking that happens, the taking without giving credit, the theft that can happen, the erasure that can happen.