Last Updated: April 2nd, 2019
My 19-year-old Eagle (Eastern Washington University Eagle) and I speak most days about her training, school, roommates and life in the Northwest, over 1,000 miles from home. Her pre-season soccer schedule keeps her wickedly busy, but yesterday we ended the day with a gap-bridging telephone call, unwinding to the news of her day and mine.
After reminding me of her class schedule, one class being African cultural studies, we entered a discussion about cultural appropriation, having referenced the class that Rachel Dolezal (former professor at EWU and President of the NAACP Spokane chapter who made the news not long ago by her parents outing her as “white”) would have taught.
Not surprisingly, she and I differed. She thought social media had gotten it right this time. People—mostly young—in her Twitter feed complain that cultural outsiders should not be consuming others’ cultural artifacts as if those artifacts were unattached to the people who suffered or strove through the badges, persecution or honours of and by those cultural effects.
One example she offered to demonstrate this appropriation is the behaviour of those she deems insensitive, mostly white, middle-class women adorning themselves with henna, despite their ignorance of Indian cultural practices or its Syrian origins. In fact, she claims, some of these same young women actively discriminate against and ridicule cultures different from their own (if whiteness can be considered a “culture”), including Hindu and Arabic.
Finding my own example, Nikida Redkar, born of Indian parents, writes in “My Indian Parents Are Huge Fans of Cultural Appropriation, Even While My Generation Finds it Appalling”:
For those of us who grew up in a Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, or Nepali household, our struggles to fit in are vastly different in magnitude, but the solidarity exists. So that’s why we are upset when someone wakes up one day and decides to exploit our turbulent identities as a disposable fashion—and by doing so be rewarded as a paragon of globalization and cultural acceptance. How dare they regard Indian fashion as effortlessly cool and chic while we make it look “fobby,” or a stubborn adherence to our culture that purports us to be “fresh off the boat.”
How dare they have a crush when we spent our entire lives trying to love.
Clearly the phrase, cultural appropriation, ranges from neutral to negative. The adoption of another culture, especially the style of dress or adornments, may be a neutral act, certainly one not necessarily motivated by malice. The consequences of the appropriation, however, activate the negative, the potential for injury when confusion results as to whose culture belongs to whom. The origins and history of certain practices become lost to popular trends and others’ agendas, as Redkar insinuates.
Admittedly, I often play devil’s advocate to annoy my children. But this time I was not baiting. I countered my daughter’s objection with my own—to labeling and generalizing, which are liable to injure as much as the alleged lack of consciousness of those culture consumerists she condemns. Not all cultural appropriations spell disrespect. Some are simply mindless imitation. And there lies the culprit—mindlessness.
As Hannah Arendt states in The Human Condition, “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”
We live in a multicultural world, America being one of the more diversely populated. Adopting the behaviours, clothing, styles, practices and language of other countries organically arises from living among others. What matters—the same always—are words spoken and actions taken, consciously.
To love another culture enough to adopt it is not uncommon. People move to other countries more suitable to their natures. Cat Stevens left American musical fame to live in an Islamic culture more nourishing to his spirit. One can question his or anyone’s motives for “abandoning” his or her birthright, but why, what’s the point? History is replete with expats finding warmer climes, socially, politically and physically.
Those sporting elements of another culture, say, wearing cornrows or henna or other unique attributes of an “other” group, wear them in reverential honouring, blind imitation, or malicious mockery, depending on the good, bad or indifferent intentions of the wearer.
But all behaviour measured as moral, immoral or amoral depends upon the degree to which the actor moves beyond him or herself towards another—with a conscious intention of producing good or ill will. And morality inhabits merely a corner of the larger consciousness called mindfulness.
Mindfulness—an awareness of presence—is an overused term, quickly turning trite by popularization. But in truth, to bring mind to bear on everything we do matters most. And I do not mean merely having a conscience in the Jiminy Cricket sense.
Mindfulness in its most basic understanding means living with thought—close observation and attention. That, I believe, grasps its essence.
Psychology defines mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present” such as neutral observation of the heart and mind’s workings to fully embody experience, while the term in its Buddhist origins primarily focuses on awareness—of all that lives inside and outside of us—without judgment. Mindfulness comes from Sati, the Pali word for the state achieved in meditation, a wordless experience of awareness.
Being mindful is not easy; the mind often slips and requires practiced discipline to dispose it to attentiveness—to presence—in meditation, for instance. The mind easily escapes to oblivion in meaningless details. Practicing attentiveness daily elicits a kind of morality.
Morality, also an abused term, is often oversimplified as good and bad behaviour. But the morality that the philosophers hypothesize in classrooms, bars and libraries throughout the centuries informs the morality I believe grows inside mindfulness: an ethics of right behaviour to others, which is situational, switched on by a mind and heart likewise opened and activated by compassion.
I’m not suggesting a “correct” behaviour for every situation, but the footpath towards morality starts with a consciousness of the causes and effects of what we do, as awareness. Thinking awake and remembering that we belong to a community are two steps in the right direction on that path.
In other words, we cannot appropriate what is given freely, shared, in the spirit of giving and appreciation. To love China’s Buddha or India’s yoga or New Orleans’ jazz is to celebrate the rich treasures dug from discrete pockets of civilization, home-grown by people who cultivated roots that spread—under the seething earth—to touch all who nurture the sprouts and partake of the world’s fruit.
Cultural habits grow from people, living life among other people—closer to one another now more than any other time in history.
The Urban Dictionary definition of cultural appropriation as “The ridiculous notion that being of a different culture or race (especially white) means that you are not allowed to adopt things from other cultures,” cynically ascribes an over sensitivity to those who covet their culture. And while I do not wholly ascribe to Urban’s definition, I do object to the generalization and labeling of people, which results in exclusion rather than inclusion.
I’m certain that each side of the debate has merit—the threat of erasure vs. the organics of emulation—though cultural appropriation is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Case-by-case consideration brings that conscious presence of what exists right before our very eyes—people being people. The fallacy lies in reducing behaviour to either insensitive or oversensitive.
Cultural sensitivity requires mindfulness practiced daily to acquire a compassionate and collective consciousness.
As for my socially and politically sensitive daughter, at the conclusion of our call, I asked her what I should write about next after solar panels and waterless urinals. She suggested sex work and cam girls. Um…. wait, what?