Cultural Appropriation - the obvious, the not-so, and double standards

It seems to me that there are many instances which many of us can observe and recognize as being instances of cultural appropriation. But one area which I find difficult is that doing so requires first being able to say what a person’s default culture is in the first place. That would appear to indicate what cultural expressions they might be entitled to, versus which one they are not. This is an area which I never see addressed - how do you know what culture is even yours?

Here’s an anecdote with some speculation: I have been involved in tantras and yoga for some years, which could definitely be considered appropriation of the culture of India. But, unlike some other appropriations I hear about, many in India actively promote yoga, and consider it a mission to spread the practice. OTOH as a USian I am often (quietly) critical of the local interpretations of yoga, I think that the traditions get perverted in some ways.

Many years ago, somebody had asked me what my religious outlook was, and I said that it was probably what they would call “Hinduism”, and my friend complained that I was not entitled to that culture. Giving them benefit of doubt, the obvious question was then, “So how could we establish what religion I am entitled to?” And we never were able to answer that question. Adding yet another layer of complexity is that tantras often overlap the areas between Hinduism and Buddhism - so either of those groups’ orthodoxies could complain that they are being appropriated by the other. It also makes it hard in a US context to say what my religion is, because in the US this an institutional concern with regards to formal membership in a church, whereas in Asia this is often seen as informal folk-religion, or teachings passed one-on-one with no real institutions - except for some of the larger groups.

So, for a person in the US, is it more likely appropriation to practice the traditions indigenous to the Americas, or to import them from another continent entirely? The Quinnipiac traditions are at least local, so that makes them seem like an obvious choice. But there seem to be hegemonic layers to this which are really inconsistent. Locals don’t seem to treat practicing Christianity as appropriation even though it is from the Levant thousands of miles away. If Christian traditions are fair game, brought from the east through Rome and Germany to the US, then would the gods of ancient Rome be more or less an appropriation? Perhaps this seems sophomoric to those who were socialized into these traditions, but it can be genuinely puzzling to those who were not.

This all even became a factor in my having lost my previous job, where people alluded to having found and been scared by Sanskrit books in my office, which they found while snooping around to collect dirt on me. Suddenly I was getting confronted with a lot of complaints about working with Muslims “and other stuff like that”, which suggested that I was being subject to Islamaphobic discrimination even though I was much further from Muslim tradition than they themselves were. So then I am getting subtley getting associated with yet another culture.

It all gets me wondering about whether or not the Global Village has gatekeepers. I was a McLuhan baby, growing up reading about and socializing to “all times and places coexisting in a media environment”, and I wonder to what extent the technologies of communication and human symbology have influence versus hierarchies of social structure. It suggests to me that many apparent consensuses might be to some extent unreal or imposed, that it is easy to grow up a “foreigner” in your own region. How do you know what your own culture even is?


My answer would be that “culture” is a group endeavour, and entitlement to the culture is proportional to your participation in that culture.

For instance, if I learned that I had First Nations ancestry, that doesn’t immediately entitle me to wear a feathered headdress. If, however, I live with that tribe, learn what the symbols mean, gain the proper understanding an respect for them, and then wear something that is appropriate to my station within that culture, that would be something that I was entitled to.

The problem with appropriation isn’t that you’re doing something that another culture did first; as you noted, the cultures within which Christianity exists are very different from the culture it originated from. However, the rituals as practiced today maintain a reverence towards the initial rituals; whereas “cultural appropriation” usually involves trying to make something part of your own culture while stripping it of its original context and meaning.

So, to use Hinduism as an example: if you have been taught by Hindu teachers, study the sacred Hindu texts, participate in the Hindu rituals and holy days, and do all of these things earnestly and with respect, devotion, and an understanding of their meanings and history, then sure. You’re participating in the culture, and that entitles you to it.

However, if you just have read Wikipedia entries on various religions and feel, “Yeah, Hinduism suits me best,” and so you say a prayer to Vishnu once a week and do yoga when you feel like it, then you’re appropriating their culture. At that point, you’re no more a Hindu than a megachurch pastor who uses choice snippets from the Bible to make himself rich is a Christian, and you shouldn’t be wearing Hindu symbols or invoking the name of Hindu gods as curse words. You’re not giving the innermost concepts of the religion their proper consideration, and thus you shouldn’t be putting on its outermost garments as if you did.

In one sense, “individual culture” is an oxymoron. In another sense, since every person is a member of different groups, each with their own culture, “individual culture” might be the only culture that can be said to exist.

I would say to define your own individual culture, you need to:

  1. Think of a group that you belong to (in my case, Scouts).
  2. List off the values that define the culture of that group (for Scouts: honour, community service, outdoor activities, hard work, courtesy, conservation, self-development, leadership, parenting, self-sufficiency, spirituality, minimalism, etc.)
  3. Take the values that you share with that particular group (I share the following values with the Scouts: honour, community service, outdoor activities, hard work, courtesy, conservation, self-development).
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 for every other group that you actively participate in.
  5. That list, of groups that you belong to and the values which tie you to them, is your culture.

To give a personal example of my ideas of appropriation vs. non-appropriation:
As a former Catholic, to wear a cross (especially a crucifix), or a dove, or a clerical collar, or a rosary, would be appropriation. I no longer bear these symbols the reverence that a practicing Catholic should. However, I still hold the words of Jesus in high esteem; I think that they’re excellent teachings on how to live life, which is exactly how they were meant to be interpreted. So, I do not feel I am “appropriating” anything if I quote from the Beatitudes; as a former Christian who participated in Christian culture enough to gain an understanding of their context, and who still takes to heart their lessons, they are part of my culture.

I would not feel the same about taking a passage from the Quran, even one with an identical meaning. I just don’t know enough about the Quran, and I do not have enough reverence towards Mohammed, to clothe myself in Islam’s teachings.


As far as I can determine, it’s about the intersection of consent and context.

A random, white civilian wearing a Purple Heart they bought on eBay is problematic because they didn’t earn it in the manner in which it is awarded; they are making a false claim and/or removing the meaning from the symbol.

That same person claiming to be a mambo in Vodoun is problematic for the same reasons, unless they actually went through the proper initiations with someone of the lineage (it’s not strictly geographical or racial but you have to be taught by someone qualified, who will make sure you are getting the right context and so on).

That same person teaching a Bible study class, or practicing yoga, or playing taiko? All fine because those practices were not meant to be exclusive. Consent (or active encouragement) is given.

When I was trying to figure out my gender identity I came across the term “two-spirit” and immediately wanted to use it, because I had actually written about my feelings with very similar phrasing in the past. And it’s even a modern term (from… 1998 I think?), though it references an identity that various Native American cultures have recognized for ages. But they explicitly withhold permission for people not of those cultures to use it. I sometimes find that slightly irksome, but I respect their wishes.

Things can also get a bit weird when the culture in question is being recreated – sometimes people claim to speak for them while making racist claims themselves (e.g. Neo-Nazis infecting Heathenry; a Celtic pagan teacher requiring potential students to submit DNA tests; Black people telling an Egyptian reconstructionist temple that Egyptian religion is not for white people or Asians, etc.) My spouse is a Lokean who won’t wear runic jewelery because she doesn’t want people thinking she’s a white supremacist.


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