Cultural appropriation is a relatively recently spotlighted social issue that has been subject to much debate, but no firm conclusions seem to have been reached as to how to distinguish between acts that do or do not carry its negative connotations. Exemplifying this is the widely-circulated recent news that a free yoga class held at the University of Ottawa for the last seven years has been cancelled due to complaints that yoga in this context could be seen as cultural appropriation. Is this a valid concern, or an example of political correctness gone mad?
To decide where to draw the line with cultural appropriation, it is important to define it and to understand why it is considered so detrimental to the cultures that commonly experience it. In the words of young actress Amandla Stenberg, cultural appropriation “occurs when a style leads to racist generalisations or stereotypes when it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves… when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in”. The basic idea here is that if an important symbol or practice that is intrinsically linked to the identity of those who exist within a culture that has faced oppression (often in the form of racism) is lifted out of it and used, with no regard for or understanding of, its context, this is cultural appropriation.
Another important distinction that is often made is that cultural appropriation is performed by those from cultures or races that have historically been oppressors, not the oppressed; in line with this, it would be fair to say that the example of white people wearing bindis, which have great significance in South Asia, at music festivals for purely aesthetic purposes could be seen as cultural appropriation. Perhaps this is because those who wear them at festivals often do so to look ‘indie’ and ‘cool’, yet people from the culture from which bindis originated are stereotyped and potentially even considered “too ethnic” if they wear bindis on a regular basis in line with the purposes which they are intended for. While South Asians (with the example of the bindi) may feel the pressure to hide their ‘exoticism’ for fear of negative stereotyping and judgement, the privileged who wear bindis in order to appear fashionable effectively capitalise on this same exoticism, which is what makes this cultural appropriation.
With this in mind, let’s return to the issue of whether doing yoga at a Canadian university can be considered cultural appropriation. This is where the danger lies with this issue: the subjectivity that comes from personal experience and context means that almost anything could be argued to be cultural appropriation, rather than a positive product of the cultural exchange that fosters open-mindedness and tolerance of all cultures. I think it would be fair to argue that as long as a practice is being performed with similar and genuinely respectful intentions in terms of its culture of origin, it can be viewed as a good thing. Cooking Korean food with the intention of enjoying it with loved ones is cultural appreciation, not appropriation, and the same could be said of yoga – people from ‘privileged’ cultures practicing yoga for its mental and physical health benefits, detached from the religious significance that it once held in India, are completely within their rights as global citizens, and not guilty of cultural appropriation.