Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation
For seven years, the Center for Students with Disabilities at the University of Ottawa has sponsored free on-campus yoga classes, a popular program taught by a professional yoga teacher from the city’s Rama Lotus Yoga Centre. To the reasonable among us, free yoga for special-needs students may sound innocuous and gentle. But not to the vigilantes of political correctness, who successfully pressured the university’s student government to suspend the classes as an intolerable instance of “cultural appropriation.”
According to the Ottawa Sun, the disabilities center confessed its thoughtcrime in a public statement. While yoga may be “accessible and great for students,” it said, that doesn’t excuse the “cultural issues of implication” involved. The societies where yoga originated “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide, and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy [and] we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga.”
For votaries in the left’s High Church of Perpetual Dudgeon, nothing is safe from the outrage machine. Yoga is just the latest addition to the list, and if you don’t understand why it’s insensitive, racist, and neocolonialist for disabled students in Canada to take a weekly class in mindful stretching — well, get thee to a reeducation camp.
Everywhere these days you can find the harpies of cultural correctness ginning up a controversy over someone else’s wrongful “appropriation.” They denounce Australian hip-hop sensation Iggy Azalea for rapping with a “blaccent.” They demand that Selena Gomez apologize for donning a bindi. They fume when Americans embrace foods from Asian or Middle Eastern societies while “ignoring … oppression faced by those communities.” They howl when white models wear their hair in cornrows. They slam gay white men for adopting black women’s gestures or expressions.
“Appropriation occurs,” lectures “Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg, “when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” Stenberg is only 16, so her self-righteous tone may be a function of adolescence. It’s typical, though, of cultural-sensitivity zealots who are quick to complain when people reared in one culture take on elements of a different culture.
But the complaints are humbug. Cultural appropriators shouldn’t be chastised. They should be cheered.
All culture is “appropriated.” All human societies, tribes, religions, and nationalities have been influenced by others. Ideas and tastes aren’t the exclusive property of any group, and they can no more be confined behind rigid cultural or geographical boundaries than they can avoid shifting over time. Obviously it is never right to gratuitously give offense merely to be offensive. But there is nothing gratuitous about borrowing from other people’s cuisine or dress or music, especially when it is done with appreciation and enjoyment.
Writing in The Washington Post recently, Ruth Tam described “the shame associated with immigrant foods” like the Cantonese dishes she grew up eating in her parents’ Chicago home. She recalled her mortification at being told by a classmate that her house smelled of “Chinese grossness.” Today, many of those dishes have become trendy; foodies flock to upscale eateries to try them. Yet instead of celebrating the swelling popularity of foods she has always loved, Tam is angry. Those fashionable diners are indulging a kind of “discount tourism,” she snaps. “American chefs … use other cultures’ cuisines to reap profit.”
What a blinkered mindset! Human cultures aren’t sealed beakers from which no particle must be allowed to escape. We all have the right to draw from each other’s wellsprings of tradition and art, knowledge and lifestyles. Not just because imitation can indeed be the sincerest form of flattery, but because “cultural appropriation” is how we progress. We learn, if we are fortunate, from the experience of others — we are enriched by their contributions, deepened by their insights, broadened by their disciplines.
Yoga, like all culture, belongs to everyone, and it is no thoughtcrime to say so.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.