In early 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau drew widespread attention during his official visit to India, largely due to his over-the-top wardrobe. Each day of his trip, Trudeau and his family wore extravagant, ceremonial traditional Indian outfits. While the intention behind these outfits may have been to conform to Indian culture, in reality, his outfits sparked a debate about cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.
In recent times, culture appropriation has been a topic of discussion world-wide. Few instances that come to mind which sparked a range of reactions pertain to the sporting of bindis by non-Indians in the fashion and music world, the success of tea businesses set up overseas including one US-based ‘Bhakti chai’ and the sale of flip-flops on Amazon depicting Mahatma Gandhi.
While cultural appreciation is about having a genuine interest in another culture, which may include embracing certain inoffensive aspects of other cultures such as cuisine, cultural appropriation has a different, more complex connotation.
Cultural appropriation refers to ‘the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.’ Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law defines it as ‘Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.’
In other words, it becomes contentious when people use aspects of another culture in a manner that offends the members of that culture. Or when there are different perceptions or treatment of the use of a cultural aspect – people are lauded for using an aspect of another’s culture, whereas the members of said culture are discriminated against, or perceived differently for using the same aspect.
Let’s illustrate this with a real-life example. In recent years, the topic of appropriating South Asian cultures has resurfaced multiple times, most notably in music videos such as Coldplay and Beyoncé’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ or Iggy Azalea’s ‘Bounce’. These videos feature shots of auto-rickshaws, cricket matches, Holi celebrations, and Indian slums – in order words, some of the most stereotypical components of Indian culture. While both of these music videos triggered questions of cultural appropriation, one video leaned towards cultural appreciation, and the other, towards cultural appropriation. Most Indians would agree that ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ – although depicting clichéd aspects of India – didn’t abuse or offend Indian culture. On the other hand, Iggy Azalea’s ‘Bounce’ video showcased Azalea dancing in traditional Indian outfits and sitting on top of elephants, despite the fact that the song had nothing to do with India or its culture. The issue of cultural appropriation, however, arose because Indian attire, such as the bindi Azalea was wearing, when worn by Westerners is considered ‘cool’ or ‘exotic’. Whereas when Indian women wear the same in a foreign land, they are perceived differently.
Another example that is relevant to discuss in the context of cultural appropriation is that of yoga which in many parts of the world, is packaged as a glamorous and trendy exercise or activity. Positioning the ancient spiritual philosophy of yoga in this manner may not be ill-intentioned but it doesn’t do justice to it’s deeper meaning. This is elaborated on in an article titled ‘Yoga in America often exploits my culture- but you may not even realize it’ by Rina Deshpande, a certified yoga teacher based in New York. She says succinctly, ‘Cultural appropriation in yoga happens on many levels, from the messaging we receive from many major brands and media to the Sanskrit mantras printed on T-shirts. It’s cherry-picking what looks cool in a cultural practice without learning and acknowledging its complex history.’
When something is ‘copied’ and ‘pasted’ without understanding it’s context or relevance, it is another case of the meaning getting ‘lost in translation’. And because instances of cultural appropriation are often visual and out there in Bold and Unabashed, it can be more offensive to the particular culture concerned. However, it is worth noting, that in considering how offensive an act of cultural appropriation is, the underlying intention is obviously a factor worth considering.
As for Trudeau, the display of Indian garments on a foreign Prime Minister was initially viewed as a sign of respect and genuine interest in Indian culture. Unfortunately, the problem arose when these extravagant outfits were seen long after the first day. Regularly sporting these outfits, usually worn on festivals and weddings, indicated that the understanding that Indians do not wear such garments on a daily basis was lacking. However this was not a case of appropriating Indian culture, but of overdoing it.
In a world characterized by increasing global interactions and social-consciousness, it is likely that cultures will overlap – and even integrate. But it remains important to be cognizant of and sensitive to the history, traditions and values of other cultures, so that we do not cross the fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation.