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Cultural Appropriation’s Dark(er) Side

By: Sai Siddhaye

This country is, by definition, built upon white supremacy. Even in the most progressive of places, it is hard to escape the tentacles of systemic and cultural racism that pervade our communities. Aside from the broad institutionalized forms of racism, our interpersonal lives and pop culture is fraught with icons and imagery that have been stolen and repurposed by American culture–that is to say, white supremacy. The term ‘cultural appropriation’ today refers to phenomenons such as Blackfishing and white yoga culture, which embezzle the profitable aspects of nonwhite cultures to exploit and exclude the people they originally belonged to. While these examples are still incredibly damaging and worryingly unfettered, our understanding of cultural appropriation should also acknowledge the more sinister ways in which white supremacist movements can use cultural items and ideas to harm nonwhite people, whether that includes crafting xenophobic narratives out of cultural symbols or using parts of a culture to justify violence against that community. Nazi appropriation of the swastika, for example, changed the way the world will look at the sacred Hindu symbol forever because of its new association with unbelievable brutality. 

Yoga culture–as well as henna “tattoos”, mandala tapestries, bindis, and other things that white people find “trendy”– has been justly criticized for its blatant commodification of a sacred Hindu practice. Blackfishing, when nonblack people use AAVE or try to appear more Black while still profiting from their nonblack privilege, is an even more racist and harmful phenomenon in pop culture that often feels akin to minstrelsy. It’s hard to even try to address all the everyday iterations of cultural appropriation in Western society, and even harder to explain its impact to people who are active participants or are ignorant to its harm. As frustrating as it is that such exploitation is rarely addressed directly, it is even more alarming that more deadly incidents of cultural appropriation, like the origin of the Nazi swastika, are almost never included in discourse on cultural exploitation. The difference here lies in the intent; appropriation to profit looks very different from appropriation to harm, and this distinction can lead to brutality and destruction in a way that exploitation does not. This symbol of hate and terror is also a piece of Hindu iconography–comparable to the Christian cross–that originally symbolized purity and peace, and was stolen and unspeakably altered.

It should be said that the swastika is not exclusive to Hinduism, and versions of the same symbol have cropped up in cultural and historical artifacts around the globe. For example: in the late 19th century, the archaeologist Heinrich Schleimann went on a quest to find the ruins of the ancient city of Troy. During this expedition, he discovered fragments of pottery depicting the four-pronged symbol of the swastika. He then went on to find this symbol in several countries scattered around the globe, including its widespread religious use in India, and it quickly rose in popularity. During a time of growing nationalist sentiment in Europe, the discovery of this seemingly universal symbol quickly became tied to the idea that this symbol belonged to the ancient Aryan race who was responsible for the modern civilizations in these places. The term ‘Aryan’  historically has no connection to racial identity, but rather is a linguistic term that referred to the Indo-European language group around the time that linguists were finding structural connections between the Romance, Germanic, and Sanskrit languages. But of course, the rising popularity of eugenics in Europe at the time corrupted the term–and with it, the symbol–into evidence of a racial hierarchy. 

During the rise of Nazi ideology leading up to World War II, a sect of Nazism was actively rejecting Christianity because of its close ties to Judaism. Instead, they turned to Hinduism, claiming it to be the “last untouched Aryan religion”, presumably because of the white savior narrative associated with industrialization. In this act, we see something much deeper than appropriation–this revisionist idea attempts to erase indigeneity altogether in favor of an imperialist mindset, and brings with it strong eugenicist undertones. Among the many casualties in their plundering of Hinduism was the symbol of the swastika, which of course had already been popularized by Nazism in Europe. This so-called proof of the existence of a master race turned the swastika from a benign and peaceful religious symbol into a politically charged and violently hateful icon of Nazi ideology.

This co-opting of religious iconography demonstrates not only a lack of respect for non-European cultures, but also a sense of violent ownership over the parts of non-European cultures that have been deemed palatable enough for white exploitation. Using a religious symbol of peace as evidence of intrinsic white supremacy in the global context–and worse, using it to justify a mass genocide–is one of the most hateful iterations of cultural appropriation that still has a visible impact today. It’s upsetting that the origin of the Nazi swastika isn’t widely known, and that in itself may demonstrate the impact of white and Christian supremacy in America today; if the cross was being appropriated by a non-Christian hate group, the country would be up in arms immediately, but even decades after Nazi abduction of the swastika, most people are unaware of or apathetic about its origin. 

If cultural appropriation is not widely addressed, it is inevitable that it will continue to exist and perpetuate imperialist ideas in addition to both casual and structural racism, and it is critical to understand what sets this particular example apart from the rest: it illustrates appropriation with destructive and eugenic intent. Though exploitative appropriation is by no means benign, hateful and destructive appropriation demonstrates an abhorrent and dangerous lack of cultural competence that must be addressed on a large scale to combat the constant suffocation of our white supremacist culture.