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Setting the Record Straight: Cultural Appropriation

By: Christina Lee

The next time I sit down on a chair, I should think about “cultural appropriation.”

That’s the message writer Bari Weiss relays in her 2017 op-ed for The New York Times titled, “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation.”

Weiss misses the point in some spots, failing to examine the impact of colonialism, i.e. the inherent power play that does exist within the broad concept of “cultural appropriation,” and claiming that cultural appropriation is what “makes America great” in an eerie echo of hackneyed Trump-isms. Nonetheless, the takeaway that “cultural appropriation” is everywhere, even in the chair I’m sitting on, may seem far-fetched, but it’s essentially an idea that has shaken my worldview ever since, making myself doubt my own stance toward this hot, new term “cultural appropriation” and what it really means for someone bicultural like me to grapple with the ways people are abusing this new phrase.

In her article, Weiss writes that cultural appropriation “is overwhelmingly being used as an objection to syncretism—the mixing of different thoughts, religions, cultures and ethnicities that often ends up creating entirely new ones”. To discuss the term as it’s commonly abused especially by young, outspoken social media users today, I would have to say that Weiss has a point: American singer Jessye Norman specializes in the Italian opera and performs pieces written by German composer Richard Wagner; one of the most popular Greek yogurt companies is run by a Kurd born in Turkey who now lives in America; and as for me, Koreans rarely used chairs until they were most likely introduced to them via foreign nomadic tribes who had already made use of stools. This exchange and adoption of various cultures into our own lives is inevitable.

With the prevalence of social media and online communication today, we’ve created an environment in which we learn to empathize with, gain awareness of, and implement new ideas faster than ever, and it’s only appropriate that we have learned to do so considering the abundance of resources at our disposal. However, the consequence emerges where these “advocates” begin to misuse their newfound power, wielding their social media accounts as a weapon to present their indignantly self-righteous cries for restoring justice in niche spaces, only to validate their self-created sense of virtue.

These are the people who blur the lines between assimilation, cross-cultural exchange, Weiss’s so-called “syncretism,” and true cultural appropriation that suggests actually harmful notions of racism, colonialism, and discrimination in the given context (e.g. naming an American sports team “Redskins,” a white individual donning Afrocentric hairstyles without facing the same consequences in the workplace). In that same sense, before examining the dangers of misusing the term “cultural appropriation,” it’s crucial to establish that nuances to this discussion indeed exist. Specifically, this issue extends to the implications of white privilege and the hypocrisy of a dominant culture misrepresenting and exploiting the cultures of ethnic groups that have been systematically discriminated against throughout history. Essentially, context matters. In the United States, where issues surrounding race have continuously marred the country, it’s important to note that “cultural appropriation” can quickly escalate into a denial of an entire ethnic group’s past struggles, the establishment of imperialist sentiments, and blatant racism.

But in examining the pros and cons of being aware of “cultural appropriation” as it’s thrown around these days, it seems that the negatives outweigh the positives.

Following the “logic” of some of these advocates of cultural appropriation’s dangers, I should have been considered guilty of appropriating culture—I’ve been copying and using the cultural items valuable to these nomadic tribes without knowing about their origins because I literally Googled the history of a chair just to write this article.

In this same manner,  the commonly misunderstood version of cultural appropriation results in a slippery-slope argument that could leave me posing endless examples: white people shouldn’t listen to R&B, jazz, or even rock music—if they don’t know the comprehensive history behind these music genres, starting from where and when they originated, their characteristics, and key figures, they should probably just stick to Bach or Mozart.

I exaggerate, but that’s essentially the dangerously flawed message that these advocates portray. These same advocates choose not to speak out so vocally about the exploitation of slaves who worked in unimaginable conditions in salt ponds during the 1800s whenever they pick up a container of salt to season their food, and these same people indulge in music genres that, surprise, have been appropriating the sounds that originates within cultures of people of color.

Perhaps we’re just picking and choosing our own battles for our own convenience and self-conceited sense of righteousness and entitlement without acknowledging the hypocrisy of our flawed logic.

A lurking sense of discomfort emerges whenever someone points out an instance of “cultural appropriation” and calls for the restoration of that particular cultural practice or item to its original place in a context that doesn’t hint at racist and imperialist sentiment. Realistically, the idea of “exoticism” and “otherness” is perpetuated instead, where we enforce the concept that whatever seems foreign and unfamiliar should remain foreign and unfamiliar. In adopting this mentality, we stray further from learning about other cultures and growing closer to them in a healthy way that encourages the unification of people rather than division. Let’s be honest: deeming other cultures “exotic” is frankly outdated. But with these mindless performances of gatekeeping, the discouraging sentiment surrounding the integration and possibility of approaching various cultures evokes the imagery of the past, of segregation, of exoticism, and of discrimination.

Would I be offended if I saw any person who wasn’t Korean wearing hanbok? Probably not. But then again, I’m in no position to speak on the behalf of an entire culture and its people when I myself am a combination of countless cultures integrating and influencing one another.

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Shattered Hegemonies: Queerness in Precolonial India

By: Sai Siddhaye

Just as glass, which we perceive as a solid mass, is actually an amorphous substance somewhere in between solid and liquid, culture is also ever-fluid, and actions from centuries ago still sent shock waves to our contemporary lives. As glass slowly shifts and flows over time, human cultures also flow and adapt, yet both will be unrecognizable when shattered by a traumatic force. This traumatic force, of course, is imperialism. Colonization has irreparably changed indigenous cultures worldwide, both erasing and rewriting traditional practices and beliefs. With this in consideration, trying to understand these practices becomes more complex, because the context within which they evolved no longer exists. This holds especially true in discourse about sexuality and gender. Many cultures which may appear binaristic or heteronormative today certainly weren’t so hundreds of years ago. Indeed, Foucault claimed that sexuality-based identity categories were a 19th century European construction, and did not exist prior to that. If this is true, then the political vilification of certain identity categories relies on a Eurocentric and imperialist ideology. 

Let’s put this in the context of postcolonial South Asia. The figure of “the homosexual” is pivotal for many discussions of what is “quintissentially Indian”, as modern Indian culture strongly enforces hegemonic masculinity and heteronormative values that erase queerness in any form. Contemporary India–particularly Hindu nationalist theory–frames same-sex attraction and sexuality as a Western import, a regrettable product of globalization that has only recently stopped being criminal under the law (though of course it is still socially illicit). Such a characterization, of course, is far from the case; queerness has existed in South Asia for centuries, and it was an accepted part of human sexuality and pleasure before the colonial era. We can see evidence of queerness not only in South Asian languages but also in religious and historical texts and monuments. Though ‘queer’ is a modern term, it is the closest umbrella term we have to describe nonnormative sexuality. From here on out, I will be speaking about what is known today as India, but it is important to understand that the hard borders and land disputes are also a part of the legacy of the British Raj; South Asia is incredibly ethnically and culturally diverse, and the political distinction between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is a modern concept conceived during decolonization. 

Many Indian scholars have studied the queer history of India and Hinduism, the most notable of whom are Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, and Rohit Dasgupta. They have written several books and articles about their research, including Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History by Vanita and Kidwai, Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society by Vanita, and Digital Queer Cultures in India: Politics, Intimacies and Belonging by Dasgupta. Their studies cover a wide variety of topics, and provide an approximate timeline during which queer attraction can be analyzed.

Medieval India, according to Vanita and Kidwai, is most easily studied through the theology that was present at the time. Hindu deities were treated as genderfluid and andrygynous beings; the reincarnation of godly avatars meant that Hindu deities occupied many different bodies that were male, female, and intersex. Vatsyana’s Kamasutra, which–unlike its public perception in America–was something of a guide for spiritual life, even describes queer sexual acts purely for pleasure. Many other ancient texts also feature intimate same-sex relationships, both sexual and asexual in nature. In the Mahabharata, for example, Krishna and Arjuna are said to have a bond of friendship that goes beyond marriage or procreation, and their friendship is a very important aspect of this epic. Krishna states that “Arjuna is more important to him than wives, children or kinsmen- there can be many spouses and sons but there is only one Arjuna, without whom he cannot live”. Though the nature of this relationship is not stated, the close intimacy between these two men implies that the modern hegemonic standards of masculine friendships–and the distinction between platonic and romantic relationships–were not expected at the time. In the Kritivasa Ramayana, the sage Bhagiratha is said to be born from the sexual union of two women, blessed by the divine sanction of the god Shankar. The variance in sexuality and gender in ancient texts and understanding of divinity suggest that sexual fluidity was also not culturally taboo at the time. 

This fluidity in intimacy is also present within the languages of India. The term ‘sahki’ in Sanskrit-derived languages translates to one’s close friend, yet the space the term occupies within devotional poetry describes a relationship that is much more intimate and sapphic than simply a friendly onlooker, and ancient paintings of heroines often eroticized their female friends. Because this role between friend and lover has no place in the Western cosmology, it is difficult to translate into American culture.

Many religious monuments and sites that depict same-sex eroticism still exist to this day. Konarak Temple in Odisha, for example, is a temple for the Hindu sun god Surya. This temple includes carvings and statues that depicts erotic scenes, which are sometimes queer in nature. This temple also harbors many images of group sex, suggesting that nonnormative sexual configurations was not uncommon, and that the patriarchal nuclear family did not play as big a role in Indian culture as it did today. The Khajuraho Monuments are a series of Hindu and Jain temples also depict same-sex eroticism, particularly among women. These temples indicate that in Medieval India, sexuality was seen as a spiritual practice, and queer attraction was not shunned in the religious tradition. As Dasgupta said, “Hinduism is content to allow opposites to confront each other without resolution, which provides a space for non-normative sexualities and same sex desires to exist”. 

This acceptance of fluidity, however, did not continue after colonial interaction began to occur. In the 1700s, Britain–driven by a Victorian obsession with ‘purity’–prompted policies that regulated sexuality. This was driven in part by the large number of British men who, while in the Indian colonies, would have homosexual encounters with Indian men. Homosexuality was painted as an “oriental vice” and Indian culture demonized as “backwards”. This also seems to have been a justification for the further expansion of British imperial rule; claiming to civilize otherwise “savage” indigenous people has been a long-standing excuse for enacting colonial violence. Thus bore the rise of the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1861, which made homosexuality illegal under punishment of incarceration for life. It criminalized queerness and forced any queer relationships, whether homosexual or simply nonnormative in nature, underground. This hypocritical and archaic law was only repealed in 2018, after centuries of damage to Indian culture and people. Section 377 also allowed colonial leaders to outlaw certain texts that they deemed ‘deviant’, which included some Hindu and Perso-Arabic tales and epics; such censorship allowed Britain to dictate what kind of masculinity was socially acceptable, and which actions were effeminate and therefore criminal.

Dasgupta states in Digital Queer Cultures in India that  “the normalisation of heterosexual identity is a part of the processes of colonial modernity”. This includes the centuries in which the British Raj rewrote the cultural rules for masculinity and sexuality, which bore the violent heteronormativity present in India today. This is especially ironic if we analyze the pinkwashing strategies that the Global North uses to depict the Global South as unaccepting and homophobic. The cultural vilification of queerness in India is a product of colonial occupation, and denying the material impact of the British Raj on queer people in India falls into the same branch of imperialist ideology that Britain utilized to enact violence in the first place.