Cultural Appropriation

I have been doing a lot of thinking. I’m kind of a tumblr junkie and have been reading through several tumblrs that cover cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity.

At first, I was very angry. I have the best of intentions! I’m very knowledgeable! How in the world could this apply to me?

And then I realized that it does. It all applies to me. It applies so much that I feel guilty when I enter a temple. I feel guilty when I wear a saree in public. I have never been made to feel different or an outsider because of who I am, except for economic reasons and because I’m a nerd, which are universal sorts of things. No matter how much I learn and know, it will always be the case that I am not Indian, I was not born into a Hindu family, and whatever I have access to comes from me being part of a white, Western culture.

I am not part of the culture my ancestors came from. I am not part of the culture that is the object of my obsessions. I am part of an Anglican cultural background.
I am part of American culture, but that culture isn’t something that’s easy to define from the inside. So how do I find my place, if I can’t even see the boundaries of where I am? Do I discard all the exploration I’ve done so far and go back to the culture I’ve grown up in?

I honestly don’t know how to deal with this. On one hand, my crazy, saree-wearing self has gotten positive reactions from people in the past. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure what I’m doing is not totally respectful.

Rather than obsess over it, though, I’ll ask for opinions and thoughts, even if I’m sure it will cause some intense and heated debate.

What do you think about it? If you’re a Westerner in a similar position, how do you deal with this? If you’re from a South Asian background, how do you feel about it? I truly do want honest opinions. I’m not looking for justification, but I am looking for clearer understanding, since Indian culture has occupied so much of my interest for the past few years.

About HappyGoth

By day, I'm a graphic designer. By night, I'm a knitter. I'm doing my part to keep Hotlanta stylish. I imagine that if you don't already understand the title of the blog, you're probably confused and perhaps slightly annoyed, but never fear - I do have a reason (and it's a good one). Having gone to hear Stephanie Pearl McPhee, and then having been inspired to blog about knitting, I found myself wondering what to call the blog. I recalled a conversation I had with Mouse and the Chicken Goddess about why it is a Bad Idea to anger knitters - this conversation was following SPM, aka the Yarn Harlot telling the assembled throng about Those Who Do Not Understand Knitting and Therefore Belittle It Much to the Chagrin of Others, or TWDNUKTBMCO, which is not the acronym she used but is the one I'm using because I forgot hers - that is, we are numerous and we all have very pointy sticks, easily transforming into an angry mob. Therefore, knitters = angry mob.
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35 Responses to Cultural Appropriation

  1. I think the only factor determining the acceptability of borrowing from other cultures is the borrower’s level of respect. Do you put a red dot on your forehead for the laughs? Do you wear a half-saree with a thong bikini? Probably not, and so you’re not doing anything wrong.

    Western culture is spreading across the globe, from denim jeans to musical styles to social attitudes. This has been happening since humans had culture: cultures meet, interact, rub off on one another, are absorbed into one another. In fact, that’s what makes America. Scottish, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Native American, English, and many more.

    As Michael Wood said, identity is always in the making and never made. He was talking about Indian identity, but the rule applies to your identity as well. You were born into American culture and now you’re taking on elements of Indian culture, the bits you love and that add to your identity is some positive way. It’s not for a lark, it’s not to impress a cute Indian guy, and it’s not because you’re rich and bored, so there’s nothing wrong with it.

    Finally, from a religious perspective, identity is an illusion; cultural identity even more so. You weren’t born in America because you were never born. You are not stealing Indian culture because there is no India. There God, who has become everything and everyone. There is the changeless Self, which is the same in all, whether they were a sari, a kilt, or denim jeans. You found the faith that works for you. Excellent. Go forward.

    • HappyGoth says:

      My identity has always been in a state of cultural flux; I’m a child of hippie parents, a one-time Irish dancer, a student of medieval Indian history, a Francophile, and many other things. It was a little hurtful to have someone tell me (even indirectly) that what makes me who I am is wrong because of my skin color and where I was born. It’s a strange feeling, and probably a good one to experience, because so many people go through that every single day of their lives.

      I had a long conversation with my best friend about it over dinner and I feel a little better now. I do agree with you 100% that my spiritual self is not any of those things and is all of those things, because it’s more than that. My Self just is.

      And I also know that having found this path, I feel a sort of rightness. I’m not going to give up that easily.

  2. Edits:

    …to your identity _in_ some positive way.

    There _is_ God, who has become…

  3. Lalitadasa says:

    I also ponder this question and how it applies to myself. I too am constantly afraid of being taken as some sort of cultural poser, even though I work so very hard to know as much as I can and be as respectful as possible. I’ve limited my sari and tilak time to either at SCA events or holidays.

    The few real life Indian’s I’ve met in the SCA are always impressed with what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, so that tells me I’m doing it right. And I always ask if there’s anything about it/me that might be considered offensive so that I can delete it. So far all feedback has been positive.

    In the real world, when I’ve been in public in a sari and run into real Indians they have either ignored me completely or asked if my husband was Indian (and if so, from where). When conversations like that start, I try and explain my deep obsession with ancient Indian culture and history, at which point they always blank over, smile politely, do the head wobble and end the conversation. Sigh… I really just don’t know how to deal with it all so I’ve decided that integrity and respect are the best I can do.

    • HappyGoth says:

      I am so happy you commented. My friend, Master Lorenzo, and I had a long conversation on how this relates to the SCA. For those of us who dive into our respective personae with a lot of passionate focus, there’s always that balance between humbly honoring that culture and appropriating something, except that I’d argue that we know so much about the nuances and history that you’re sort of honoring it by default. That sort of obsession arises from a profound respect.

      India, while I’ve never been there, feels like a long-lost homeland. It feels like the place I’ve been looking for all my life. It makes me so terribly homesick.

      But on the other hand, I’ve gotten to the same place it sounds like you have with Indian things in the mundane world – sarees only on holidays or at events. I’ve gotten compliments from Indian ladies when I wear them to restaurants and Western weddings, but there’s always that niggling worry that someone isn’t going to be as appreciative.

      I think both you and I (and all the other SCA folks with Indian personae) are doing the best we can. Thanks for reminding me of that!


  4. kodanda says:

    I agree whole heartedly with Art. As I stated in on of my posts:

    “I honestly and truly believe you can NOT convert to Hinduism, you are born into Sanatana Dharma, and it is your jiva that either recognises this and does something about it or decides to ignore it as this is your karma for this life. We are all born of God no matter where in the Universe you reside. I do not play at being Indian. I do not run around waving the tricolour screaming “Vande Mataram!” nor support Indian Cricket. I am proud of my culture, my language and where my people come from and would not change it for the world. ”

    In the end we are not our culture or DNA, these are the tools that make us who we are in this life, but it is not who we really are. Our Jiva is not this flesh and bone. Since it is eternal it transcends all these things. As the Jiva is eternal so is Sanatana Dharma and most importantly God. Yes we are born in the west, but our Jiva’s come from God himself, and thus, depending on our Karma is whether or not our Jiva awakes the ego to realize our true space in this universe during this life.

    Remember, a sari is just a piece of cloth and if you apply a dot on your forehead during puja, this is not cultural but a religious practice. Take it from a bloke that has no qualms wearing a kilt with full Tilak 😀

    • HappyGoth says:

      I really really liked that post. It communicated so much about how I feel, and it was great to hear somebody else say that.

      I’m very proud of my own cultural history. I am happy to be Swiss, Scottish and English. I’m proud to be a citizen of a country full of outspoken individuals. I’m also proud to be the daughter of two people who spent the better part of 10 years engaged in constant dialogue between people from the Potawatame tribe, the Sioux, the Apache and the Comanche, people from Gabon and Cote D’Ivoire, from Venezuela and from Gujarat. These people were my “aunts and uncles.”

      Part of my cultural history is religion, but my spirituality is separate from that.

      And so I agree with you that my Jiva is not that cultural history of England, Scotland and Switzerland. In fact, if I look at my family history, it shows me that where I really am is at a point of mutual understanding and respect. It’s at a place where Sanatana Dharma is the center, a place where we’re all God, we’re all equals, and we’re all connected to one another.

  5. “wearing a kilt with full Tilak”

    Alba gu bràth! Jai Maa!

    • HappyGoth says:

      Totally silly aside, my best friend does a kilt blowing (kilts + leafblower) at DragonCon every year, and I would just *die* if somebody showed up like that. Too funny.

  6. kodanda says:

    sin agad e mo caraid! 😀

  7. Sarojini says:

    Kodanda made a good point.
    I say, do whatever you want to. Be who you want to be, dress how you wish.

  8. Tāṇḍava says:

    Honestly I don’t worry about cultural appropriation. Most countries appropriate and combine things from other cultures. Can you see the “Hollywood Musical” influence in Bollywood? The most popular British restaurant meal is Chicken Tikka Masala, combining Indian and British elements. In America you celebrate Christmas in a very Germanic way, have Renaissance festivals, Celebrate St Patrick’s day and maybe have a piñata at a kid’s birthday party. You eat Chicago Pizzas and Texas style Chilli, probably all without worrying about the appropriation of other cultures.

    I really only follow Indian culture as much as necessary to be a Hindu. I suppose with the fesivals and so on that is quite a lot! I often eat Indian food – it has a lot of good vegetarian recipes – but so do many non-Hindu British. There are many things in British culture I reject, heavy drinking, loud music, etc – but I did so even before I became a Hindu.

    I really think that there is no problem with someone following elements of another culture that they fins good and admire. Where I do have a problem is with the commercial exploitation of other cultures – the infamous Lakshmi burger advert for example.

    • HappyGoth says:

      As always, your comments are very insightful. I think I forgot a lot of this in my frustration and confusion. I do my best to apply Hindu culture to my life where appropriate, and I try not to be disrespectful (there is one really bad photo of me in a stupid costume that will forever be banished from the internet).

      One thing the original blog said did make a lot of sense to me – respect requires constant vigilance.

      So I’ll keep at being vigilant, but not to the extent that I’m paralyzed into inaction.

    • The Lakshmi/ Burger King fiasco is a half-saree with a thong bikini, made worse by someone trying to make money from it.

      There was a thing in Australia recently; a Hindu goddess (may have been Lakshmi again) on the butt of a bikini. That’s where appropriation becomes immoral.

      • HappyGoth says:

        That’s in such poor taste. It creates the same feelings in me that I feel when I see Kokopelli souvenirs at truck stops.

        That’s definitely cultural appropriation.

  9. aham says:

    Insulting Hindu deities is not new,there is some news every now and then about some company using a hindu image and using them in a offensive way, there was this one about toilet seats having Ganesha and Durga photos and I think we hindus are soft targets and not taken seriously at least in the west.

    • aham says:

      Opps sorry,its goddess Kali and not Durga.

    • HappyGoth says:

      The Kali stuff really riles me up, as does someone who is insensitive enough to put a god (anybody’s god) on a toilet. I mean, seriously, people. Exercise better judgement.

      This is the truth I openly and gladly acknowledge about this whole business – Western consumer culture is very bad about appropriating things from other cultures for profit, and very bad about refusing to learn about those cultures in advance of doing so. I feel that it’s part of my responsibility as an ethical and conscientious (and well-educated and intelligent) individual to learn as much as I can, in order to make up for a lot of the terrible, insensitive stuff that’s done by my “culture.”


  10. kodanda says:

    “there is one really bad photo of me in a stupid costume that will forever be banished from the internet”

    You talking about the one of you in saree and wearing a big thick moustache? I think that’s brilliant and have even seen Indian do that themselves.

    • HappyGoth says:

      Haha. I had forgotten I’d sent you that. Yes, that photo. I talked to my husband about it and he informed me that I was overcorrecting, and should leave it up. So I am.


      (Also the moustache was completely unrelated to the rest of the costume; my friend had on Spinal Tap bassist-style mutton chops.)

  11. kodanda says:

    Never the less, I thought it brilliant and while it did not belong to your dress that day, it did compliment it well. Quite funny and works well together. In fact I was thinking after my diksha of rocking my handlebar moustache again.

  12. kodanda says:

    “I really only follow Indian culture as much as necessary to be a Hindu. I suppose with the fesivals and so on that is quite a lot!”
    I concur, this is where I am. Hinduism and Indian culture in some respects are so merged you can not help but follow the culture in this respect, beyond this, to my knowledge there is not hard and fast rules. I know Srila Prabhupada insisted upon Indian clothes and sect markings, but I believe this was insited more upon the initiated sannyasins than for the laymen.

    ” I often eat Indian food”

    You are English, so of course 😛 There is nothing more English than a bucket of Vindaloo and milk tea 😀

  13. Anuj says:

    There is no such thing as hinduism. The word “hinduism” is a modern construct coined by the western world to describe those people from a nation called “bharat”.

    Hinduism is just a modern term to describe those people who 1) follow dharma and 2) lead an indic life. The term also carries an identity(indian) connotation.

    The concept of conversions was absent in ancient india. In pure hindu context, you only switch philosophies(through debates). A different one. A better one. That was the only process equivalent to the modern day “conversion” in ancient india.

    “Dharma” means your sense of right from wrong. Do you as a christian(?) follow dharma(right/wrong)? If so, could that mean that you have unknowingly converted to hinduism? Getting me? Hence it is said that only indians can be hindus because they follow “indic” traditions and look indian.

    “Hinduism” is used as the equivalent word for “islam” or “christianity”. However, in doing so, it creates a lot more confusion. Here you need to understand what “religion” is and what “dogma” is.

    Hinduism is most certainly a religion. The confusion is that people are trying to relate ahramic system with dharmic faiths.

    Dharmic system is different than the abhramic system.

    In abhramic faiths, the path to heaven is defined(through jesus, allah etc “only”). In dharmic, you have to find your own way. In fact, some would argue that the concepts of heaven and hell are absent in dharmic faiths.

    Hence, abhramics faiths are actually a set of dogmas(ie, this is the way and there is no other way). Dharmic beliefs are wide and often tend to be contradictory which makes it a “true religion”; it can be what you want it to be.

    • HappyGoth says:

      Generally I try to remember to say that I follow “Sanatana Dharma,” because that’s far more descriptive. However, a lot of folks don’t know what that means, and occasionally I get lazy and type Hinduism to save time (I know, I know, it’s microseconds).

      I know I can’t really convert, but coming from an Abrahamic background, that’s where my mind goes. Intellectually, I know that regardless of the name I put on my spiritual practice, the beliefs are the same beliefs I’ve had all my life. I do follow right and wrong, but there are other things that distinguish my belief system from the belief system I was raised with.

      So I believe these:

      1. I believe in the divinity of the Vedas, the world’s most ancient scripture. These primordial hymns are God’s word and the bedrock of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion
      2. I believe in a one, all-pervasive Supreme Being who is both immanent and transcendent, both Creator and Creation.
      3. I believe that the universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation and dissolution.
      4. I believe in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each individual creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words and deeds
      5. I believe that all souls reincarnate, evolving through many births until all their karmas have been resolved and moksha, spiritual knowledge and liberation from the cycle of rebirth, is attained.
      6. I believe that divine beings exist in unseen worlds and that temple worship, rituals, sacraments and yoga create a communion with these Gods, Goddesses and devas.
      7. I believe that a spiritually awakened master, or satguru, is essential to know the Transcendent Absolute, as are personal discipline, good conduct, purification, pilgrimage, self-inquiry and meditation.
      8. I believe that all life is sacred, to be loved and revered, and therefore practice ahimsa, noninjury in thought, word and deed.
      9. I believe that no particular religion teaches the only way to salvation above all others, but that all faiths deserve tolerance and understanding.

      I only believe the bold in the following list:

      1. I believe in God the Father, Creator of the universe, reigning forever distinct over man, His beloved creation.
      2. I believe man is born a sinner, and that he may know salvation only through the Savior, Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son.
      3. I believe that Jesus Christ was born of Mary, a virgin.
      4. I believe that Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross, then resurrected from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the Father as the final judge of the dead, and that He will return again as prophesied.
      5. I believe that the soul is embodied for a single lifetime, but is immortal and accountable to God for all thoughts and actions.
      6. I believe in the historical truth of the Holy Bible, that it is sacred scripture of the highest authority and the only word of God.
      7. I believe that upon death and according to its earthly deeds and its acceptance of the Christian faith, the soul enters Heaven, Purgatory or Hell. There it awaits the Last Judgment when the dead shall rise again, the redeemed to enjoy life everlasting and the unsaved to suffer eternally.
      8. I believe in the intrinsic goodness of mankind and the affirmative nature of life, and in the priceless value of love, charity and faith.
      9. I believe in the Holy Trinity of God who reveals Himself as Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in the existence of Satan, the personification of evil, deception and darkness.

      The first list is a list of Hindu (as named by the Himalaya Academy) beliefs. The second list is Christian beliefs. So therefore I consider myself to be an adherent of Sanatana Dharma, or Hinduism, or whatever name you prefer to give to it. Hinduism is an umbrella name given to a collection of various practices, which all have Sanatana Dharma at their core. As you can see, a Christian community would not be the place for me to find devotees of a like mind, spiritually. It was a very big relief to discover Hinduism, and find that its core beliefs are identical to my own.

      I don’t believe in a heaven or a hell. I only believe in cycles of death and rebirth, which lead us closer to realizing our true Selves and achieving oneness with God. It’s a lot of work. There is not a single, easy answer for anybody. But that’s kind of the point – we’re here on this physical planet in physical form to do that hard work, in order to learn.

      So then the question is one of culture and birth. If a person has to be Indian and look Indian to be a Hindu, then I can’t be one. But then I’m cut off from most other people who believe the same things I do. What about people who identify as Hindus and follow Indic traditions? What about people who follow Indic traditions and are from India but don’t look Indian?

      I guess I can’t convert, because if it involves switching philosophies, there’s no switch. I’ve always had this spiritual philosophy. I just can’t figure out what to do about the practice. I will eventually, because it “can be what you want it to be,” like you said. At the same time, I don’t want to make anyone who counts it as part of a long-standing family tradition uncomfortable or upset. That seems to be at cross-purposes with the aims of Sanatana Dharma.

  14. Anuj says:

    If doesn’t matter what you believe. But it matters whether your beliefs are open to change. That is core characteristic of dharmic faiths; whether you are open or closed.

    You need to create a fine difference between indic philosophies and indic practices.

    The reasons why an indian hindu rejects non-indian converts are because of historic reasons. The british rule, the christian/islamic conquests on indian sub-continent have strongly influenced the indian hindus psyche. eg: Indians are hindus(ie not christians/muslims) and the non-indians are christians/muslims(ie not hindu).

    Here is some food for thought: Before the abrahamic conquests on indian sub-continent, indic dharma was freely shared. The culture of south east asian nations are an example. The balinese still call themselves as “hindus”. The cambodian hindus too are still known as “hindus”. If these balinese and cambodians ever came to india and tried to convince the local population that they are hindus, the locals would still view them “suspiciously”.

    In the times as it stands now, the concept of “uthopia” for an “indian hindu” doesn’t extend beyond the borders of the indian sub-continent. So don’t be surprised if some non-indian converts face psychological hostility from some indians.

    • HappyGoth says:

      Ah, well, I suppose I can see that. I imagine if I want to continue this, I’ll have to come to terms with that culturally-based suspicion and either learn to deal with it or choose not to adopt indic practice. The philosophy is there, regardless. It’s been a work-in-progress pretty much my entire life, and will continue that way. And if that’s a criterion of dharmic faith, I guess I’m on the right track.

      Thanks for your comments. They’ve given me a lot to think about.

  15. surya says:

    You make dumb statements if I may say so, your almost complete lack of knowledge in hinduism is obvious, I must say people like kodanda and tandava who are CONVERTED hindus will be able make you understand hindu shastras, if you only are willing to listen to them. Your silly statement that ‘you follow dharma and you’re a hindu’ makes me laugh. There is a different name for them: Atheists.
    A hindu has an obligation to believe in the core doctrine of Dharma, karma, yoga, Atman and Brahman concept. A hindu’s goal is to facilitate the merger of atma with brahma. Don’t get mixed up with precepts, they are not doctrines.
    Your dictum that nonhindus cannot become hindus is bereft of any truth, if you only know that ACHARYA and Swami titles were conferred to a few monks who are white (other) converts by the highest seats of hinduism from hindu lands. The Himalayan academy swamis of Hawaii, David Frawley of New Mexico, Frank Morales of Nebraska of USA (google them) and swami Gahananda saraswathi (a black converted hindu) of Accra, Ghana (, are a few examples I came up with in a few seconds. Art who commented here has had his initiation just a few weeks ago in the Vedanta centre, Pittsburgh. There is a path to conversion to hinduism. Christians and muslims have spread this talk that one needs to be born into this faith. Rubbish.
    Didn’t hinduism say that Brahman is the supreme soul? That the entire manifest creation is the outwardly visible segment of that formless and imperishable Brahman? Concepts like Aham Brahmsmi and Tat tvam asi reflect the central theme of hindu theology? Knowledge is power, if you want to stand up for your divisive statements please back them up with references, which shastra said that some can some cannot become sanatana dharmics or hindus. First begin to read abridged versions of Vedas and Upanishads and Gita. They are available online free of cost.
    Finally, it is my observation that converted western/other hindus are far more knowledgeable about hinduism /SD than many born ones, for only one reason. The born one just ‘think’ they are hindus, the converted ones on the other hand work hard, gain insights and become true hindus. Namaste. Surya.

    • HappyGoth says:

      Thank you so very much for commenting on this, Surya. Now I remember why I look forward to your thoughtful and insightful responses!

      This week was a very dark and confusing process, and you’ve shone a little light back onto my path. Jai Ganesha (I should never doubt that he’s looking out for me)!


      • Anuj says:

        Indic religions are not as dogmatic as you make it out to be. Going through the shruti and the smriti is just part of our struggle to demarcate maya from non-maya; not to dwell in it and its rituals.

        You do not lead your life as per the shruti and the smriti. You are suppose to use that and a few others to understand the real(non-maya) world and lead your life on those learnings. You and many of the converts seem to have got stuck within the perimeters of the shruti and the smriti. Things go beyond that. Beyond this maya of rituals.

  16. surya says:

    You talked about hindus of Bali and Cambodia being different from those of south asia. Well my friend, when almost a billion people follow a common faith and are spread across the globe, then difference are bound to crop up over a period of time. As an example, in 15th century the Sapnish king had sent Armada, the naval might across the English channel to invade and subjugate Britain, with one objective: to ‘convert’ the protestant Brits to Catholicism. Today mormons want to convert Methodists and catholics Baptists and so forth. It is astonishing that the intrafaith division is so deep in abrahamic faiths that hindus can never begin to understand why it should be so. Namaste.

    • Anuj says:

      I never said more than half of what you implied what i said. Nor was i ambiguous.

      Im not going to play with you.

  17. myownashram says:

    I think if Hinduism is a universal religion then it shouldn’t matter who adopts it. However, Hinduism and Indian culture are not the same thing. I can see how Indians might feel that their culture is being appropriated out of a desire for the ‘exotic’ or the ‘Otherness’ of it. Any time a western white person tries to tell others about How It Is in the other person’s culture then we’ve got some serious entitlement going on. But I don’t think that absorbing the pieces of a culture that resonate is the same as appropriation. I mean, there are pieces of Western culture that other cultures absorb (many time because of colonialism, but sometimes out of true choosing). It’s sticky, but I think just beginning to grapple with this issue is the first step to being a conscientious world citizen.

    • HappyGoth says:

      “I think just beginning to grapple with this issue is the first step to being a conscientious world citizen.”

      I’m beginning to understand that. I also realize that it’s my responsibility as such to be an example of an understanding person, as much as I can be. If there are so many appropriative, insensitive folks out there already, then it’s my duty not to be like that.

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