Calling all white people, part 20: Appropriation is NOT appreciation

Calling All White People, Part 20

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Cultural appropriation isn’t some “little” issue and it’s not respectful  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

A lot of us white people have a problem with cultural appropriation.

Unfortunately, that problem is not that most of us are particularly bothered by doing it.

The problem is that we do it so seamlessly and casually and without regret or, for that matter, even forethought.

So, in other words, it’s a lot like the other racist and racially insensitive things we have, overall as white people, done for centuries. It’s as easy as breathing and we notice ourselves doing it about as often. Well, that’s not fair, actually. We pay attention to our breathing and concern ourselves with respiration way more often.

One can actually appreciate other cultures and engage in things related to said cultures without being guilty of appropriation. If an Indian family opens a restaurant, chances are they want more than just fellow Indian people to come in and eat there. A museum of African-American history is not generally going to be established with the sole purpose of serving Black visitors. And so on.

But then there is something like buti yoga which, to me, is the current poster child of the worst excesses of cultural appropriation.

First, if you are unfamiliar with buti yoga, what is it? Well, ostensibly it’s a combination of yoga and aerobics. Which is already weird, since yoga is about mindfulness, meditation, controlled breathing, poses and slow movements. In other words, almost entirely the opposite of aerobics. In practice, though, from almost every video I’ve ever seen of it, buti yoga is a combination of twerking and yoga. And shaking and jiggling one’s butt cheeks and thighs is definitely not in synch with yoga.

It’s already bad enough when white people latch on to yoga and then completely separate it from its spiritual components to make it just another hip form of fitness. Perhaps that could be forgiven because there is a bodily fitness component to yoga that is pretty important. But now buti yoga. And beer yoga. And yoga with goats (or cats). All things pretty much driven by white people who have decided yoga is all theirs.

But if you’re going to change it that much from what it was, why add “yoga” to the name at all? And therein lies the problem. That’s the appropriation. You are not even close to appreciating that piece of non-white culture. You’re not even participating in it on a meaningful level. You’ve taken it, claimed it, twisted it and perverted it.

And another reason buti yoga is such a glaring and disrespectful example of appropriation? The name. Buti is pronounced “booty” and that’s what it’s about…shaking the booty while nominally doing poses that are yoga-like. White people not only combined twerking and yoga but made up a word to make it “look” like some legitimate Hindi word and thus perhaps convince people buti yoga has some kind of traditional grounding, while at the same time making an obvious *wink wink* “See what we DID there? You know what we’re REALLY referring to.” That’s tacky and dismissive of a mental/spiritual/physical discipline with entirely non-white roots.

Now, I get that the line between cultural appreciation/engagement and cultural appropriation is sometimes a fine and blurry one. There’s never going to be an easy answer to apply to all situations. If you buy a poncho in a Mexican marketplace, does that mean you can never wear it? If you really love dancing and are drawn to belly dancing, is it wrong to take lessons or dance in shows? There are legitimate times the answers aren’t clear.

But what I want to see is more white people stopping to think about why they are engaging in other cultures’ practices and how they are interacting with them. To maybe at least do some research into something before just saying, “Oh, that’s cool; let me latch onto that.”

And even beyond that, to stop getting so sensitive and snippy when someone suggests that you might be engaging in cultural appropriation or calls you out on an obvious case of it. And, like with the mythical “reverse racism,” to stop accusing non-white people of having appropriated Western culture because, for example, they wear a suit to work.

Seriously, I saw a white guy argue this point online very recently. He was going on (of course) about how oversensitive non-white people are being when they talk about cultural appropriation. How whiny they are and how they need to shut up or, if they’re going to complain, they need to stop wearing suits and ties and such.

And here we have a prime example of white hubris.

Let’s take that suit and tie, example, shall we?

Who was it that basically decided that the suit and tie was standard male business attire? White people.

Who decided that they would refuse to take seriously just about anyone in a business setting who didn’t wear a suit and tie (with one of the few exceptions historically being Arab men from oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia who held for a time pretty much all the petroleum cards)? Yep, white dudes again.

So, we white folks made Western attire the acceptable and “normal” way of doing things, and we have typically looked down upon (or gawked at or ridiculed) people who, in America, have chosen to routinely wear attire from their own cultural background. “Assimilate!” we white people cry. Fit in!

And yet, we don’t have any problem taking other people’s cultural accessories, attire, etc. for our own. To play with like toys.

So, white women start wearing their hair in cornrows or other styles typically associated with Black women, and suddenly it’s a daring and sexy style. But when Black women wear their hair in afros or locs or braid it up…all of which are styles that lend themselves naturally to Black-textured hair…they are unprofessional or “ghetto.” No, Black women are often only considered appropriately coiffed when they subject their hair and scalp to harsh chemicals to straighten their hair and make it more Eurocentric.

That is what is so screwed up about white people and the way they tap into non-white cultures and traditions. When the people from whom those traditions, styles and the like originate do those things or wear those things, they are refusing to fit in. But when white people do it, they are “appreciating” the culture.

That is how white people approach the world far too often. We see it and we want it, and then we take it even when it isn’t sensitive, fair or even makes sense. We get to own and use what we want and change it however we want, and then dictate to others whether they can use their own stuff and how.

That’s not appreciation. It’s theft and abuse.


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