If I study and apply Einstein’s theory of relativity, am I appropriating the cultural legacy of Jews? Do I unknowingly demean Koreans when I practice Taekwondo? Does an attempt by me, an Indian born and raised, to learn Blues music, diminish the struggle of African-Americans?
A few days ago, an old friend wrote to me about Layla Saad’s claims in her book Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. She wanted to know what I thought of her assertion that the “practice of yoga in the occident (west) was a form of cultural appropriation”. For good measure, she added that “the mere fact I am asking you, a non-practitioner of yoga, only because you are Indian might be racist in itself, and I do apologise for that”. The question did not feel or sound racist at all, particularly coming from a friend. But then again, what would I know of such complex matters. So, I immediately consulted the two sources of wisdom I trust; my mother and google.
Watch: Layla Saad on Her Book ‘Me and White Supremacy
My mother confirmed my suspicion that most Indians I know would be delighted at the very mention of yoga by a white person. She also assured me that she does not at all feel bad that others are practising yoga and that I should encourage my friend to practice it as often as possible. Google too did not disappoint. Cultural appropriation is another one of those vague terms just as open to interpretation as misinterpretation. The easiest description that I could find refers to it as the “adoption of specific elements (such as ideas, symbols, images, art, rituals, icons, music, styles) of one culture by another culture”. I must admit that reading it made me slightly uncomfortable about the decorative Buddha statues in my living room; but it also helped me arrive at the response that I finally sent to my friend. No, I do not believe the practice of yoga amounts to cultural appropriation. But the very fact that someone would think that it does should alert us to ingrained racism that many, if not all of us suffer from.
Imitation, Flattery and Plagiarism
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, is a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde. My mother’s reaction reflected this idea. She was flattered that someone with no connections to the Indian subcontinent was learning yoga. The fact that the person was in the UK, land of the former colonial masters, made it even more of a compliment. That the value of India’s ancient wisdom was finally being acknowledged in the west was a source of pride for her, celebration even.
Watch: East Vs West | The Myths That Mystify – Devadutt Pattanaik
Some critics would point out that stripping the act of its socio-cultural significance and reducing it to a trend is the essence of appropriation. I presume they mean that practising the postures of yoga without engaging in the associated spiritual or cultural practices is somehow disrespectful. But that would amount to saying that studying relativity without sharing the objectives of Einstein would diminish his discoveries. The comparison with Physics is deliberate and I will address it later; but at a basic level, appropriation is very similar to plagiarism: copying/using someone’s work, without due credit and claiming it as your own. Plagiarists tend to miss nuance and context, but that is a consequence, not the root of any offence caused. In this framework, the practice of yoga is not cultural appropriation, claiming that it is an American/British invention is. Presuming that it came into being in the 1960s when Americans discovered it, is plain dishonest.
Culture vs Knowledge
I don’t merely disagree with Layla Saad’s claim, I believe that her assertion stems from a more pernicious belief that many of us are victims of; Oriental and African people have culture, the West has science (and culture of course). This implies that almost everything that has its origins in my part of the world is culture, the result of many generations of trial & error. The type of knowledge that even savages can discover, socialize and perpetuate over time. Yoga, therefore, is a primitive cultural artefact of people who are more pious and ritualistic than rational seekers of knowledge and truth. The type of culture that should be left alone for the descendants of those who stumbled across it, for if even that is taken away what will they be left with. Relativity, on the other hand, is the type of knowledge that is worth learning and sharing, independent of culture, race and gender. For a more detailed and scholarly exposition of this argument, I highly recommend the book “Can non-Europeans think” by Hamid Dabashi.
I am quite sure the author did not intend to convey any of this. It seems she was merely trying to start a conversation on the dangers of white supremacy. But even in trying to defend the dispossessed, she ended up echoing an age-old trope: people like me cannot possibly have developed a sophisticated framework to understand our lives, the world and existence itself. My mother, the wise woman that she is, it seems has made her peace with this. We cannot decide on how our knowledge is perceived, or how and when it is transmitted. But we can choose to celebrate the acknowledgment of the only type of knowledge we are allowed to be keepers of. This to me is the real disservice. A slightly different but more sinister type of racism. It reinforces the centralization of the west and signals a continuation of the white man’s mission to civilize the world.
So what did I tell my friend? I told her to give credit, make whatever changes work for you and practise yoga as much, or as little as you want to. I also informed her that her request was not racist. It is possible that a concern for propriety inhibits the ability of well-intentioned people to talk to each other. We might all be better served if we feel free to raise and address questions about other peoples and cultures, at least among friends.