Last fall, citing concerns over cultural appropriation, the University of Ottawa’s Student Federation suspended a yoga class that had been taught for seven years by Jennifer Scharf, a white woman. When the class resumed this January Scharf was gone; she had been replaced by Priya Shah, an Indian instructor.
Shah has suspicions that her hiring may have been nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to achieve superficial diversity, rather than a legitimate effort to mitigate cultural appropriation. The Student Federation did not give her instructions to approach the class from a more authentically Hindu perspective, and she has no plans to do so.
Throughout the Western world, student activists are levelling accusations of racism against anyone who dares to explore a culture or religion of which they are not a hereditary member. At Oberlin College in Ohio, students complained that serving bánh mì on the wrong type of bun was an “appropriative” act commited by the cafeteria staff. In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts came under protest after launching an event where visitors were invited to try on a kimono resembling the one depicted in Claude Monet’s painting “La Japonaise.” This occurred despite the local Deputy Consul of Japan’s insistence that the museum’s program was in fact perfectly fine.
At worst, these claims of cultural appropriation are dishonest; at best, they are misplaced.
A definition of cultural appropriation offered in a recent article in The Varsity described the phenomenon as occurring “when those of a dominant cultural group selectively use, practice, or wear pieces of another, often marginalized culture, in a way that is decontextualized from its roots….” If understood this way, many facts of of everyday life in a nation like Canada — and certainly in a city like Toronto — could be construed as disrespectful, hurtful cultural appropriation. But is this really what’s happening?
The aforementioned definition implies that decontextualization is inherently wrong. This would mean that any use of a cultural item or practice must remain 100 per cent true to its origins, lest it become appropriative.
So when white teenagers play lacrosse, a game invented by First Nations peoples well before the European colonial era, are they appropriating an entire sport? When a restaurant offers Mexican tacos with Korean-style meat, should we stop and try to calculate which nationality has experienced more oppression and who is appropriating from whom?
Of course not. These are not instances of racism, but rather, multiculturalism at work. When human beings live together, they influence, impress, and seek to imitate one another. A truly diverse community is not one where distinct cultures from foreign lands live in physical or imagined enclaves, shielding every aspect of their traditions from those who are different from them. On the contrary, it is one where customs are shared and the foreign becomes familiar, not just for education but for fun.
Traditions are dynamic especially here in the multicultural West. This is not evidence of racism, but of tolerance.
This is not to say that cultural appropriation never occurs; it is just that we ought to reserve this label for incidents that are truly representative of harm, lest it lose meaning. Surely there ought to be consensus around the notions that acts such as wearing blackface, naming a sports team with a racial slur, or donning a religious headdress that one has no personal affiliation with, are all examples of actually appropriated and unacceptable behaviour. Acts such as these are wrong not because they are decontextualized from their origins, but because the origins themselves are racist. The purpose of wrongful appropriation is not to share in another’s culture so much as to insult it.
That being said, it should also be recognized that the mere blending of cultures does not result in one usurping the other as the true creator or owner of a certain item or practice. Yoga will always be Indian, bánh mì will always be Vietnamese, and the kimono will always be Japanese.
To divide ourselves into those who are allowed to wear, eat, or play a certain thing and those who are not — by virtue of our race, religion, or ancestry — would be to discard decades of progress toward mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence. Traditions are dynamic — especially here in the multicultural West. This is not evidence of racism, but of tolerance.
Emmett Choi is a fifth-year student at Victoria College studying philosophy and American studies. His column appears every three weeks.