The Freedom Trap: Where Conversations About Cultural Appropriation Go To Die

I took the photo below in Thailand in January, outside a Buddhist temple. I loved it so much, I probably took 15 photos of this one umbrella.

Buddha is for Respecting... Not Decoration

Buddha is for Respecting... Not Decoration

And I’ve been wanting to use it as a starting point for a post on how cultural appropriation comes up for progressives and liberals. But it took me a while to sort out my mixed feelings on the topic.

Because from my view in the San Francisco Bay Area, I see how cultural appropriation plays out in weird ways among progressives. 

And I think we need better conversations about this.

Not just because it’s within America’s most progressive enclaves that my South Asian mother-culture is most freely appropriated. 

And not just because of how white lefties will sometimes borrow elements of other cultures to demonstrate how counter-culture and woke they are.

But mainly because many liberals habitually blame racial justice and equality activists anytime we lefties get our butts kicked in elections. And the dialogue around cultural appropriation has become a punching bag for the right. And increasingly since the last election, for a lot of liberals too.

The Freedom Trap

Folks are buying the idea that the fight for equality is nothing more than “identity politics” aimed at taking away everyone’s God-given American “freedoms,” by enforcing politically correct speech, and kicking white people out of yoga class.

And it’s absolutely disingenuous. Because while there (probably) isn’t anyone arguing that it should literally be illegal for white people to wear dreadlocks, conservatives are in fact fighting legal battles to protect their “freedom” to discriminate against LGBT people.

So let’s get it straight, at least among us progressives:

The conversation about cultural appropriation has nothing to do with individual freedom. It IS about respect for others, and individual integrity.

Why this conversation matters

Because at its worst, cultural appropriation is a theft of soul.

It's the same theft that has happened to the lands and bodies of people of color, happening to the collective soul of their communities.

That's why it hurts. That's why it matters.

Often the “stuff” of a culture is taken while the people are thrown out, sometimes quite literally. How much does America love black culture, while we jail so many black people?

And this theft has real-world consequences. Chris Newman, a black farmer from Charlottesville, VA wrote about this in a Facebook post addressed to white liberal activists in his area. His post went viral. (Emphasis added)

Second is the sheer degree of cultural appropriation going on with businesses in the city proper. It's little things - e.g. shops and other businesses incorporating wide swaths of hiphop culture into their branding while having not a single Black owner, partner, employee, or vendor. And those businesses are KILLING IT here. This is a town where Blackness advances White-owned brands and subjects Black-owned businesses to inspection by law enforcement. 

And there are other consequences. Appropriation is exclusionary to many of the people whose cultures are being used, because it can be so uncomfortable to be around. And progressives who want to build diverse movements really need to hone their instincts around the difference between inclusion and appropriation. 

If you haven’t already, see the movie, “Get Out” to get a sense for how unnerving appropriation can feel. It brilliantly heightens the experience so you feel it w/in a couple hours. A lot of folks live with a lower grade version of it over the course of a lifetime.

It also matters because this is a clash between deeply ingrained worldviews.  

When you grow up in America within a community that is on the margins, it can affect the way you see your place in the world.

For me, that meant that growing up, wherever I went, I saw myself and my family as visitors. I was aware that I was always in Rome, and should therefore try and do as the Romans do.

And America’s dominant culture -- built on the legacy of manifest destiny -- feels something more akin to “the world is our oyster.”

And those are two very different places from which to interact with the world.

For instance, I was raised as a Hindu, but my spirituality has been very influenced by Buddhism. But when I interact with Buddhist culture, I understand myself as a visitor to Buddhism. Buddhism is not my oyster.

And I feel the same way about Christianity. I have seen white people wearing clothes and jewelry bearing the likeness of Ganesh like it’s no biggie, but I could not imagine wearing a Jesus t-shirt, nor would I wear a crucifix around my neck. It would feel too disrespectful.

Those symbols carry a lot of meaning, and they are not for decoration.

This is a clash between two worldviews. One is of personal freedom and entitlement, and the other is of respect and deference.   

Cultural appropriation is one way these worldviews clash. And while it may be hard to see from within the dominant culture, it’s pretty conspicuous for many of us on the margins.

And though we may all have our preferences, I don’t believe there is a right or wrong between these two worldviews.

They are both limited. They are both incomplete pictures of what it means to be a human in relationship with the world.

And that's why dialogue is so important. Through dialogue, we can learn to stand outside our worldviews to see what happens when they interact. And we may even expand our understanding to something bigger than the sum of them.

Here are 5 ways to avoid the Freedom Trap (and other pitfalls):

1. No rules, and no tantrums.

Cultures are complex and constantly changing, and we’re not going to be able to legislate our way to greater understanding.  

And occasionally we do see someone trying to devise a set of rules around who should be allowed to do what. And that can be useful in a limited sense, but I ultimately don’t see that getting us very far.

But what I’ve seen far more often is when a conversation shuts down because people react so strongly to even a whiff of being “told what they can and can’t do.”

And we’ve got to stop reacting to these conversations like children defying their parents. No one can MAKE you not wear your Native American headdress to Coachella.

But you are also free to choose to take the time to understand what it is you are participating in. You are free to make more mindful decisions that are aligned with your values. And if you are still determined to do it, you will be better equipped to hear out any negative feedback you do get.  

2. We can’t control culture.  

Cultures will mix. They just will. And many good things come of that.

Frankly I’d like to see more Americans doing yoga and meditating, not less.

And wonderful things have happened in my life because of people who came before me, who skillfully and respectfully wove together wisdom from many parts of the world.

And I don’t know if that was a happy byproduct of appropriation, or if it was an entirely different thing.

Either way, there is something going on in the world about the mixing of cultures. Some of it feels like a perpetuation of dominance and exploitation. And some of it feels like the integration that our souls yearn for.

But we’ll never be able to tell the difference if we are stuck in black and white thinking. We’ve got to let go of control, and open up to the funk and murk of what is going on.

3. Aren’t there #MoreImportantIssues for us to be talking about?

I’ve seen this question come up a LOT in conversations around culture and race.  

When I’ve seen it, it’s usually a white person saying something along the lines of:

I don’t get it. Why do people get so worked up over this? Why is this an issue?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And then someone will say:       

Aren’t there more important issues for everyone to be talking about? Like climate change? AKA, the coming extinction of the human race??

And here’s what I say to that.

First, I’d believe that argument a lot more if I didn’t ONLY see it coming up when things get uncomfortable. When I see people posting articles about Melania’s weird Instagram account, or pictures of their kittens, I don’t see anyone out here saying, “but what about climate change??”

So when someone says, “there are more important issues for us to be talking about,” what I hear is “this topic makes me uncomfortable, and I’d like to change the subject.”

And it probably wouldn’t be making anyone uncomfortable if it wasn’t important.

Second, I get that not everyone will understand why cultural appropriation is an important issue. I get that it’s not as clear and relatable as a problem as, say, slavery.

And there is nothing wrong with not getting it, especially at first. But it’s important to understand that “I don’t get it” is not the same thing as, “this should not matter.”

4. So you think I’m being too sensitive...

I have been told, by liberals, that “we liberals” are being too fragile in complaining about discomfort, and maybe we need to work on our sensitivity, rather than asking the world to change.

And that is just...hilarious.

Look. I have no illusions about getting rid of discomfort. I encounter it regularly.

  • I have put in my time on a yoga mat, listening to bad (IMHO) “easternish” music, being led by a teacher who has taken a (mispronounced) Hindi name, and I have breathed through that ish.

  • I have, while dancing to Indian music, been approached by a white man who saw himself as an expert on my culture, who saw fit to inform me that I don’t move like an Indian person. And though pissed, I kept on dancing.

  • I have sat in meditation halls full of people dressed in rough approximations of my ancestor’s clothing. And though it was disconcerting, I managed to focus my mind.

There is no getting rid of discomfort. Instead, my intention is to invite more of us into the heat of it.

5. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

We can hold this as an inquiry where we value both individual freedom, and collective impact. I am not trying to stop anyone from engaging in practices that heal them, that they love, and are close to their heart.

I am asking that we ask ourselves the hard questions, and come to our individual conclusions. And that we hold those conclusions lightly, so we can continue to learn. This is what I try and do myself.

The outcome of your inquiry may be:

  • That you adjust your behavior.

  • Or you may decide not to change your behavior, but you go about it with more mindfulness and humility.

  • Or maybe nothing changes, except you feel more grounded and less defended in what you are doing, so you become less reactive and more open to dialogue in all of this.

  • Or in sharing whatever form your inquiry takes, you create moments of teaching for others.

That is my hope.

The first conversation to have is the one with yourself

Here is the good news. Practices like recycling and conserving water are ways we all have to live our values of caring for the earth.

And becoming more mindful of how we relate to culture is a way we can all put our equality values to work.

So finally, here are 7 mindful questions you can use, anytime you are wondering:

“Is what I’m doing kinda messed up?”

(THESE ARE NOT RULES.)

They are keys to open up an inquiry, and deepen your understanding of how you might be using or misusing culture.

  1. What do I believe my use of this cultural artifact (for example, my new name, my style, my words, my affinity) says about me?

  2. And does that also say something about what I think about the people and culture this artifact came from? (For instance, am I using something to seem more spiritual? And if so, what does that say about how I see the people originally from that culture?)

  3. And am I perpetuating a stereotype? (Remember, all stereotypes are harmful, because they are inherently objectifying and dehumanizing.)

  4. Is the way I use this a function of my privilege? (for example, here a white woman dangerously politicizes the clothes that Indian women wear, by wrapping herself in “protest saris”)

  5. Am I objectifying, commodifying, and/or fetishising something? Is there shallowness or depth in how I use this?

  6. What is my relationship to the people of this culture? Do I know them? How well? Do I listen to them? Do I dismiss them? Do I believe that white westerners do it better? Do I know how they would feel about what I’m doing, and if so, do I hold their objections with integrity?

  7. Where do I habitually place the “burden of proof?” Do I expect people from marginalized cultures to provide sufficient “proof” that what I am doing is harmful? How much deference do I give to the people whose culture I am borrowing? And how might my sense of entitlement (or lack of it) be informed by my privilege, and the worldview I grew up with?

Conclusion: Don't Fall for the Trap

The "freedom trap" applies to much more than cultural appropriation. It is a trick that conservatives use to undermine progress towards equality in many ways.

  • Like Hobby Lobby's Supreme Court case that granted businesses the "religious freedom" to deny birth control coverage to their employees.
  • And Citizens United, which granted corporations the "free speech rights" to political advertising with little regulation.
  • And let's not forget the "Stand Your Ground" laws, which gave George Zimmerman the sense of freedom to act on his racist fear and murder an unarmed child, Trayvon Martin, who was walking home with candy in his pockets. 

So we have to become more discerning. Is it truly our freedom that's at stake, or someone else's? Are we defining freedom as the ability to do what we want, without legal or even social consequences? And where is the line between freedom and the entitlement to act with impunity?

What comes up for you as you consider these questions for yourself? And what other questions would you want to ask? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.