Is it Appropriate to Appropriate?

Jonathan Gornall

Image courtesy of Gujarat Information Department / AFP

If you’re a fan of yoga but can’t lay claim to Indian heritage, you should roll up your mat and slink away in shame, never to do downward dog again.

That, at least, is the takeaway from the latest assault by the cultural-appropriation movement, for which, to quote the United Kingdom’s insufferably earnest Guardian newspaper, “Yoga’s appropriation by the white wellness industry is a 21st century  form of colonialism.”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By way of example, the dictionary entry goes on: “Some see his use of African music as cultural appropriation,” which of course is bad news for Paul Simon and fans of his 1986 album Graceland.

But outraged cries of “cultural appropriation” tend to obscure a narrow, isolationist agenda, which is exposed the moment one looks for balanced application of the principle.

While the anti-appropriators argue that India should “claim back” yoga, there is no reciprocal suggestion that India should give up its beloved cricket, the quintessentially English game, or, for that matter, that the rest of the world should abandon soccer (and appropriately call it football), or even rugby – all games that kicked off in the UK.

As for polo, well, if we are to follow the yoga position to its logical extreme, all mallets and ponies should be returned forthwith to Iran, where the game supposedly emerged as a training aid for Persian cavalry more than 2,000 years ago.

Cultural appropriation can be portrayed as a bad thing by those with an axe to grind over colonialism, but condemning it is not a zero-sum game.

If, by some curious application of a mysterious force, India was able to oblige the rest of the world to give up yoga, who would win?

Not Western devotees, who presumably would age less flexibly, and not India, which would lose yoga as a soft-power ambassador, connecting the world to the roots of its ancient spirituality.

Ideas travel, cultures merge, nations trade, people migrate, civilizations evolve. As Paul Simon put it while reflecting on the Graceland controversy in a 2011 interview, “everybody’s lifting all the time. That’s the way music grows and is shaped.”

Seeking to throw a protective, monopolistic arm around any facet of any culture is an exercise as pointless as defying the ebb and flow of ocean tides. All cultures are interwoven inextricably – pull one thread and everything unravels.

Go back far enough and everything in the world is the product of cultural appropriation, from pizza, curry, fondue and fish and chips, to architecture, agriculture, music and art. Skirts, music, dance steps, makeup, computers, tattoos, electricity, hot dogs, democracy, the internal combustion engine, religion, surfing – writing, even. It all began somewhere, and all of it is now everywhere.

This melting pot of human thought, creativity, and ingenuity benefits us all, and to attempt to retain any element for one group’s exclusive use – or, on the flip side, to ban anything that hasn’t originated from within one’s own community – is as self-defeating as it is impossible.

As an example of how complex this subject is, Ngozi Fulani, the Black British woman who recently accused a member of Britain’s royal household of racism for asking her where she was “really from,” was subsequently accused herself – by other Black Britons – of having appropriated African culture.

Despite being born in the UK of Caribbean heritage, Fulani had opted to change her name from Marlene Headley and adopt African dress.

But why shouldn’t she? If one is of direct West African heritage (and her critics appear to have forgotten that Black communities in the Caribbean originated in Africa) one has a choice: To take offense at Fulani’s “appropriation,” or to welcome it as a positive example of cultural exchange.

Such positivity was on display at the recent Qatar World Cup. Western football fans who adopted the ghutra, the traditional headdress favored in Qatar, were accused in some quarters of cultural appropriation – but not, interestingly, by the Qataris themselves, who seemed rather to like the idea.

And there was Lionel Messi, draped by the emir of Qatar in the bisht, the traditional Arab cloak, as a gesture of respect after Argentina’s World Cup victory. Setting aside the knee-jerk outbursts of racism across several Western media outlets, this was a dramatic example of cultural exchange in action.

No one is suggesting that Argentinians are going to start wearing the bisht en masse. But the garment’s appearance on the world stage, and the conversations triggered by the gesture, will have offered millions a glimpse of a culture that until that moment would have been a mystery to them, at best, or misrepresented.

In our globalized modern world, it’s far more appropriate to embrace appropriation for what it really is: cultural exchange, the driving force behind civilization, and human progress ever since the Sumerians first developed and began exporting bronze from Mesopotamia to the rest of the then-known world.

As the very lifeblood of civilization, cultural appropriation should be encouraged and celebrated, not censored. Without it, everyone outside of Mesopotamia would still be living in the Stone Age.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.