Fear of cultural appropriation inhibits the inspiration necessary for others to create new things. We must build on the towering achievements of all those who have born before us. Then, pooling our rich resources… we can ensure that our legacy us a rich inheritance of all those yet to be born.           – Stewart Stafford.


All through history cultures and civilizations have mingled and interacted. In the course of these interactions people have learned from one another, sometimes copied practices, even adopted dress modes and moral codes.

Writing is Sumerian in origin  and spread to many other regions of the world.  Parchment from Egypt was imitated by the Greeks. The Gods of Greece were adopted with different names by ancient Romans. Buddhism from India was embraced by South-Asian cultures. The Arabs took the decimal system of numeration from India, and this was taken over by Europeans from the Arabs. Pants probably started in Central Asia and have spread all over the world. Pajamas are said to have started in Persia, and  the turban too.  Something or other that emerged in one culture always finds its way into another, exactly as modern technological inventions, like the fan and the phone, movies and machines have moved from the West to the whole world.

One can go on and on. Long before the current labyrinth  of globalization interpenetration of  inventions and insights has been  occurring in countless spheres all over the world, sometimes gradually, sometimes in a very short time. Whether gunpowder or Gulab jamun, plumbing or plastic, everything has its origin at some place, and gradually seeps here and there and eventually everywhere. No one culture or nation really owns anything any longer. There are ways by which even Copyright laws are ignored or circumvented in today’s world.

When this happened in the past, especially in matters of religion and raiment,  hairstyle and hugs, yogurt and yoga, it went practically unnoticed. No public arena for crying and complaining. But in the twenty-first century, aspects of this phenomenon have taken on special significance in a negative way. Some people from cultures which have suffered  Western intrusions through imperialist exploitation and colonialist oppression, even if they have  also benefited from Western science, technology and worldviews, react angrily when Westerners adopt some of their customs and practices. It is in this context that the term cultural appropriation (sometimes also called cultural misappropriation) was introduced.

Cultural appropriation is one-directional. It is members of the stronger, more dominant and powerful culture (currently Western) that are accused of this as yet unpunishable offense. This is especially so in dress-modes and hairstyles. It is okay for an African-American woman to color her hair blond, but if a white woman  wears Fulani braids, it is cultural appropriation. It is okay for a Japanese gentleman to wear suits and tie, but if a Westerner wears a Fijian Sulu in public it would be deemed cultural appropriation. It is okay for Indians to play cricket and golf, but if a Westerner practices yoga or meditation it is cultural appropriation.

One must distinguish between complaints of cultural appropriation and expressions of  cultural appreciation. Westerners may relish curry, kabab and kofta, I Ching and kabuki,  listen to Carnatic keertanam, and show interest in I Ching: These would be examples of  cultural appreciation These are not the same as Western women wearing saree or salvár kamiz in public or dancing Bharata Natyam.

There is another matter of irritation in the modern world: Cultural insensitivity: attitudes, behaviors and writings that come from outsiders. People with little knowledge or experience in another culture sometimes make comments or even write articles and books which seem to show   scant respect for the feelings of insiders.  Thus, NFL’s naming Washington’s Redskins is seen as showing insensitivity to Native Americans.  Scholars who have spent decades in the study of another language and  culture have to be extremely sensitive to the sacredness implicit in what they are writing about. This is especially true of religious themes.

We live in a  complex and culturally supercharged globalized world.  In this world  people of the West  are obliged to be very cautious when they  say or write about cultures not their own, and equally careful about how they incorporate elements of another culture into their  lives. This is the price they have to  pay for being part of a culture/nation/civilization that had been  imperialistic for well over three hundred years, and whose languages are well understood by people all over the world. A good deal of writings which are culturally insensitive to Western culture are okay in Non-Western languages. Nor is the adoption of aspects of Western lifestyle by Non-Western peoples is regarded as cultural appropriation. History has strange ways of reprimanding  wrong-doers.

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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