The Fine Line Between Appreciation and Appropriation

Rish Sinha

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Growing up in the melting pot of New York City, it’s easy to interact with foreign values, cuisines, arts, and religions. You can pass by an Indian spice shop and an Irish pub on the same block. However, this by no means indicates that our constant interaction with other cultures is necessarily respectful. For example, in Western Culture, Hinduism is frequently watered down into “spiritual” yoga chants. The people who take part in this practice tend to butcher Sanskrit and Hindi words, while also having no true understanding of these words. One time, I was in a store called “Little India” in lower Manhattan. A group of these self-proclaimed “spiritual” individuals walked into the store and asked the owner for Indian idols. When the owner, who is an Indian immigrant, was unable to help them because of an unfamiliarity with Americans’ usage of Hindu culture, they broke into a mispronounced, poorly done chant. Both the owner and I were understandably confused and infuriated. The group had just finished explaining that they did not practice Hinduism, but yet they still insisted on using Hindu idols, chants, and scriptures to maintain their facade of spirituality.

This problem also exists within our school community. Towards the end of last year, two seniors organized a celebration of Holi. The holiday’s main focus is the symbolic tradition of ridding oneself of past errors and changing for the better along with the change in season. Unfortunately, those arranging the celebration made little effort to promote appreciation of any of the culture behind it. Myself and another student of the HM Indian community attempted to hold a discussion on the cultural background and significance of Holi in India, but were shut down. The organizers made no effort to aid us in the cultural discussion. I was simply given the advice to “just start talking and we’re sure people will listen.” One of the seniors offered the explanation that it was a celebration that was based on Holi as opposed to a genuine appreciation of the holiday as was advertised during the assembly preceding the event. This apathy is harmful to our community. In failing to share adequate cultural information about the day, they portrayed the holiday of Holi as nothing more than a color run.

Despite my encounters with cultural appropriation, there are times when I believe using other cultures can have a positive impact on our community. Last year, I participated in a play during first trimester called “The Rapaccini Variations.” One particularly beautiful scene was in the style of traditional Japanese Noh theater. In the scene, members of the cast were dressed in kimonos and put on traditional Japanese Noh masks. Despite the fact that those who participated in the scene were educated on the background of the Noh style, it was labeled by some in the community as disrespectful cultural appropriation. The complaints failed to recognize the context of the scene. It was proposed that we remove the masks, a core element of the Noh style, but presenting an inauthentic version of the scene would directly defy the point of including Noh theater at all. Our student body’s fear of offending non-western cultures is actually harmful to our community; it prevents our greater knowledge and appreciation of these unfamiliar cultures. This fear of being offensive came close to preventing wider cultural awareness of non-western theater. Trying to limit people from respectfully using other’s cultures will only contribute to cultural ignorance.

The importance of a unified multi-cultural community, such as Horace Mann, is being able to blend parts from each individual’s culture together while having a genuine appreciation for what makes everyone unique. Without distinct cultures, societies all over the planet would lack any individual, identifying characteristics and the world would be a boring collection of conformity. Culture is precious to many people because it is the basis of individual identity. Therefore, respect and appreciation of others’ identities are critical for building a diverse community. Only once we have accomplished this can we start to incorporate elements from individual’s backgrounds into the larger community.

This year we must learn how to draw the line between appreciation and appropriation, reverence and disrespect. Crossing this line can lead to whitewashing; it can lead to translating Buddhist or Hindu prayers into English and singing them in order to be “spiritual.” It can lead to dancing in a circle chanting nonsensical noises in order to portray a caricature of a Native American. Nevertheless, straying away from this line in an attempt to avoid offensiveness can be almost equally harmful. Failure to understand one another’s culture should never hamper understanding within a community. As a community we must learn to find this balance and maintain it within our interactions and expression.

It’s true that seeking this balance can become even more complex when considering how every person is made up of more than just one culture. A large part of my cultural identity is shaped by my Indian heritage and Hindu family because I observe Indian and Hindu holidays. I speak fluent Hindi and most importantly, I lived in India for a large portion of my life. However, my identity has also been shaped by other factors too, which is what makes me the individual I am today. My home in New York City shaped the way I dress, my accent, the slang I use, and the tightly-knit community of friends who I met and grew up with.

Once we have found the balance, maintaining it is simple, but it takes discipline and open-mindedness. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are worried about crossing the line, take time and ensure that you have a better understanding of the convention you are adopting. This will ensure that there is no misrepresentation of the culture and instead can further the community’s knowledge of other cultures, which will lead to a stronger community in the future.