When Appreciation Turns into Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is a term that scares people away. With greater education and awareness about certain issues, it can be hard to talk about certain topics out of fear of offending others. Even though I’m writing this article, I was worried about even attempting to write about this because of that. How can I say that certain things are wrong when there are members of the affected communities who aren’t offended? How can I genuinely please everyone with my view? Well, I can’t, but that’s what ended up motivating me to write this.

The trickiest part about cultural appropriation is that there are some actions that are evidently harmful, such as wearing cultural attire as a costume. But smaller, more subtle forms of cultural appropriation are still confused for cultural appreciation. As a result, people don’t seem to be offended, not because they don’t care, but because the appropriation is so normalized that they don’t even realize that it’s a problem. In addition, I’ve started to recognize a new aspect of cultural appropriation and that is the spiritual side of culture.

For instance, yoga is arguably the most widely accepted form of cultural and spiritual appropriation out there, yet no one seems to care. We see people incorrectly using the word “Namaste” both in verbal settings and on prints. I’m not saying that you need to be Asian, Hindu or Buddhist to practice yoga or to say Namaste, but it is important to realize that this isn’t just a random word and yoga isn’t just stretching before or after a workout.

Other examples include misusing words of Eastern origin that have been adopted into the English language and abused in mainstream media, such as the word “Guru." I first started to hear this back in 2015 and 2016 when beauty vloggers and influencers started to call themselves “makeup gurus." When I first heard the term in Western settings, I didn’t understand why people were saying that. Why not just say an icon, influencer or star? I’ve never heard anyone say they were a makeup priest. It just sounds so weird, right?! So why is it okay for us to say “Guru” so easily? It’s likely we have become desensitized to it because it’s a part of Eastern culture.

Guru means spiritual guide or teacher in Hinduism and Buddhism. In Sikhism, a Guru holds the same meaning as God. Tossing around words like fitness guru, makeup guru or business guru really diminishes the cultural and religious significance that it has for certain communities. Personally, I don’t like to use Guru in a casual fashion, but I understand that many people do and they don’t have ill-intent. However, just because someone doesn’t mean any harm, doesn’t mean that what they are saying or doing isn’t offensive.

People of colour are often encouraged to not take offense to people appreciating their cultures when it’s actually not a true appreciation. Slapping a cultural or religious design or word in your room as if it’s a piece of décor is really weird if you relate it to Western ideas. Realistically, how many non-Christians have you seen put a picture of Jesus taped on their wall and say that they love the aesthetic? I think it’s safe to say that the answer is either none or at least close to it.

If this thought made you uncomfortable but tapestries with Indigenous, African, Middle Eastern and Asian figures, deities, symbols or designs don’t, you might unconsciously believe that certain religious or cultural backgrounds are up for grabs, while others are not. Or maybe you are too far from the situation to understand it and for that, I don’t blame you. That’s why it’s important for us to talk about these issues.

It can be upsetting to see people digress from the origins of traditions and attribute it to a social media trend, and then get over it as soon as something more exciting shows up. I’ve seen people make fun of manifestation and spirituality because they claimed it was demonic or witchy. What people don’t realize is that these practices come from different nations and the portrayal of some practices are often modified from their original version.

I can’t speak for every single person of colour, but I would argue that many of us love when people appreciate our culture. However, there is a difference between genuinely appreciating people of colour’s spirituality and culture being treated as a commodity, rather than as something valid and respectable. You can appreciate different cultures and adopt spiritual practices without changing your faith, religious identity or belief; the beauty of spirituality is that it doesn’t belong to one group or type of people! So, go ahead and practice yoga, visualize or manifest things. But please, for the love of whoever or whatever you believe in, no wine and yoga classes.