Appropriating Appropriation – Part 1

This complex issue required a lengthy blog posting so I’ve broken it up into two instalments.  I encourage you to read the entire piece before jumping to conclusions.



Cultural appropriation.  I’ve been analysing this topic for quite some time now, reflecting upon how best to approach it.  It’s a phrase that can trigger an intense emotional reaction, but sadly not always in effective or informed ways.  It’s recently become a hot button, especially within the yoga community, causing many to either depart the practice entirely or surrender their time and money eager to participate in weekend workshops promising to rectify their deficient perspectives.  Appropriation is a social dynamic that necessitates discussion, but for some, appearing progressive has become more important than critically-analysing the full spectrum of what is happening and why.  Swept up in the fervour of the latest word fad, they’re quick to whip out the phrase as though it’s their membership card to virtuous victimhood or the spiritually elite.  What troubles me is how few have taken their research beyond what’s trending on their social media feeds.  Ask them if they know the difference between cultural appropriation, integration, assimilation, or exchange…   and one is met with silence, confusion, or ignorance.  All they know is that they’re supposed to react with anger or guilt when the subject is broached; quite a testament to how well coercive tactics work on large, nescient populations.

So, let’s start with the basics –

Words have meaning.  Altering the definition of a word to support one’s own agenda is less about evoking positive change and more about winning an argument, gaslighting, or even plain old vengeance.  For an exchange of ideas to be useful in eliciting genuine social growth, all participants must first establish a shared understanding of the associated definitions:

Cultural appropriation
(An act of seizing or intentionally disrespecting another culture)
“the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically a more dominant people or society.”

Cultural integration
(An act of merging without losing one’s original culture)
“a form of cultural exchange in which one group assumes the beliefs, practices, and rituals of another group without sacrificing the characteristics of its own culture.”

Cultural assimilation
(An act of merging and potentially losing one’s original culture)
“the process in which a minority group or culture comes to resemble a society’s majority group or assume the values, behaviours, and beliefs of another group.”

Cultural exchange
(An act of sharing while retaining one’s original culture)
“the mutual sharing of ideas, traditions, and knowledge between groups from different backgrounds.”

There is also voluntary rejection of another culture, self-segregation, but for these informal purposes we’ll remain focused on forms of inclusion rather than rejection; not that self-imposed isolation isn’t a key influence in the conversation.

Now that we’ve identified four different categories, let’s consider some examples from each in order to gain clarity of what appropriation is and what it is not.



Appropriation can easily be recognised by three key elements – profit, intention, or power.

  • Profit:
    For those who may have heard of The Indian(s) Showband, this example will hardly come as a surprise.  A gimmick that began in Ireland in the 1970s to salvage fading interest in a lounge music ensemble, band members to this day still dress in faux Native American attire, the lead singer donning a feathered headdress which is considered sacred to the indigenous peoples of the American plains.  None of the band members are Native American, they do not acknowledge the history, culture, or traditional context of their attire, their shows are not a respectful fusion of global musical styles (think Mathias Duplessy, Sachal Jazz Ensemble, or Peter Gabriel), and yes, they perform the stereotypical war-cry gesticulation.  They are mocking and exploiting the exoticism of a foreign culture for private economic gain.  
  • Intention:
    Based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel from 1985, the television series, The Handmaid’s Tale, launched with great success in 2017.  It’s a horrifying story of a totalitarian and theonomic America forcing women into multifaceted forms of often fatal slavery.  In a tale seemingly meant to warn against a bleak future if our current society continues down a misogynistic path, what caused some viewers deep distress was the appropriation of an actual and familiar symbol of female empowerment, the Astra Goddess, used as an emblem for the Red Centre of the perpetrating, fictional Gilead government.  One could theorise it was chosen as a poetic representation of the symbol being transfigured into something destructive to women, except the real-life artist credited with its design decades ago did not authorise its use.  How many viewers, unfamiliar with its origins, will now associate that symbol with something harmful for women?  Why was the goddess symbol portrayed as a negative emblem at all, and did the television producers care about the collateral damage?
  • Power:
    Scholars, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and art historians from across the globe have unearthed and extensively researched evidence that places the origins of yoga somewhere in ancient India approximately 5,000 years ago.  In the early 1970s, an American chiropractor and a social services worker decided between them that the ancient Egyptian depictions they were studying should be interpreted as the origins of yoga and named it Kemetic Yoga.  The founder, Asar Hapi, also produces a talk show, The Royal Priesthood Nation, whose mission it is “to prepare humanity for ascension through Merkabah activation”.  Merkabah is a school of Jewish mysticism that believes geometric shapes unlock magical powers.  What is troubling are the yoga institutions and teachers who are now trying to promote this Egyptian theory as unequivocable fact without investigating the motivations or qualifications of its founders, let alone its validity.  In fear of appearing judgemental or worse, they have abandoned discernment altogether.  Even if one did entertain this theory, there can be no certainty of what the inventor looked like given Egypt has been a melting pot of humanity for thousands of years, including not just Sudanese and Libyan, but peoples spanning the entire Levant.  None of this would be a source of concern if the founders had simply claimed to invent a new meditative movement inspired by Egyptian spirituality, but by attempting what is, in essence, a coup, they are endeavouring to replace another culture’s rightful place in history.

It is imperative to understand, cultural appropriation can be perpetrated by anyone of any background, especially when they hold a position of influence in a group or community.



Integration reflects a fusion of cultures; when one retains one’s own, but incorporates beloved aspects of another, especially when moving to a new area or expanding one’s world views:

  • For culinary enthusiasts, Scotland’s celebrity chef, Tony Singh, is a familiar example. Bursting with pride in both his familial and chosen cultures, he adorns himself with traditional dastar, moustachioed grin, and the manly swing of a wool kilt.  His fare blends regional cuisine with a South Asian flare, including haggis pakoras.
  • Virginian artist, Morgan Bullock, is an African-American Irish step-dancer whose performance skills were so impressive, Padraic Moyles of Riverdance, contacted her with a job offer. Bullock comments, “It’s important for people to recognise there’s a difference between appropriation and appreciation.  I think people use the term appropriation without knowing what it really means.”
  • Anyone familiar with Japanese cinema may remember the popular 2003 update of a fictional character developed in the 1960’s, Zatoichi. In a show-stopping finale, the film highlights the talents of famous tap-dancing ensemble, The Stripes, in traditional attire with taiko thundering and kabuki vocalisations in the background.  For those unfamiliar, tap dance has its roots in Juba dance, Scottish and Irish step dancing, and English clog dancing.  An eclectic blend indeed.

Integration allows one to cherish traditions and practices found within other cultures, sometimes even ensuring their continued existence as we will examine later.



In assimilation, we encounter those who have consciously chosen another culture.

  • A close family member of mine was born in Kolkata into a conservative family, entrenched in traditional values. Shortly after his arrival, the family moved to Tynemouth where they continued to practise their beliefs and actively socialised within the South Asian community.  The child interacted with school chums enjoying his life by the seaside, doted upon by family and friends alike.  At ten years old, the family returned to India where the boy encountered a deeper immersion into his ancestral culture.  He became profoundly unhappy.  His surroundings were not unfamiliar, but they didn’t bring him the same fulfilment he had experienced in Britain.  After dedicating himself to academic excellence, he returned to England five years later where he has remained ever since, blissfully and utterly British.  His parents remain stalwart in their traditional beliefs, social interactions, cuisine, and his mother has never worn anything, but a sari, indeed, they rarely venture outside of familiar territory whereas their son specifically chose a different route.  At any point, he could have absorbed his familial environment, they longed for it his entire life in fact, but the British culture IS his culture; it’s home for him, regardless of his external appearance.

Those who assimilate can easily be mistaken as appropriating a culture when we fail to enquire beyond our first impressions; when we fail to recognise large groups are made up of individual people who make individual choices based upon individual experiences.



The most ancient, pervasive, and honest social dynamic, cultural exchange reminds us that none of us were created in a vacuum.

  • Blue jeans. Need I say more?  This practical, durable, American garment can be found in the highest mountains of Tibet, the deepest jungles of the Amazons, on the hottest sands of the Sahara, and the coldest reaches of the Arctic….  and it’s not being worn by the tourists.  In the arguments around appropriation that stipulate people should not wear garments from other cultures, I’ve yet to see anyone mention denim.  We could go so far as to please the pedantic by restricting trousers altogether to only those individuals of Central or East Asian descent, but how far do we take that?  Someone may have the right DNA, but what if they don’t meet the aesthetic criteria?  And whose criteria would we choose?  I digress…

But wait, there’s more!

  • If you’ve enjoyed French wine, driven a German car, eaten a Peruvian potato or African watermelon, dined on Mexican corn, smoked South American tobacco, talked on a Chinese mobile, worn a Scandinavian cap, written an Indian zero in equations, or switched on an American lightbulb (or Canadian, or British, or Russian, depending upon your source), you too are a participant and benefactor of cultural exchange.

Usually those knowingly engaged in cultural exchange are practising a respectful, symbiotic relationship and are unlikely to choose garments or traditions regarded as sacred, unless specifically invited to do so.  Yes, there will always be the ignorant, but they can be guided constructively towards understanding.  Anyone versed in psychology will attest lashing out at a person or group with angry accusations or wielding guilt as a weapon will only yield coping mechanisms in response – defensiveness and emotional shutdown, often burrowing themselves deeper.  Is the purpose to nurture lasting change in society, or merely to discharge personal frustrations?

Exchange is the social dynamic that paved the way for civilised human potential, freedom of expression, and made our continuing existence possible.  Where would we be without the mutual exchange of ideas and practices?

Well, we wouldn’t have yoga, that’s for sure.


Let’s pause here for a moment –

remember the people I mentioned at the beginning who are taking the workshops on appropriation to become more enlightened members of society?  I have to wonder, if they’re leaving those events without also being taught about integration, assimilation, and exchange, is the syllabus comprehensive?  Are they being taught critical-thinking or just conformity?  If attendees are being introduced to the spectrum of terminology, but fail to implement them than either they’re not being taught well, or perhaps some of the terms are being subverted.

What then might be the lasting impact on individual psyches, or community-building at large?

Who benefits from promoting exclusion and divisiveness?


Stay tuned for Part II