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Friday, June 25, 2010

Other White Americans Looking for Culture

I happened to stumble upon some blogs about other ways in which people of European ancestry find culture in their lives. I know we have a few Pagan readers here and I think this is the same or similar. It seems that some people are going back to Nordic traditions of their ancestors as well. This suggests to me that my sense of lack of culture is a common problem here in America.

One person put it really interestingly:
""I know the feeling of having been exiled from your ancestors’ traditions. I know what it feels like to see other cultures reveling in traditions, and medicines, and lifestyles passed down to them for thousands of years, while I am given only Advil with which to soothe my pains."

The post is about how sometimes people trying to reclaim their European heritage fall into problems with racism (wanting to have White pride, since Black pride is okay).

It seems that a lot of people feel very connected to their own family and ancestry. I don't really feel that. I don't have a sense of my lineage reaching back through time in one particular family. Believing in reincarnation, this body is little indication of what other lives I've had and those lives are equally valid as this one. It's not like a previous life is less real because it is over. I may have been Indian in my last life. I may have been something else.

With that in mind it is also hard for me to understand how people get held accountable for the actions of their race in the past. It seems like such a strange idea to me because I didn't personally do any of those things that white people did to subjugate other races. But is that just a "white" way to think?

The same person above quotes Churchill [Edited to correct: not The Churchill, apparently, just A Churchill] as saying: “[People who appropriate the affects [sic] of other spiritual cultures] are attempting to avoid responsibility, to sidestep the heritage they’re a part of. Rather than rectify it, putting it right, putting it back in balance, they want to step out of it and appropriate something else from somebody else so they can pretend to be other than who and what they are.” (From what I read of the link Tandava shared, this Churchill guy is out of his mind. With alleged claims of a little bit of Native American blood, he criticizes all other white people for being imperialists and apparently published an essay basically saying that victims of 9/11 had it coming).

I don't understand this perspective at all. For wrongs of the past, I think we should all be working to rectify those. I think we should do our best to avoid those wrongs in the present. It seems to me that the responsibility belongs to everyone, not just those whose ancestors two hundred years ago did something wrong.

So here we are, back at the subject of cultural appropriation. I went looking for a definition and I was pleased with what I found. A detailed article on Pagans using Hindu deities gave this definition:
" Cultural appropriation happens when someone from one culture borrows symbols, rituals, and practices from another culture without fully understanding the context, meaning, and complexity of those things, and then passes them off as one’s own, or uses their own interpretations and then passes them off as 'authentic.' "

By this definition, one would need to be using items from another culture without understanding their full meaning and claiming one's own interpretation as more valid. I don't believe that I am doing either of these things. I come to Hindu practices with much respect. I have a great deal of study, knowledge, and practical experience participating in Hindu ritual. I value my own understanding of my worship, but I'm always open to deepening that understanding with the many, many people who know more than I.

This person goes on to say, "I’ve seen plenty of neo-Pagans doing a great job at respectfully approaching Hindu deities and incorporating Hindu worship into their own with some amount of care and respect. At the same time, I’ve also seen a few neo-Pagans worship Hindu deities with some bravado, and have seen and heard about some rituals that are at best ignorant and at worst blatantly disrespectful of Hindu traditions and culture."

Another blog post defining cultural appropriation says this: "Cultural Appropriation: The unhealthy aspect of multiculti, where a more powerful culture raids a less powerful neighboring culture ... and appropriates aspects of that culture without proper acknowledgment of the 'home culture' or understanding the cultural context from which these aspects spring. Examples: yoga, Buddhism, hip hop and ebonics-derived slang, graffiti art, etc."

Pretty similar, the key idea being that the source of the cultural tradition is not acknowledged and the understanding is incomplete.

The first article is more positive in tone than the second, but both give me the impression that there are ways to do what we do well and there are ways to do it badly and we need to be aware of that. It doesn't mean that neo-Pagans can't worship Hindu deities or that non-Indians can't worship Hindu deities, it just means that we have to do it with care and respect.

The same blog above has more to say on this subject and also references someone else's thoughts as well:
And We Shall March
A post referencing the above post and adding some things


  1. Hi,
    The Churchill quote is not from Winston Churchill, but Ward Churchill, see this article.

  2. Ahhh, that makes so much more sense now. I don't know who that guy is at all! I'll have to edit that. Thank you.

  3. since you are interested in dance , here is a white russian :

    - basu

  4. This is another issue I struggle with, but from a different perspective: I was born and raised in the hills of Appalachia, and knew my own mountain culture from an early age. My parents taught me to be proud of it, we'd go to performances of traditional folk music, we'd devour the Foxfire books, and learned how to square dance as part of our phys-ed classes.

    So I was steeped in a truly American culture. And my issue has been, for the last several years, how can I be authentically Appalachian, and into fiddle music, and cooking dandelion greens, and loving old hymns and still call myself a Hindu? Doesn't me being Hindu mean that my Pole Star points to some place very different than the dark, humid green embrace of the hills of my hometown? Do I decide to be all one, or all the other? Or is a middle ground possible, with almost daily fluctations one way or the other?

    I'm not sure where you're from, Aamba, but I can imagine anonymous suburban towns scattered throughout the country with no real sense of place, and not much in the way of indigenous culture than anyone knows or cares about. We aren't taught to value our many American cultures anymore. And we do have them. The Piney towns of southern NJ with their distinctive music, the Creole and Cajun cultures, the Native American cultures of all kinds - we aren't exposed to it unless we travel somewhere. So maybe you had a "culture" where you grew up but just didn't know it because no one cared enough about it to tell you.

    And to make it harder, I still have my German heritage (Mom's off the boat, literally) and Norwegian (grandfather's off the boat, literally) and I don't want to discard those, either.

    And that's why I brought up the idea of a Western Hinduism, with our own western gravitational pull, that values our western cultures, and gives us the sort of holistic approach to life and worship that we crave in Hinduism but without us trying so hard to be Indian.

    And Aamba, I mean no offense! I am simply mad for Indian culture. I listen to ragas daily, have a house filled with Indian art, and a closet full of Indian clothes that I wear all summer long because they're light and comfy and pretty. We all have our own path to navigate, and it's much better that we navigate with each other.

    My point is that maybe there's a way to be Hindu for those of us with our own strong cultures, to believe in Hinduism, and without appropriating a culture that doesn't feel fully authentic to us. Religions and cultures evolve. Maybe we're in the vanguard of an evolutionary trend in Hinduism...

  5. That is very interesting, CS. I have loved what I've seen of Appalachian culture, and it is a very strong one. I'm from New England. It has its own feel, not something I can quite put my finger on. I think the stoic attitude of New England doesn't fit me, although the vague hippiness of it does!

    You'll have to keep on updating us on your struggle to find an identity among a blend of cultures. I am sure you can do it!

  6. To CS,
    Its really wonderful to know your beliefs and struggle. My personal opinion is that Hinduism is not a personal property of any country or culture, people would tend to blend their own love, affection, beliefs, and faith into it interweaving into a beautiful pattern. I guess you could be as american as one can get and as much hindu as one can be in this one small lifetime.

  7. Aamba,C.S. and others,
    I understand perfectly what you feel.How or why Does it matter?
    In 2001, I had the opportunity to visit the U.S. for couple of months on a kind of holiday/vacation[to Oregon]. Mercifully by then there were a lot of Indian stores for us to get Indian provisions like the different types of Dals we use in Indian Cuisine.We even got fresh curry leaves,which is so important for its flavour and also Betel Leaves that was important for Rituals. I was wondering what/how hindus who had come earlier would have done for betel leaves. i realised that Hinduism as it is practised today is based on the Indian Geography,[I always wonder how Hindus would celebrate our festival in Australia,too].most of the things associated with this religion has a significance to the geography of India -the climate,and there fore the food available here,the medicinal plants that grow here etc..This thinking lead me to the thought of what the natve people of Europe or the U.S. would have used for simlar purposes.For ex. : the Betel Leaf ; it is used for worship,for hopnouring guests at weddings and functions,as a digestive chew after a big grand meal as in feasts. and also as medicine for colds and for poultices.It is also given in large quantities[along with lime] for new mom after child birth to promote lactation [and to possibly prevent anemia,my theory].Same with Turmeric which is given to all married women ,which also helps fight fungal infections of skin which is common in our warm climate.So these are Climate and location specific.,But the philosophy is not ,"loka samastha sukino bhavanthu[meaning,may all the people be happy]" holds good whether you're in the Northern Hemisphere or southern hemisphere,though the way Makara Sankaranthi is observed would/might have to change[here in the northern Hemisphere ,this festival marks the suns movement from the tropic of Capricorn to the Tropic of Cancer,and augers spring in India!! Same thing might hold for the other festivals like Amavasai or Pournami,but Hinduism could be practised even without such rituals.We cremate our dead and offer water in their memory,while you may bury them and offer flowers but its still the same.We may use Mango leaves to freshen up the air in our houses,before festivals,and you might use Pine leaves,the purpose /result is still the same,and no one is going to come and say you can't be a hindu if you do this.There are hindus who do not follow these rituals even here in India!When I was there I was wondering if the German use of Christmas Trees and wreathes were for the same purpose as our mango leaves,and later found it so!!
    Ihope you find my response relevant,but I wanted to share my experiences.

  8. Very interesting, Sita. I might have to do a post about if and how rituals and other things change in different regions and geographies.

    Reminds me of how we weren't able to celebrate Holi because it was snowing here!

  9. Wow, what an interesting blog to stumble on! Thanks for commenting on my blog, Aamba, that's what led me here.

    More to the point of this discussion, I've always felt that white/western people's concern about "appropriating" Indian culture is a bit.. overblown.

    There are cultures that colonial masters have appropriated before - appropriated wrongly, destructively - but I don't believe Indian culture is at risk in the same way.

    For one thing, India is a huge country with many separate cultures within itself, all strongly rooted in a billion-plus people. It's hard to mess up something like that.

    For another, despite the US being a rather dominant cultural exporter, it is still not a colonial/royal master of India, which means it doesn't have the *wrong* type of power over India. The damage that can be done is very limited (unlike the damage that the British could do AND DID during their colonial reign).

    So while I understand that your concerns are coming from a good place within you - a place that is aware of white privilege and wants to be careful how it's used - I think I can safely say: go right ahead and do what you wish with Indian culture!

    [here endeth my megalomania in speaking for all Indians]

  10. Awesome, Nandini. I think the other Indian readers of this blog have come to similar conclusions that I should stop worrying about offending people! It is nice to keep getting positive and supportive comments. The only negative comment I had, saying that I was negatively appropriating, was from a non-Indian. :)