Picture ten white girls sitting around a table wearing Afro wigs. Each of us was tall, thin, in stiletto heels, and sporting a white dress to contrast with our hair. That was me with my closest girlfriends at a friend’s stagette six years ago.
Partway into our appetizers, my best friend leaned towards me, a look of evident dis-ease hidden behind her hand as she whispered: “Are these wigs…Is this…..racist?” She was embarrassed to even suggest this, concerned she might seem like a wet blanket. Or worse, that people might think she was too sensitive. I’m embarrassed to say, and it’s hard to believe now looking back, that the thought had not occurred to me. I don’t think it had occurred to any of us. I was caught off guard by the question and didn’t know how to answer. I went and called my mom from the bathroom stall. She said she didn’t think it was racist. She pointed to disco and suggested that the Afros had stylistic, as opposed to racial overtones. Now I understand that an Afro can be seen as purely stylistic only by those who are engaging in cultural appropriation. Which of course, we were. But I prided myself on cultural sensitivity and the idea of cultural appropriation hadn’t yet crossed my radar. The words had not entered my vocabulary. I was clueless.
Ten years ago my mom bought me a pair of fur moccasins from a woman on the Capilano Indian Reserve. They were made of rabbit fur and suede and came up to my knees where they were finished with beautiful turquoise and white beading. I won’t lie, I loved these moccasins. I loved to wear them with my super tight extra low rise jeans or my obscenely short pleated skirt. I even have pictures of myself wearing these moccasins with a string bikini in Tofino. I wore them when I traveled through Mexico. Me today is horrified by all this, both from the perspective of cultural appropriation as well as animal advocacy-I no longer wear any animal products including leather or down-but me back then was completely unaware of the implications of this wardrobe choice.
About a year into owning my moccasins, I was walking through the halls of UBC when a girl with a pamphlet approached me to ask if my boots were made of real fur. I told her yes, they were. She proceeded to school me in the ethics of buying fur, showing me graphic pictures of leg-hold traps and screaming foxes. I responded by telling her that I belonged to a First Nations band and that these moccasins belonged to a long cultural tradition. But I do not belong to any First Nations band and this is not my cultural tradition. This is not an okay lie to tell.
In case you don’t know me, or can’t tell, I am not proud of what I said. Today I have a hard time fathoming myself even forming these words in by brain. I think I was ashamed because I was being called-out for one deeply unethical choice, and then I countered this feeling by making another deeply unethical choice. I was young and stupid, but this is not excuse. Looking back, I know I was not trying to be malicious but I was deeply ignorant and I am profoundly ashamed of this ignorance.
I think it’s important to call out our own ignorance. Once you start naming your blind spots, you get that much closer to eliminating them. I think it’s also important to acknowledge how deeply embedded things like privilege, racism, and cultural appropriation are in the dominant culture. These things are not purely the domain of monsters. They also belong to regular, stupid, well-intentioned white girls like me.
Borrowed from Ijeoma Oluo’s new book So You Want to Talk About Race, a nice clear definition of cultural appropriation: “We can broadly define the concept of cultural appropriation as the adoption or exploitation of another culture by a more dominant culture. This is not usually the wholesale adoption of an entire culture, but usually just attractive bits and pieces that are taken and used by the dominant culture. Some modern and fairly well known examples of cultural appropriation by the dominant white culture in the West are things like the use of American Indian headdresses as casual fashion, the use of the bindi as an accessory, the adoption of belly-dancing into fitness routines, and basically every single ‘”ethnic” Halloween costume”.
Today I am 36 years old and have been in therapy since the age of 14. I had the same therapist from the age of 14-24 and this therapist was Buddhist. Much of the work we did was engaged in through a Buddhist lens. A lot of these concepts were radical and life-changing for me. My introduction to Buddhism led to Yoga quite literally saving my life during a doozy of a depressive episode at the age of 27. As a therapist, I often recommend Buddhist concepts such as mindfulness and meditation, and would even go so far as to feel a foundational part of my therapeutic approach has its roots here. In graduate school for counselling psychology, mindfulness was verily pushed down our throats. It was trendy, de rigeur, and even, now, evidence-based.
I had only one professor in grad school who invited a conversation around privilege and the cultural appropriation of Buddhism and the East in the context of therapy. She was quickly dismissed and shut down by most of the students-including myself-who were loath to question the zeitgeist, caught up in the hub bub, but also enthralled by the powerful therapeutic benefits many of us had experienced for ourselves.
This is where things get so sticky and so tough. Many of these practices, with their roots in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions, can have profound effects on people who are suffering. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for example, borrows extensively and critically from Buddhism. DBT is used in the treatment of chronically suicidal and self-harming individuals, with excellent results. Although the label of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is quickly becoming outdated and replaced with more accurate and useful ideas about complex trauma, 10% of people diagnosed with BPD will complete suicide. DBT is one of the few treatment modalities that has proven effective with this population.
But unless you believe that the ends justify the means, this doesn’t put to rest the question of the cultural appropriation of mindfulness and meditation in a therapeutic context. Take the title of the image above. Istock Photo, not wrongly, titles this image Caucasian Female Exercising Yoga at Sunrise. There is a lot to say about this title and this image. Like, how much does this caucasian female really understand about yoga? Has she ever stopped to consider what it means to be person of privilege practicing bits and pieces of ancient and sacred traditions that propound, at their heart, compassionate living and action, for $30 an hour in serene yoga studios in 150$ yoga pants, while many people in the city are unable to meet basic survival needs? That sounded super judgy, but don’t get me wrong, I’ve wanted to be that girl in the picture, and I’ve even been that girl. I’ve had memberships at the $30 an hour yoga studios where diffused lavender and singing bowl tones lull you into a coma. If I could afford it, I would likely have one of those memberships now. I’m not trying to be self-righteous; I’m just trying to grapple honestly with something whose answer I don’t quite know, or can’t quite accept.