A Response to a Salon Article

In our age of fake outrage, it’s practically mandated for online news outlets to feature sanctimonious, virtue-signaling drivel disguised as groundbreaking articles exposing bigotry and ‘microaggressions’. Here’s my response to a little doozy written by Salon contributor Silpa Kovvali called Stuff white people like: Yoga, tacos and pretending the white supremacy that fuels cultural appropriation doesn’t exist.

Oh yeah, it’s one of those loaded pieces!

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to 2016!

First, notice the title. You can clearly assume this is going to be an professionally-written piece objectively examining the nuances of racial relations in contemporary America. I’m sure we’re not going to stumble upon any race-baiting rhetoric or unfair strawman depictions of White people. Nope, I’m sure this will be a balanced article….

In 2010, the Hindu American foundation launched a campaign titled “Take Back Yoga.” As the New York Times described it, the campaign did “not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach mo­re about Hinduism…the group…suggests only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.”……. I thought, especially, of how a few white friends had sent me the article aghast, expecting me to roll my eyes at the silliness of the notion. Instead, I drew their attention to a quote in the article from a second-generation Indian-American parent. “We started this, really, for our kids,” he said. “When our kids go to school and say they are Hindu, nobody says, ‘Oh, yeah, Hindus gave the world yoga.’ They say, ‘What caste are you?’ Or ‘Do you pray to a monkey god?’ Because that’s all Americans know about Hinduism.” The description was consistent, I told them, with my own experience.

The Hindu American Foundation(HAF) is a very peculiar organization, famous for making headlines over the California Hindu Textbook Controversy. That nauseating episode in 2006 featured the leaders of the HAF bemoaning over the allegedly-biased portrayal of ancient Hindu civilization by  6th-grade history textbooks. The HAF shrewdly played the victim card, propagating the narrative that their faith was being unjustly maligned by a  predominantly-White school board members who had no regard for the sensibilities of its minority student.

Ironically, the Hindu American Foundations maintains solid ties with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing, Hindutva-endorsing organization responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. In fact, Mihir Meghani, one of the founders of the HAF, defended the demolition of the mosque, claiming it ‘was a release of thousands of years of anger and shame”.

Yay, honor culture!!

But of course, one cannot question the noble objectives of the Hindu American Foundation.

I find it hysterical how the HAF passionately spearheads a campaign to emphasize yoga as an intrinsic part of Hinduism while distancing themselves from the roles jati and varna play in their religion.

I suppose the old joke holds some truth

‘What do you call a Brahmin who denies the existence of the caste system’

‘An NRI (non-resident Indian)’

Indeed, part of the frustration stems from the fact that the same practices and traditions which white people enjoy to the benefit of their hip and tolerant brands are practices and traditions which young brown children were mocked for indulging in, which were used as evidence that they weren’t working sufficiently hard at assimilating. It’s hard not to flinch when white acquaintances eagerly brag about having ordered Chicken Tikka Masala the other night, knowing that white classmates once refused to come over for playdates because they’d heard my house smelled like curry.

First, not many people know this but Chicken Tikka Masala was actually invented in Glasgow, Scotland, most likely by a Bangadeshi immigrant attempting to put together a Desi dish palatable to the customers of his adopted country. Nevertheless, it is considered to be Britain’s national dish.

Second, the talking points I frequently hear from the opponents of ‘cultural appropriation’ always include some traumatic story involving a Desi child who was ruthlessly ridiculed by a White classmate for bringing rice and paneer for lunch. Somehow, the entire White race bear the sins of that White child and therefore, barring White people from indulging in anything Desi is completely justified.

I can’t believe I have to say this. White people shouldn’t feel guilty for relishing a plate of Chicken Tikka Masala because your uncultured White classmate inanely belittled your mother’s cooking ten years ago.

And what we complain about when we complain about appropriation isn’t so far removed from this base, emotional reaction that results from traumatic instances of overt racism. In fact, the entire practice of appropriation stems from, is grounded in, white supremacy. The very reason that people who hate Indians still feel comfortable practicing yoga is that, when the practice was popularized in the West, immigration from Asian countries, including India, was severely limited due to unabashedly racist laws. As is true of so many cases of cultural contact, what resulted from unfair circumstances was not an exchange, but an acquisition: white people unilaterally benefitted from their brushes with Indian traditions, profiting economically and, yes, culturally as a result.

Yes, there was a time when White American lavished themselves in Brahmic literature, yoga, silk cloths, exotic spices etc. while fervently supporting immigration policies that prevented South Asian immigrants from settling in California.

That was a hundred years ago….

Today, Indian culture and Indian people are graciously appreciated by Bollywood aficionados and yoga enthusiasts who happen to bare a paler skin tone. A suburban White girl donning a bindi on her forehead is not a exercise of White supremacy.

Now, I will admit that there are certain ignorant airheads who practice yoga and feast on kung-pow chicken while heeding to the divine words espoused by The Donald (PBUH). However, last time I checked, they are a rare few who definitely don’t represent all White people.

Maybe we should stop collectively stigmatizing an entire race of people.

 

The ultimate goal is not to stifle white Americans but offer greater freedom to their non-white fellow citizens. It’s evident from the qualifications the Take Back Yoga campaign offered years ago — non-Hindus needn’t convert to Hinduism to enjoy the practice, they should simply be aware of its origins. This awareness is crucial to dismantling the white supremacy which precludes a more equitable cultural exchange. Without it, the very customs absorbed from others are pointed to as examples of America’s inherent greatness — a greatness that stems from the superiority of one culture over another, and complains of that culture’s contamination should it renounce control. It allows us to absorb those customs with no meaningful contact with or exposure to people who don’t look or talk or act like us, to view these differences as flaws or threats, rather than opportunities to not just teach, but learn.

*sigh*. The fundamental problem with this article is its homily on the unforgivable transgression of ‘cultural appropriation’. The concept of cultural appropriation stems from the misguided notion that a specific ethnic community can claim proprietorship over a cuisine, a musical genre, a dance routine etc.

However, culture is fluid and constantly in flux.

Culture is akin to open source software, free for anyone to participate and alter if he/s so pleases. We are all cultural mongrels. In fact, we have been even before our current, social-networking era.

For example, tapioca (or kappa in Malayalam), consumed with fish curry by every lungi-clad, toddy-drinking, Yesudas-listening, Gulf-residing Malayali, was actually brought to modern-day Kerala from Brazil by the Portuguese conquitadores. Samosas, a treasured delicacy in Northern India, were introduced by Central Asian merchants in the 10th century. And, as heartbreaking as it is for every patriotic Indian to accept, chai is a product of the British Raj!

#Themoreyouknow

And I could go on! The china poblana, regarded as the traditional attire of Mexican women, is attributed to an (east) Indian princess. The quintessential American hot dog is actually a rip-off of the German frankfurter.

Surprisingly, I actually agree with Silpa on one point. We should be aware of the cultural origins of whatever practices to which we indulge ourselves. Learning is an enriching experience that brings to light the fact that we live in a small world. Therefore, it is completely imprudent to speak in terms of ‘your culture’ and ‘my culture’. It is evident that we all partake in the same culture.

 

 

 

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