Having a sales lady mock my southern drawl got my ire up at the mall, the other day. You might say I deserved it by the mere virtue of being at a mall, but I link you to Zanelle’s lovely explanation of Divinty at the Mall. She well summarizes how to find the Divine everywhere, recognize it, encourage it by meeting with others in their own element. I was at the mall to bond and show love for The Teenager.
So I am there at the mall, and the cashier ringing up the sale began talking in an exaggerated southern accent to me. The Teenager assured me the cashier meant no harm and actually told me in this appalling (like my own) accent that she often mimics her customers accents. This cashier wasn’t southern, and in my estimation, not very nice either. She irritated me, stealing my drawl for her own amusement.
But what are we, if we aren’t primates - over-bred large-cranium monkeys? Monkeys see. Monkeys do. I, myself, at this very moment am wearing a shirt made from a Tibetan prayer cloth. It is the only thing I ever want to wear again, ever. It feels so divine.
When I bought it on sale, a low buzzing sound followed me around the store. When I took the garment to the counter, I discovered its source. A Tibetan gentleman sat behind the counter, thumbing through this odd little book of Sanskrit, praying/chanting sub-vocally.
This Tibetan man, he is who I want to emulate. I look forward to replacing every shirt in my wardrobe with clothing from his store. I can’t wait to go back and buy more. Of course, I am on a winding road - spending less money and creating sustainability in my new environment - so it might be awhile before I venture back into this sacred shopping space. Still, my frontal lobe is alive with anticipation of buying more articles of clothing from this man. Does my wearing clothing made of prayer cloth material make a mockery of his prayers and the prayers/struggles of his people?
Cultural appropriation is a thorny issue (I’ve been weeding thorns in my yard out by the road and have sore fingers, so I am well versed in thorns). The culture of a people holds them together, giving individuals common ground on which to communicate and build a society. Culture provides identity to people, gives a common cultural alphabet. It is the symbolic language of a society, the basic building blocks of understanding. Culture gives the context to stories we tell each other while making sense of life. Cultural groups tend to utilize the same technologies for interacting with their environment. Shared technology and the common understanding about core subjects aid us in existing with others and yet distinguishing ourselves as individuals. Our cultures serve as both bridges and boundaries.
Humans are big troops of cooperating primates who have extra large frontal cortexes. We use symbols and ideas as tools to extend our manipulation of the environment. By their very nature, these tools, symbols and ideas are transferrable to others. We can't un-hear what we have heard. We can’t un-think what we have thought, un-see what we have seen. Monkey see, monkey do.
The world has become very small. Tibetans set up shop in the Pacific Northwest. Southerners are misplaced in Oregon. There are so many cultures being shared on our planet at this time. Many separate eddies of different lifestyles flow together and apart everyday all over the world.
In this stream of life, being respectful of the sensibilities of others requires a sensitivity that can be difficult to achieve. Becoming aware of all the innate human diversity as I mimic, copy, and use the cultural coinage of others - becoming aware of how this can belittle or uplift another - is the only path I know for getting through this minefield of human adaptive behavior.
We go through life choosing hairstyles, clothes, homes, objects, cars and a thousand other tools that we appropriate from thousands of different cultures. We have amassed quite a marketplace of things and ideas from which to shop for our personal preferences. This global trade creates space for either appreciation of what others bring to us or ignorance of the complexity of our modern life which makes all of this possible. We can chose awareness.
Was the sales clerk respectful? Not really. Was she coming from a place of love? I don’t think so. I felt mocked. Was she kind? Not especially. How about me, when I bought a prayer cloth made into shirt - do I respect the time and labor in the making of the shirt? Am I even aware of it? Did I enjoy the man’s prayers? I sure did. The shirt feels good, but does it honor the intent of the prayers that went into it? May I somehow live my white girl life in a way that is respectful to rest of the planet.