Cultural Appropriation or - Monkey See, Monkey Do

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.

Views: 265

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Comment by JMac1949 Today on September 8, 2015 at 4:06pm

The clerk was rude, but that's no reason to feel that you're appropriating or mocking another culture because you bought a prayer cloth shirt.  We do what we do, and we are what we are: rude, crude, mocking, ridiculing or honoring, adopting and aspiring - no monkey demons involved, just us doing what needs to be done.  R&L ;-)

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Comment by Zanelle on September 8, 2015 at 6:00pm

This was so good to read.  I love your shirt but I remember when it was illegal to make a shirt out of the American flag.   I saw fabric decorated with the flag the other day.  We are either all going down in a big soup or none will survive.  Little pockets of culture are hard to hang on to.  The Tibetians try.  I don't feel like I am part of any culture.  Free.

Comment by koshersalaami on September 8, 2015 at 7:16pm

Tibetan prayer cloth feels divine? Isn't that why it's prayer cloth?

If you feel disrespectful buying it, keep in mind that someone is selling it. If the seller found it sacreligious, it might not be for sale. 

Comment by Myriad on September 8, 2015 at 7:35pm

What Kosh said - if it was a Tibetan (chanting and praying no less) selling you the shirt, in a MALL, any karma is on him.

Cultural appropriation is a thorny subject all right.  In our area, particularly with respect to First Nations.  But it occurred to me as a joke when my daughter and I went to a Mayday/Maypole event up-river that it's a matter like bigotry or racism - trivial when the minority disses the majority, heavy-duty when the majority is nasty to the minority.  Thus, FN people can legitimately bitch about cultural appropriation, but there is no worry on anyone's part when FN people do a Mayday parade and maypole.  (While wearing Euro clothes and speaking English and eating hot dogs.)  HOWEVER, it would seem to be okay to shop for whatever at the local Native Art store...

Comment by Carole Dixon on September 8, 2015 at 7:49pm

I read a blog not long back about a girl admitting her dreadlocks were an inappropriate breach of cultural etiquette.  It is hard to draw the line. Some First Nation people have volunteered their teachings and sacred ways to others and some resent non-tribal people adopting aspects of their culture. When I follow a twenty day calendar that originated with a First Nation, am I appropriating their culture as I learn better how to tune into the natural rhythms of the cosmos? Yes.  When I use the I Ching, I am trespassing on another culture, helter skelter. Even the Christian religion is an appropriation of someone else's religion. I guess, the point, I am working towards here is that it is human nature to see what another is doing and to copy it. It is how we create society, by sharing information. It is basic human nature. But how do we approach this with respect in age where societies from everywhere merge together?

Comment by Zanelle on September 8, 2015 at 8:06pm

You can sell out your own culture too.  The Tibetians aren't above getting a buck for something that is holy.  If you get desperate culture is one of the first things to go out the window.

Comment by Carole Dixon on September 8, 2015 at 8:24pm
Right, when we chose to ignore manufacture of goods, when we pay no attention, many atrocities come about for us to have a certain standard of living then we tend to just perpetuate injustice. Sometimes I can only take so much knowledge because I am helpless against the machine. Zanelle has done as much as anybody to remove the shackles of "the matrix". Most people will not, are not able to go to what is considered extreme behavior - living off the grid without all the bells and whistles. No answers, just observations.
Comment by JMac1949 Today on September 8, 2015 at 8:42pm

"... an age where societies from everywhere merge together..." Here in the West we're not new to this game.  The Egyptian city of Alexandria was was founded around a small Ancient Egyptian town c. 331 BC by Alexander the Great. It became an important center of the Hellenistic civilization and remained the capital of Hellenistic and Roman & Byzantine Egypt for almost 1000 years until the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 641.  Damascus and Aleppo were centers of Jewish populations from Roman times, when the 10,000 Jews who lived in Damascus, were governed by an ethnarch.  After the rise of Islam, Muslim Spain became a center for Jewish immigration in Medieval Europe. 

Just as Christianity took the Old Testament from the Tanakh, which borrowed heavily on Egyptian mythology, the Quran draws text and prophets from both the Tanakh and the New Testament and Christians and Jews alike are identified and respected by devote Muslims as "People of the Book."  Steel, movable type, the compass and gun powder were all Chinese inventions that came to the West via the Silk Road. 

We've been 5000 years mixing and mashing, borrowing and stealing one from the other and I expect that if we survive the next 500 years, we'll spend another 5000 years doing more of the same.  We appropriate anything that works: language, religion, money, government, technology, food, fashion and whatever else suits our needs.

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