Monday, September 29, 2014

what to do? how to act?

This weekend, at the wedding of one of my oldest and dearest friends, I was able to ask a question of one of the guests that has of late been gnawing at me: does Iggy Azalea put you off, or make you uncomfortable?  Truth be told I was coming a little sideways, and although genuinely curious to know, I was actually also setting up a different but related question.  More on that later.  For those (mercifully) unaware of current pop culture, wondering who Iggy Azalea is, this is her deal: she is a rapper/singer and she is very very big these days.  She is also white, blonde, strikingly lovely, and from, of all places, rural Australia.  When she raps and sings she adopts all the speech patterns and inflections of a young African American. I've read it referred to as a "blaccent."  When she first came on the scene, her normal, non-performative speech was in her Australian accent.  Lately she has tried to incorporate the "blaccent" into her normal speech as well; but she can't really cover the Australian accent so she just sounds strange.  In any event, Iggy Azalea has come under fire for committing the insidious sin of cultural appropriation.  (Is it really a sin?  Yes.  But more on that later also.)  It is argued that she is simultaneously cashing in on a culture not her own while squeezing out other artists who are actually from said culture.  To Iggy Azalea's critics, when she raps: "First things first, I'm the realest," in her break out hit "Fancy," it resonates as an obnoxious fuck you to those unsigned black and brown female rappers who are equally or more skillful, but perhaps not as physically attractive, and, of course, certainly not white.

At this point you may be asking yourself: what does this have to do with yoga?  But see what happens when you refine the question to: what does this have to do with the ancient Indian spiritual/religious technology called yoga which is now practiced far and wide by non-Indian people, mostly of European descent, in a distorted way and bolsters a multi-billion dollar industry?  It's quite clear.  In many cases cultural appropriation, which is a kind of supremely subtle systemic violence, is happening. I want no part of it.  I want no part of eroding Indian culture, of insulting Hinduism, of disrespecting, especially under the auspices of good or best intentions.  This is of course what makes cultural appropriation so subtle and insidious: most people doing it genuinely have affection for the culture they are appropriating.  Further complicating matters is the fact that some people from the cultural under assault, as it were, feel that nobody from outside ought to take part in any way, shape or form and anybody who tries is an asshole.  If you ever read through postings and their comment threads concerning yoga and authenticity you will find that many Indians, both from the sub-continent and the diaspora, hold this view.  It's an extra goopy morass, to be sure.  Because while I am committed to respecting India and Indians, I am also even more committed to practicing yoga in order liberate my soul from suffering and rebirth.  I, for one among many other earnest practitioners, am in it for the kaivalya [ultimate liberation and solitude].  What to do?  How to act?

Back to Gera's wedding.  The guy whom I asked about Iggy Azalea, whose name is Jafari, was also part of Gera's party.  They met as undergraduates at Morehouse College and Jafari is now a professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University.  One would be hard pressed to find more sterling bonafides for discussing cultural appropriation.  To the Iggy Azalea question, he said that her schtick was, in fact, off-putting.  But her perhaps even greater sin was that her music sucks, and that it troubles him that his nieces and nephews perceive it to be good hip hop.  No argument there.  Iggy Azalea's music really does suck shit through a straw.  We both had a chuckle as we recalled John Waters's differentiation between good bad taste and bad bad taste.  Then, I pivoted into the issues from the preceding paragraph.  What to do?  How to act?

Jafari spoke briefly in academese, about among some other things the evils of the illegitimate assumption of sociological critical distance, but my academese is a little rusty so I'm not totally sure I understood everything.  He also told me to be earnest, and to follow my heart and my conscience and never to lose awareness.  My overall takeaway from our conversation is that when participating in the cultural activities of other cultures, e.g. being a white rapper or a Western yoga practitioner, it's important to remember this paraphrase of the old spiritual diktat: we can be in that world, but never of it.  It may not seem fair, but if you can accept there will always be some distance, some differentiation, then appropriate and genuine respect is possible.   At the heart of respect there is an element of unconditional concession.  You must allow differences, even if only intellectually, before yours can be allowed.   When this kind of respect is there, as opposed to mere affection, then it is very hard, I think, if not impossible, for cultural appropriation to happen.   Affection is all well and good, but ultimately it means dick without respect.  It can even be dangerous.  Be earnest, follow your heart, remain respectful, remain curious so you can find out what may constitute disrespect and follow through on your findings.  This is imperative.


  1. and ask questions! i always feel that if you follow all said rules above, it's (usually) okay to ask of someone in whose cultural practice you're engaging in what the deal is and if how you're taking part in it is respectful.

    and then of course to remember that your question does not constitute a full blown ethnography, but rather a personal response to that particular person in that particular culture at that particular time.

    but we (particularly when the "we" comes from the dominant, more "socially powerful" culture/race/gender, etc) can't expect others to constantly educate us and use the energy that they most likely need to expend more of on a day to day basis just getting around in their world, to help us or make us feel more "comfortable".

    then you realize shit it's all so complicated but we really can only do our best by always checking ourselves first.

    thanks for sharing and reminding me about this today - your mind is cool!

    see you tomorrow sensei :)

  2. Hi Patrick, I stumbled upon your blog from your youtube videos on jump backs!.

    This piece holds particular significance to me because not only am I Australian (Iggy makes me cringe) and but I am of Indian origin and have fallen in love with the Ashtanga practice.

    Before writing I thought I should read your other writings, and after doing so I see nothing but for a total love and respect, and genuine interest in this culture that you are called appropriating. So I don't think you have anything to worry about.

    I will admit, I do find some of it, irritating. Australia was a very racist and unwelcoming place for many immigrants, and Indians in particular stood out due their cultural differences. So I won't lie it is a bit annoying to see these same people walking around with bindyas on their forehead, or Om tattoos saying "Om Shanthi On" . But you hit the nail on the head, and its all about respect. And respect is not something you can fake.

    As for the Indians/diaspora shouting about the authenticity of yoga. I wouldn't worry too much about them. I certainly don't think they are the majority. My parents and family taught me much about yoga yet asana barely even rated a mention in their teachings. They will be happy the asana component is being kept alive.

    In fact I am constantly telling my elderly parents about how knowledgeable my yoga teachers are about Indian texts and how ironically, it is due the adoption of yoga in the west, that I have sort of rediscovered my own culture and ancestry. Funny that!

    just my 2 cents!
    c ya