Wednesday, May 24, 2017

My Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

This is a very important discussion that has only recently been brought to my attention by a long thread on a Facebook group for Nia Teachers. Thanks go out to Vinajoy Duran for bringing it up.  I am one of the privileged white people who isn't negatively affected by this except that I am sensitive and empathetic so when I hear that someone is struggling with something I'm doing, I feel their pain and choose to acknowledge them, examine it, and do my best to make it right.

I have been teaching Nia for 21 years now and I appreciate how much it has changed in that time, just as the world is not the same place it was back in the 80's when it began, or in the 90's when I joined. As the world continues to change, I think it is incumbent upon us to embrace newfound awareness and adjust as needed.
There is no denying that we have entered an era of renewed attention to cultural oppression and bigotry, and it is my deep desire to be a voice and an example of compassion and tolerance in this environment. SO I want to start by admitting that this is real.
Continued ignorance of this issue considering all of the specific examples given in the thread is quite an amazing feat. The way I see it, it is something that is inherent in the work of Nia from the world music to the variety of movement forms to some of the specific moves themselves. Or is it?
I love Nia and I know for a fact that no one intended to disrespect another being or culture, but it is also entirely possible that, in our privileged mindset, we have not seen what toes we could be stepping on.

I don't think the answer is to deny that it's happening, or to stop doing what we're doing, but instead to be open to and mindful of what exactly we are doing and what about it potentially hurts people and to figure out how we can frame it and present it to the public in a way that honors all cultures and continues to allow us to practice and offer what we do.

So I had to ask myself what exactly the offense was when we spoke of Cultural Appropriation. The examples I hear tend to imply that an item of dress or a symbol, or a phrase or ritual is taken from an oppressed culture and used in a privileged culture in a way that gives no respect to the original source. And then the second question I had to ask was 'are we doing this in Nia?'


When I was first introduced to this concept just a few weeks ago, I was stymied. I'll admit, my first reaction was to push it aside and not face the discomfort. I had no point of reference for it, so in order to understand it and eventually deal with it, I had to create a point of reference for myself in my head. I am not a practicing Christian, but I was raised as one so I know enough about it. I imagined a situation where someone from a different culture used symbols of Christianity in a secular way. I imagined the "Crucifixion" workout being popular in Japan, for example. "They claim it's good for the legs and the back to drag a heavy wooden cross across a cobble stone street. It also builds toughness to have people throwing things at you while you did." I imagined the participants wearing Crowns of Thorns as a fashion accessory, despite the fact that it was not part of their culture and they had no idea what it really means to Christians. They all thought it was fun to wear sandals and a white loin cloth, too. After class, it was traditional to eat some bread and drink some wine. All the while, they're laughing and playing music; having a fun time with absolutely no knowledge of the story they've appropriated and the weight it has in Christian culture.
I imagined a diet book called Ta'anit shooting to the top of the best seller charts. (Ta'anit is a sacred ritual of repentance or mourning in Judaism.) I could substitute a weight loss diet based on the sacred practices of Ramadan, Yom Kippur, or Lent, and start to get why people could be upset by it.

Then, I remembered that I've had the experience in Nia classes of wearing a bindi on my forehead. I've danced in complete naïveté to sacred pieces of music. I've seen sarongs and saris and harem pants worn in class by white people not connected to the roots or symbolism of such garb. And I've been party to an appropriation of a calendar and a method of measuring time that comes from a sacred culture I know nothing about.
So, despite the fact that I meant no disrespect to Islam, Judaism, Maya, or Christianity, could this be offensive to them? What steps could I take to assuage the negative feelings spiritual people might feel from my turning their beliefs into a fitness practice or fashion accessory? If, in light of this new information I simply continued to do what I've always done, then I'm no longer innocent of crimes of ignorance, but now complicit in the offense.

These are the difficult questions I asked myself and have come to the realization that Nia is not cultural appropriation.

Yes, it does borrow from many different cultures and it happens to appeal to a predominantly affluent white female community. But it is a spiritual practice of sorts in its own right. It has no intention of stripping any sacred or symbolic meaning from anything it borrows. On the contrary, it is the sacred importance of the piece that attracts Nia to use it. It does not intend to remove any sacred meaning from anything, but rather to create a globally inspired system of self-care that addresses body, mind, emotion and spirit.
I step boldly into a new era of understanding with an open mind and an open heart. I am learning. I realize that simply because I've been doing something for over two decades is no reason to continue doing it, especially when I've been enlightened by having a new perspective brought to my attention.

In our quest to present globally inspired work, there may come a time when we unknowingly play a sacred piece of music that could offend a practitioner of a certain religion. And it is my feeling that until we are alerted to such a situation, it is not up to us to self-police and to forever swear off of using anything remotely considered to be connected with another culture. But to do so with empathy and tenderness and be willing to hear it if and when someone expresses a conflicted feeling about it.

I was gifted a Intuit bracelet, but I didn't know what it was for a long time. I liked it and wore it occasionally without thinking much of it. Someone saw it and asked, "Oh are you connected to the Inuits?" and I had to look blankly at him until he explained further. I was embarrassed and I think that at that moment, I was guilty of cultural appropriation.

But I have since looked up the story of the Inuits and the symbolism of the bracelets and in particular of the stones that my piece is made of. So now if anyone asks, or even simply admires the bracelet (which I still wear on occasion), I can use that as an opportunity to possibly enlighten a follow privilege-enjoyer about the struggles of the Native Americans. So rather than feeling like the bracelet is taking away from their culture, I feel like I'm connecting to them, in a way that helps keep their history and their culture vital.

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