I’ve been meaning to address a topic that might get me banned from the internet, and I’m not sure that’s an entirely bad thing. I am a white woman who has worn a bindi dot on more than one occasion, which is a gemstone or jewel-like adornment affixed to my third eye, typically with some type of adhesive or by some magical powers developed by virtue of intense meditation practices. My bindi dot came from the scrap book section at Michael’s and stays in place because it has an adhesive back like my Scooby-Doo stickers. I began wearing them when I started belly dance classes last year.
I looked up the meaning of the bindi dot and learned that they often indicate the woman wearing it is married within the context of Hindu and Jain culture. It might also have something to do with the magic of the third eye chakra, commitment of some sort (aside from the millieu of marriage) and a willingness to reflect the light of a thousand suns into the hearts of all those you meet. It also wards off bad luck. I’m sure there is more than one well intentioned Ally scoffing at my flagrant cultural appropriation; and I haven’t even started talking about belly dance classes yet. I began studying oriental dance about a year and a half ago because, in addition to my interest in the Orient regarding spirituality, I wanted to learn a form of dance that does not require a partner to practice or enjoy. That put swing dancing and ballroom squarely out of question.
Bollywood, which is India’s flavor, is too bouncy for my taste. Turkish style feels aggressive and the Iranian dance style, though graceful, is too demure for me. I fell in love with Egyptian style dance. I know these styles because my teacher instructs us not only in the methods of dance but in the variations in styles across the Middle East so we’re not an ignorant bunch of coin belted hussies but a respectable group of well trained dancing girls. My favorite form of Oriental dance is the shimmie intense Egyptian style. When I wear my cat ears and finger cymbals I feel like a priestess of Bastet, resonating with the lifelong summons I’ve felt towards Egypt.
Dear Reader, in case we have not met in real life and you’re not sure of my cultural background, I am not Egyptian or of Middle Eastern descent at all. I’m white, born in the south with a native culture about as interesting as a bar-b-cue down at the Baptist community center. That’s essentially where I come from, with some Catholic pepper flakes and one generation removed from upper class suburbia – on my mother’s side – for good measure. I grew up lower-ish with middle class tendencies. We didn’t go to church but my great-aunt liked to use her answering machine to remind callers, “Jesus loves you” even though in her own dealings she didn’t choose to utilize the same emotional generosity. The people I come from do not wear bindi dots and they do not shimmie, though I’ve heard my mom was hell down at the disco in 1978, but her people were Methodist.
I study and teach yoga. I remember when I taught at the yoga center in Pensacola there was a woman from India who came to my class. She intimidated me. I wondered who in the hell I thought I was, trying to teach this fifty something year old lady from Kathmandu how to chant the Gayatri mantra.
In a way, this lady had an answer to some of this unworthiness I held around teaching. One day after class we were chatting and she explained to me that they do not teach or study yoga as openly or as freely as we do here (in the United States). Not as many people are exposed to it so there aren’t so many teachers. Most families have their own deity and method of worship and so few people extend beyond what they know from having grown up with it. In a way, she reminded me that I was empowered to teach this stuff because I studied it. Not because I grew up with it, not because I went and stole it, but because I love it and believe it in.
What, on the outside, looks like another white girl with a yoga mat is really a devotee. I’m not a devotee of the God of my father. I had to reach beyond what I knew, because I knew there was more to life than the limited spirituality I grew up with.
There is a lot on social media about cultural appropriation, mostly by well-meaning white folks who want to do better and in so wishing to improve their relationships with the global community from the inside out have made walking the thin line of ownership of inherent racism and rampant cultural appropriation their hobby.
When we snatch something from another culture because it’s cool and, therefore, makes us look cool – like a Native American headdress at Burning Man, then we might need to look at our fashion decisions and deeper motivations in life.
Where I think we need to be careful, whilst making white people walk that line, is the chance to overcompensate in our willingness to apologize for racism, for bloodshed and psychological damage wrought by insensitivity, brutality and ransacking of cultures for its sparkly spoils. Because there has been misuse and under-appreciation of so many people, I have noticed within myself the urge to stay in my own corner. I don’t want to do anything (else) wrong. I feel like if I say anything, it is wrong. I don’t want to offer excuses and I certainly don’t want to fan the embers of white fragility – which is a term I understand to mean an unwillingness to recognize participation, whether active or overt, in the objectification of others and a need to be reassured when faced with its reality.
Well meaning souls are typically sensitive souls, who wouldn’t want anyone to feel bad, taken for granted or taken advantage of. Our world is diverse. We need healing desperately. The dialogue around cultural appropriation feels achingly divisive, so much so that if one is a white person then the only thing they can say is “I’m sorry”.
As of this writing, #culturalappropriation is 120,560 (120,645 twenty-four hours later) posts strong on Instagram. The topics range from blatant racism, female objectification, Native American headdresses as a Halloween costume, yogis in bikinis, men whining about the unfairness of the world and Nick Jonas taking his fiance to India and how, where and whatfor can any of us ever hope to be loved like that.
I am not kidding. I’m not even sure Instagram even knows what it’s talking about anymore. But I feel like I should say something, in the least, because I benefit from Hindu culture because it is the basis of my spiritual practices, because I can’t imagine life without my belly dance classes, because I make and sell Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim style prayer beads and because it is not unlikely you will see me with a blue gemstone stuck on my third eye until I can get the real thing to open and sparkle like a diamond in the sky of my mind – because that’s what I’m really waiting on.
But sometimes, what looks like cultural appropriation is in reality a form of self defense. Were it not for what we call cultural appropriation, I would be stuck with the God of my father, though my dad isn’t very religious if the truth be told. I’m sure somewhere in our family history, someone burned someone for witchcraft. I’m sure someone was in the KKK. If I were left among my ancestors, they’d burn me at the stake, too.
I want to be the the hard turn in the road of my family lineage. I don’t know that I could have done that with what I was born into. I do not come from a bad family, but I come from a white, southern family in which I didn’t always feel like I belonged. Each of us have an opportunity to craft a legacy. My Teacher says that with the endeavor to grow and heal we may offer healing for seven generations – ahead of us and for those who have gone before. I believe this, but I believe it takes a whole lot more than one parcel of the planet; an endeavor such as that requires every resource available, so we must reach and support the honest and earnest reaching of those around us so we can be lifted up in our search to find the Divinity within.
I’ll use anything at my disposal to deepen my relationship with my own Soul. I’ll share whatever I learn along the way, not as my own, but if I’m lucky, I’ll get to be the conduit of Grace. Sometimes, the Grace is found in reaching outside ourselves and finding the light of recognition in that which seems most foreign, which at once brings you Home.