Is spinning poi cultural appropriation?

One way I can fool people in the real world into thinking I’m cool is by spinning fire.

The man in the above video – who is not me – is spinning props called poi, which is the Maori term for a traditional performance art that involves balls on strings.  Every once in a while, you’ll get someone who’ll tell you that white people shouldn’t spin poi, because it’s “cultural appropriation.” This is not a big deal, and it never goes anywhere because there is no substantial movement among the Maori themselves to stop white people from spinning poi.

On the other hand, if someone wears blackface on Halloween, they will offend people, and they might get accused of “cultural appropriation.” Most people, in most situations, seem to be able to judge intuitively which cultural things – I’ll call them cultural “goods” for the rest of this essay – are offensive for white people to use, and which aren’t.

But if you ask people to explain why some cultural goods are off-limits and others aren’t, or where precisely the line gets drawn, you’ll get incomplete principles at best, and idea salad at worst.  Some accounts are historically informed about specific cultural goods, but lack general principles.  Other accounts atttempt general principles, but fail to cover important cases.

The 140-character answers are easy to refute:

“No one owns culture”: Disney owns a whole lot of culture.  And short of full ownership, we have many informal rules about the use of cultural goods – for example, it’s not illegal to wear a Purple Heart you didn’t earn, but you’ll be very unpopular if anyone finds out.  So it’s plausible that there should be some rules governing how people use goods from other cultures.

“Listen to people of color”: That’s an important first step, which too many people fail to take.  But when you listen to people of color you’ll quickly learn that they don’t always agree with each other.  Black opinion on the “white people with dreadlocks” issue ranges from “no way” to “of course it’s okay; cultural mixing is a good thing, and I’m offended that The Root thinks this question is worth asking” (from the comments, the single most popular opinion seems to be that dreadlocks are gross and that neither white nor black people should wear them.)   Being white doesn’t mean you sit on the sidelines; anything you do or don’t do effectively picks sides in a debate among people of color.

“Do it respectfully”: This works, sometimes.  But like all other simple responses, it fails to cover important cases.  Is there such a thing as respectful use of blackface?  Respectful use of dreadlocks?  Are there respectful and disrespectful ways of spinning poi?

One of the main obstacles to clear guidelines – and I’m hardly the first person to point this out – is that people use the phrase “cultural appropriation” to describe several different things, that are wrong – or not wrong – for different reasons.

The easiest cases involve things like blackface or sexy Pocahontas costumes.  It’s basically never a good idea to portray an offensive stereotype or caricature of someone from another culture.  I don’t think the term “cultural appropriation” makes much sense in this context, though; blackface is not a product of black culture, but rather, a product of white culture that portrays black people negatively.

The other easy cases involve literal theft of physical goods – artifacts in the British Museum, for example. Maybe it’s not totally clear who should own physical goods belonging to people long dead, but it seems obvious that Wakandans should get the first crack at things dug up in Wakanda.

These cases are easy because they present no tradeoffs to a liberal society that values cultural innovation, appreciation, and cross-fertilization – there’s no cultural value to racial caricature, and no reason the British Museum can’t get items on loan from museums around the world.

But these are not the central cases – “cultural appropriation” usually refers to cases where someone from one culture produces goods that are influenced by the goods of another culture.  In which case there is a potential tradeoff: Between the value of the cross-cultural goods, and whatever harm is caused by appropriation.

I think the best account of appropriation’s harms comes from Briahna Joy Gray, who distinguishes between “cultural exploitation” and “cultural disrespect.”  Cultural exploitation refers to situations where people from a majority culture are rewarded disproportionately for goods influenced by another culture – for example, Elvis profited much more than the black artists whose songs he covered.

It doesn’t seem like Elvis really did anything wrong, but clearly a wrong was done by society as a whole.  Putting aside whether there’s any way to solve this problem – short of eliminating racism altogether – I think it’s understandable that some black people would be frustrated with Elvis – especially if they believed the urban legend that Elvis was an ungrateful imitator who made racist remarks.

Gray describes cultural disrespect as a different sort of harm, when goods that have “spiritual and cultural meaning” to a culture are used without understanding or appreciating those meanings.  Think of Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and the profane: the “sacred” refers not just to religion, but to intensely felt group interests, in contrast to the “profane”, which relates to individual, everyday affairs.

This sense of respect for the sacred explains why it’s offensive to wear a Plains Indian war bonnet to Coachella – a white person wearing a war bonnet is rather like the example above, of wearing a Purple Heart you didn’t earn – except with manyfold insult added to injury because white Americans largely live on land stolen from Native Americans.

Note that it doesn’t take a religious person to understand sacredness – when P.Z. Myers defiled communion wafers, he did so because he understood the kind of offense it caused – and felt he had moral justification for causing that offense; he saw himself as “punching up” against an oppressive religion.

Susan Scafidi draws similar distinctions in “Who Owns Culture?” She distinguishes cultural goods along two axes: public versus private and commodified versus noncommodified.  Scafidi is a legal scholar and interested in things like “what kind of legal framework could prevent Chinese manufacturers from making counterfeit versions of Maori pendants,” which aren’t central to current debates, but her notion of “private” goods – especially “private, non-commodified” goods – lines up pretty well with the idea of “sacred” goods, and her notion of “public” goods, especially “public, commodified” goods, lines up pretty well with the idea of “profane” goods.

I think that in general, you should never use the sacred goods of another culture unless you have special permission.  The profane goods of another culture are okay to use. Though, if you are make a profit doing so, you ought to make a special effort to thank, respect, and possibly renumerate those who influenced you – note that if you’re a white, Australian rapper, calling yourself a “runaway slave” does not count as “respect.”

There are some ambiguities to these rules.  One problem is that not everyone holds the same things sacred.  One Randa Jarrar – who recently stirred up controversy by edgelording about Barbara Bush’s death on Twitter, and also directed critics to her university’s mental health crisis hotline, claiming it was her personal phone number – was previously best known for a controversial article claiming that white women shouldn’t belly dance.

In that article, she briefly mentions the kinds of harm described earlier in this essay – for example, white women performing under Arab names, wearing stereotypical costumes; effectively, ethnic caricatures.  But her sense of offense goes far beyond this – her advice for women who have been dancing for 15 years is not to stop dressing as caricatures, but rather, to stop belly dancing entirely and find another hobby.

It’s tempting to dismiss Jarrar as a troll, given her personal history, but I think her attitudes can be explained using the sacred/profane framework: Most Arabs consider belly dance to be a profane activity, but Jarrar’s sense of ethnic grievance is such that she regards all of Arab culture to be sacred, and thus off-limits for white people.  But sacredness is an inherently collectivist concept; Arab culture as a whole decides which of its cultural goods are sacred and which are profane, and Jarrar is outvoted roughly 450 million to one. In this case, she’s out of luck.

Another tricky thing about cultural goods is that it’s not always clear where one begins and another ends. For example, there are some people who will tell you that white people shouldn’t wear henna (I swear to god, this is a real thing on Tumblr.) But henna, historically, has been used by cultures from the northwestern tip of Africa to the southeastern tip of Asia, in religious ways, ceremonial ways, cosmetic ways, flirtatious ways – the whole gamut from sacred to profane.

Specific henna designs, for occasions such as weddings, might be “sacred” to particular cultures and thus offensive for outsiders to use. But no one culture can lay clam to henna as a whole – we need some consideration of “specificness”, similar to novelty and non-obviousness in intellectual property law.

Which brings us back to poi.  There are some Maori poi traditions that are probably off-limits to outsiders – group ceremonies and so on.  But other Maori traditions treat poi as a simple recreation – the cultural role of poi varies from tribe to tribe.  Ultimately, poi are merely balls on strings, and they only become specific cultural goods when they are made out of certain materials, spun in a certain style, accompanied by certain music and costumes, and so on.  Westerners should not take on all of those things at once; the result would be a caricature of Maori culture. But poi as it is practiced by Western fire spinners today has only the barest resemblance to traditional Maori practice – it is influenced by juggling, Asian martial arts, and many other sources.

The most obvious difference is that the Maori don’t light their poi on fire.  Spinning fire is a purely modern practice, invented by a Samoan named Freddie Letuli.  He was inspired while watching Indian fire breathers eaters and American baton twirlers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park; from the beginning, fire performance was an art form built from bits and pieces of different cultures, a “public” cultural good explicitly meant to be shared and to promote Polynesian culture across the world.  For his efforts, the Samoan government named him a “chieftain”, which is – so far as I can tell – kind of like Samoan knighthood.  This is not what you would expect if these were sacred practices that were meant to be kept from the hands of outsiders.

Of course, “poi” is a specifically Maori word, and if a significant number of Maori felt that it was offensive, it would behoove us to stop using it. That does not appear to be the case: One of the major vendors and hubs of the fire spinning community, Home of Poi, contacted the Maori Trade Marks Advisory Committee and were told that use of the term is not offensive.

It seems clear, then, that Westerners spinning poi – assuming they’re not caricaturing traditional costumes, profiting from presenting themselves as authentic, traditional performers, or other specific bad things mentioned throughout this essay – are not committing a harmful form of cultural appropriation.

And thats all I have to say about poi. But there is one very unusual case of possible appropriation that I think deserves special discussion, concerning yoga and other cultural goods associated with Hinduism. Naively, one might think that because yoga is a “spiritual” practice, it should be considered a “sacred” good and thus off-limits for Westerners. Indeed, the Take Back Yoga campaign was established by the Hindu American Foundation to claim something like that – not that Westerners shouldn’t practice yoga, but that they shouldn’t do it without crediting yoga’s Hindu roots.

There’s something a bit strange here on its face: We’re used to hearing complaints of appropriation from indigenous cultures that are in danger of extinction. Hinduism is…not. It’s one the world’s great religions, based in a country that has the world’s sixth-largest economy, second-largest film industry, and seventh-largest nuclear stockpile.

But Hindus are a minority in the United States, so perhaps it’s worth considering whether Western use of yoga is offensive to Hindu Americans specifically. Normally, I would take the requests of minority advocacy group like the Hindu American Foundation quite seriously. But after investigating, I don’t. Because the political context of the Hindu American Foundation is really, really weird.

India is currently governed by right-wing Hindu nationalists, known as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP is the political arm of a sprawling, ideological organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which “drew initial inspiration from European right-wing groups during World War II” – an extremely polite way of saying they took their cues from literal, fought-for-the-Axis-powers fascists.

The ideology the RSS and BJP promote is called “Hindutva”, and its rhetoric appears, to Western eyes, to be a strange blend of far-left and far-right dogma – colonialists are denounced in one breath; Muslims, Marxists, journalists, and intellectuals in the next (the New Republic calls it “inverted postcolonial doggerel.”)

The degree of connection between the RSS and the Hindu American Foundation is extremely controversial. Indian Americans are one of the most politically liberal minorities in the United States, and I suspect this creates a tension within the organization, between the multicultural views of American Hindus and nationalist influence from India.

On one hand, the HAF do many of the things you’d expect a minority advocacy organization to do – documenting hate crimes, defending religious freedom, and so on. On the other, they have been repeatedly accused by historians and activists of revisionism – essentially, re-writing Indian history to glorify Hinduism, downplay its history of sexism and caste oppression, and write other religions out of the history of India. These are all activities consistent with Hindutva ideology, and the Take Back Yoga campaign seems of a piece with this revisionism.

This is India’s equivalent of the culture war. Except that in the case of yoga, the sides are switched – in India, it’s the right-wingers who think yoga is cultural appropriation, and liberals who argue that modern yoga blends Hindu and non-Hindu influences and properly belongs to the world as whole, rather than to a single religion.

I’m not qualified to judge the history here, but I’m finding it hard to get over the fact that one side has lots of Ph.D.s and the other “drew initial inspiration from European right-wing groups during World War II.” So until further notice, I’m sticking with “yoga is not a harmful form of cultural appropriation.”

If I had to reduce the conclusions of this lengthy essay to a handful of rules:

  1. Do not perform an ethnic or racial caricature. Most ethnic clothing is not off-limits for outsiders – there are some exceptions – but in most cases you should avoid donning entire costumes, unless it’s part of collaboration with people from that culture.
  2. Do not use the sacred goods of another culture – those that have very specific meanings related to religion or group identity – unless you have special permission.
  3. It’s usually okay to use the profane goods of another culture – those that are part of everyday, individual life – but if you profit from doing so, you should go the extra mile to give credit where credit is due, and make an effort to provide respect, inclusion, and possibly compensation. Respectfulness is inherently subjective; do your best.
  4. Be most careful when using goods from small, beleagured cultures, and least careful when using goods from economically and politically powerful cultures.
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