The room glows orange, illuminated by the blush of street lamps outside. Everything is dark, unmoving. The yoga class lies still, dazed by the waft of musky sweat and blurry-eyed from meditation. In a moment, everyone is ready for the closing sequence. Some listen to their teacher and her soft whisperings of inner peace and universal tranquility. Eyes are firmly shut or wandering, hands lie soft or restlessly fidget. Palms come together and heads bow. Namaste.
Eventually, fluorescent lights of the Pottruck studio flash on and the chatter of Penn students fills the room.
Sweaty mats are replaced, the yoga students file out and kickboxing students file in.
“A lot of the words are rooted in Sanskrit, but [most people who do yoga] don’t know what [they] mean. They don’t know what ‘namaste’ means,” explained Tanya Jain, Wharton junior and UMC (United Minorities Council) Chair.
“There’s a lot of history that needs to be told. [Yoga’s] just become a fad.”
It seems almost ridiculous. For most people, heading to a 4pm yoga class is just a means to a toned physique, not to a spiritual journey with origins dating back thousands of years.
But what does the widespread practice of yoga actually mean? Is it an innocent homage to another culture, or blind appropriation of a rich historical context?
In its most rudimentary form, cultural appropriation is adopting another culture’s methods, practices or traditions. But that’s just the textbook definition. In reality, cultural appropriation is messy—it’s hard to define. And it’s even harder to differentiate innocuous cultural exchange from offensive appropriation. Not all cultural appropriation is easily identifiable; some forms are so ingrained in society that it’s difficult to distinguish what you’re taking, and from whom.
Elias Bernstein, Wharton junior and member of fraternity Alpha Sigma Phi, defined cultural appropriation as, “taking something from a culture in such a way that’s detrimental to that culture directly or indirectly.” Indirectly, it can be “taking the best practices from a culture...and then not giving anything back to the community or the culture itself,” he said.
Cultural appropriation, however, isn’t always about taking or giving back.
Take, for instance, Phi Delta Theta’s brush with scandal last December. The fraternity’s Christmas card included a blow–up sex doll, one supposedly modeled after Beyonce.
The card struck a chord with Brittany Marsh, Associate Director for the Race Dialogue Project (RDP). “In terms of the doll itself, I was upset that after [Phi Delt was] called out on it, they said it was supposed to be Beyonce,” the College junior explained.
“I don’t know if they meant that the person giving it thought it was Beyonce, or they thought it looked like Beyonce, because that goes under the narrative that all black people look the same and are just, these characters. I was like, ‘you guys could’ve just said sorry instead of just saying, ‘You guys all look the same!’”
In December, Phi Delta Theta president Jimmy Germi sent a draft apology about the incident to Wharton junior Rachel Palmer and College sophomore Ray Clark, who co–chair UMOJA, the overarching organization for students and student groups of the African diaspora. “There were absolutely no prejudicial motivations behind the gift,” said the apology, which was published in a December 15th Daily Pennsylvanian article and signed by “The Brothers of Phi Delta Theta at the University of Pennsylvania.”
Chi Omega and Beta Theta Pi's “gangsta” themed party last year drew similar cries of outrage.
“I’m black, but I don’t think I can relate to gangster culture,” Brittany noted. “I wondered if it was kind of like, ‘we want to throw a black party, but we don’t want to say it. So we’re going to call it a gangster party.’”
Elias, on the other hand, notices the glaring contradiction of fraternity parties themselves and the music the brothers play.
“How do you feel as a white Jewish boy in a fraternity having a great time...playing lots of trap music, and there’s not a single person of color in sight?” he asked. “I’m not saying that’s going to make you become a racist, but that disconnect could be considered part of an atmosphere that [leads] to views that are morally incorrect or culturally appropriative.”
According to Scott Reikofksi, Director of Penn’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, Penn’s Greek councils “set up programs and initiatives to encourage open dialogue across the community, most recently with the LGBT Center.” The growing diversity of the community itself “is represented in many ways, from the first Native American president of an IFC [Interfraternity Council] chapter to African American fraternity and sorority members winning national acclaim for their leadership and service,” he wrote in an email.
But it’s too easy to simply blame Greek life for any and all instances of cultural appropriation on campus. Fraternities and sororities combined only constitute about 30% of Penn’s total undergraduate population.
Cultural appropriation isn’t limited to widely publicized parties or front–page scandals. Some instances, whether they be on College Green or in a simple logo, go widely unnoticed.
Come springtime, students wander back to their Quad bedrooms from Holi, coated head to toe with a fine, heavily pigmented powder. The ancient ceremony, which takes place every spring, is a Hindu testament to love, religion and of course, color. Holi has long been a widespread celebration in India; however, people celebrate the holiday all over the world, including on campus, organized by Rangoli—Penn’s Indian Association in conjunction with the four class boards.
When asked if she was bothered by the widespread participation among Penn students during Holi, Tanya answered, “I’m not offended at all!”
“But when I first went my freshman year, everyone just threw up the colors, but there’s a specific way you do it. People think it’s an activity, but it’s actually a huge deal in India,” she explained.
“People don’t realize that when they go to the ceremony. I know they’re trying to make it a non–religious thing, but at its core it is religious. Is that cultural appropriation? I don’t know.”
Brittany, on the other hand, doesn’t understand Holi’s popularity. She considered, “When you have someone who’s not part of that culture, all it would be is throwing dye at people and washing it off...”
But she understands why Penn students join in the festival. “We shouldn’t bash someone who participates. This has been advertised to them as something that’s fun, that allows them to learn about other cultures, to spend time with other students. We should question why it was made for everyone to consume in the first place.”
While Holi is a widely celebrated festival, walking down Locust proves that instances of cultural appropriation aren’t isolated to big events: They’re seen daily.
For Talon Ducheneaux, a College senior, “It could be anything from the fake moccasins that people wear, to the fringes on purses and geometrical designs on a T–shirt that are clearly indigenous, but not called that, to avoid being sued.”
Talon, an active member of NAP (Natives at Penn), is a part of the Lakota and Dakota nations, or what most people know as the Sioux. And he sees his culture appropriated regularly.
Talon identifies Gap and Urban Outfitters, two commonly frequented clothing stores on campus, as companies guilty of blatantly appropriating Native culture.
In 2012, Gap was forced to pull a t–shirt emblazoned with the logo “Manifest Destiny” on the chest, a phrase that, to Talon’s people, is a “term of war.” Urban Outfitters, on the other hand, regularly uses generic Native prints and draws inspiration for much of their jewelry from Native American designs.
As for cultural appropriation on campus? Talon’s voice dropped, grew grim. “At one point there was a fraternity, and I won’t say their name, who actually used my nation, the Sioux, as their alias for their annual party,” he said.
“We all know that fraternities have different aliases for parties that involve alcohol, this was their alias for thirty–some odd years.”
The question is not whether cultural appropriation exists on campus. The real confusion lies in distinguishing an admiring tribute from theft and disregard for a culture’s origins.
“There’s a basic concept of cultural exchange, which I don’t think is strange—I think it’s natural,” explains Brittany. ”[It’s bad when] it’s taking of something from a culture...and using it without citing it, and without keeping in mind the original purpose. Using something in a sacrilegious way. To me, it’s not necessarily about the item itself or the culture itself, but the way it’s appropriated.”
Case in point? Talon’s rapping career. “I bring out Native rappers as much as I can to performances. And the way I see the culture of music is that—with acknowledgment of its roots and its origins—it has the ability to diversify itself and celebrate the different voices that can be within it.”
He draws from Native influences, noting, “A lot of our hip–hop artists who are from reservations and indigenous communities, they’re talking about our struggles and what we go through, and how it’s similar and how it differentiates from the reservation to the ghetto.”
The exchange of ideas and culture is what keeps humanity’s artistic spirit thriving. Blatant theft and disrespect of cultural tradition, however, pushes appropriation across the line and into offensive territory.
Orly Greenberg is a freshman in the College undecided on her major. She's from Westlake Village, California and currently works as 34th Street's Film Editor.