Monday, 12 August 2013

The Opening of the Koran

Islam is sadly misunderstood today, by many Muslims as well as non-Muslims alike.

For one thing, the Muslim holy book, the Koran, teaches unity of all peoples and religions under an all-powerful and compassionate God. It repeatedly criticizes the idea that only some of God’s people are eligible for his grace. Dante in the 14th century did not know this and in his imagination he consigns the Muslim prophet to one of the deepest levels of his Inferno for the crime of divisiveness. Yet today, Muslims do little to eradicate this continuing prejudice when they themselves often define their religion in terms of difference. The Koran’s message on the other hand is clear: “All good do-ers have no fear.”

The other terrible mis-understanding is the association of Islam with pre-Islamic tribal customs that celebrated violence and also objectified women. Islam, on the other hand, saw these customs as rooted in the “nafs”, the base emotions of the human heart such as greed and lust. The Koran gives specific guidance, for example of prayer, charity and fasting, as well as prescriptions for correct behaviour whose express purpose is to avoid conflict. Where violence is advocated it is in self-defence of people and their religion within a context at the time of severe persecution and existential threat. Moreover, for every verse that advocates responding in kind, there is another adjacent to it stressing that peaceful resolution would always be better.  The focus throughout is to promote the well-being of all people, to work hard to do good, to purify the heart of its “nafs” and, by surrendering the ignorant mind, to find peace with God.

Yet today, Islam is often misrepresented in terms of cultural practices and superstitions it sought to overcome. Often the behaviour of Muslims themselves does little to eliminate this perception. Early Islam was acutely aware of outlawing persecution, sparing enemies in war and forbidding pillage of land and wealth because they themselves had been persecuted.  It also protected women’s rights far beyond the West at the same time, and this too an acute priority as the prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, had no sons surviving into adulthood. The history of early Islam is full of prominent women. But the old patriarchy died hard, and if anything it made a comeback in the centuries following the prophet. That this is so is no more the fault of Islam (so clear in praising forgiveness and advancing women's rights) as the errors of the West and the rise of nationalism were the fault of Christianity (so trenchant against pride and greed).

Finally, there is a more subtle problem for Islam today of literalism. Those Muslims who advocate a return to a law and way of life as laid down by the prescriptions and guidance of the Koran, often do so neglecting the context and purpose of the Koran’s message. It bears repeating that this message is to promote the well-being of others and to find peace with God. If any prescriptions do not fulfill this, or are mis-used to judge and persecute people, then they go against this message. All punishment and all mercy is with God.

The following is a very loose rendering of the first surah “The Opening” which opens the Koran and is read at the beginning of every prayer. The verses that follow are from the beginning of the long second surah entitled “The Cow” (referring to the Biblical story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt). They fail to capture the poetry of the original Arabic, yet hopefully they can give a flavour of Islam’s teaching.

1. The Opening

In the name of God,
The Merciful, The Compassionate,
Guide us on the straight path,
The path of those you have blessed.

Lord of all Being & non-Being,
All-merciful, all-compassionate,
Save us on the Day
Of Being’s disarray.

All praise belongs to God,
Thee alone we serve and pray.
May we not incur your wrath,
Nor be led astray.

2. The Cow

In the name of God,
The Merciful, The Compassionate,
Alif, Lam, Mim,
Trust the guidance of the Book,
Perform the prayer,
Believe in the Unseen.

As you are guided,
So were those before you
Prospering hereafter.
It boots not to warn
Those whose hearts and ears and eyes
God has set a seal.

As for those pretenders
Who corrupt the land
And feign belief,
They deceive themselves,
In their hearts a sickness,
For which God makes them suffer.

He who hears God’s guidance
And trades it for error
Is like a man at night
In the raging storm
Void of light
Except when lightning strikes.

Reverent and grateful,
Serve God who made thee,
Earth’s couch and Heaven’s dome,
And out of heaven,
Water, and from flowing streams,
Gardens of ripe fruit.

Hold none God’s equal,
And should you doubt this covenant,
Find a line to match it!
Encourage the faithful,
Do good, and
Forever dwell content.

Children of Israel,
Remember my blessing!
Fulfill my covenant
And I shall fulfill thine
And hold me in awe,
Do not disbelieve it!

Sell not my signs,
And take care not to exchange
Truth with vanity,
Nor conceal the truth
Nor bid others be pious
Forgetting yourself.

We made a compact
With the children of Israel
To serve none save God,
Be good to parents
Near kinsmen, and orphans,
And to the needy.

Be upright in speech,
Perform the prayer,
And pay the alms,
We made a compact—
Do not shed blood, nor expel
A party of you from their homes.

Conspire not
In sin and enmity.
Do you free the slave,
But then expel him,
Believing the Book in part
But disbelieving in part?

We gave Moses the Book,
And sent Messengers after,
And gave Jesus
Son of Mary
Clear signs confirming him
With the Holy Spirit.

If they believe
God’s grace is theirs alone,
Say: “I long for death,
Surrendering to God’s will”
But such men cannot say it,
For they cling to life.

Whatever verse we abrogate
Or cast into oblivion
In its wake we bring
Better or alike.
Don’t you know
God is all-powerful!

God singles out for Mercy
Whom he will,
Bounty abounding.
Should they say, “Only us!”,
Say, “Produce your proof!”
Nay, all good-doers have no fear.

Perform the prayer, pay the alms,
What good you do shall
Foreward to your soul’s account.
You shall find it with God,
God sees all you do.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Cultural Appropriation & Artistic Expression

When Lana del Rey wore a native-American headdress in her music video for the song “Ride”, she was accused of cultural appropriation because the headdress has a special cultural significance and is supposed only to be worn by native American chiefs. I do agree on reflection that wearing the headdress would show a lack of respect (like someone who's not a monk dressing in monk's robes, yet in Lana's defence, the context was in a dreamscape, so the video portrayed something which was strictly in her imagination). This issue of respect becomes more poignant because of the desecration of native American culture and peoples for hundreds of years which gives us a greater responsibility in order to dissociate ourselves from this history. This initiated a discussion between myself (words in navy-blue) and verkur (words in black) on cultural appropriation more generally, and the use and abuse of this term. Though verkur might disagree with me, the risk is that we set up barriers and further divide communities from each other in our desire for cultural identity to be respected and impose burdensome responsibilities and restrictions upon free artistic expression. Ultimately, what Lana did was valuable, because had she not, then this conversation for example would not have taken place. I cannot criticize her, and I hope this wealth of discussion justifies sharing a lyric version of her video. The original can be seen here: Perhaps she was guided by the ancient native American spirit to do what she did. Who are we to judge?

I feel sorry for Lana for being accused of cultural appropriation given her intention was to reach out to native American culture. She lived amongst their people, and it was an enlightening experience for her. They brought out an aspect of herself that she never knew: a feeling of freedom, and oneness with nature. She felt she belonged to this older native American culture even more than the American culture she had been brought up with. Her intention was to identify with them, not to offend them. She makes clear it was done out of love of Native Americans and their culture. I think we should let go of all our preconceived notions of appropriateness when something is done out of love. This is the litmus test for me. Is it done out of love? If so, who are we to judge?

verkur: I feel bad for Lana too, but I feel even worse for Native Americans because the headdress is a very sacred object. I definitely think it’s possible to do proper honour & express love to cultures. But just make sure you truly understand them; if you truly do, your execution wouldn't be problematic. People have done proper odes to Native Americans before, Lana's video was not one of those. You're basically using the intent argument. But intent isn't everything. If multiple people of color call you out for doing something racist, you should trust their judgment & apologize. If a person of color tells you that something is racist, they’re probably right.

But some people are especially sensitive. A British comedian on American radio was telling a black lady on her talk show that human intelligence hadn’t caught up with our technology, and basically “we are still all like monkeys”. She took offence at the use of the word “monkey” because of the racial associations, saying he wasn’t allowed to use it. When he explained he wasn’t referring to black people but humans in general,  she still didn’t like the use of the word, but allowed him the freedom. This is the ideal to me of communicating our unease and healing any hurt we might feel in mutual understanding. We often cannot help but offend some people, especially for an artistic project, where the most important thing is creative freedom. But if offence is caused, I guess the important thing for me is that we are open to communicate and explain ourselves.
verkur: I think usually in performances/shows where they want to do controversial things with regards to race, they usually have a person of knowledge with them to make sure they execute it as sensitively & respectfully as possible. I think there are a few who will be a little oversensitive (like the black lady who got offended by the word “monkeys”) but at the same time, their oversensitivity is brought up because they’ve gone through a whole life of racial prejudice, so their anger is understandable. 

If most people think your work’s okay, & if you’ve done your best to truly understand & reflect that culture, it’s fine. But people like that black lady will always exist & we must understand & empathize why they’re like that. It’s true that only a Black person can truly say the N word, & only Native Americans can wear the headdress (even then, it’s reserved for really special people) & white people cannot intrude into these cultural spaces when they are not welcomed. Especially because historically, the N word was used to berate black people & the native americans have had to sacrifice their sacred lifestyle. We can’t erase history. When we want to use their culture to our own liking, we can’t ignore the pain that they have gone through as a people for hundreds of years, and still are going through today. They can call themselves anything they want because they’re talking within their own space, but if they don’t want a white person to call them that, then it should be respected. otherwise, Don’t be surprised when they get angry.

I think when making art with cultural overtones, we have to accept that we’re entering a grey area, & that even in our best efforts there will be people who will be uncomfortable or angry. Even the best odes sometimes get hate, even though the members of that culture mostly find it acceptable. I think that’s a risk you have to accept if you want to use things from other cultures. We can’t really ask THEM to be more thick-skinned when we’re the ones using things from their culture. But I think people like me would definitely do that :p haha I often tell my friends not to get too worked up about these things, but I wouldn’t blame them either if they get offended because they have that right. Nobody can blame them for the life they have lived going through painful experiences. I may have been able to get over the pain of racial prejudice but I wouldn’t blame my friends if they’re still angry. When it comes to things like this, it’s real, it’s lived experiences & no theory can assuage the pain, you know? yeah..
Pain, hatred and anger are all real and who are we to judge, but greed is also real, and sometimes greed even comes from having suffered pain in the past and not wanting to go back there. The oppressor will suffer from greed just as much as the oppressed from hatred or anger. Greed and anger are both like viruses of the human mind. And yet they are real and lived experiences. So what can assuage them? Only wisdom, compassion…
In summary regarding art & expropriation: if it’s done out of love, if its purpose is to build bridges, and if it at least partly succeeds, then even if nine people out of ten among the wise are offended, if the tenth sees noble intention, then it isn't cultural appropriation. I see this as like a jury-thing. If ten out of ten wise people see a problem, they're probably right. But one disagreeing is enough to give benefit of doubt. Also, I think it’s important to remain open to communicate and explain the loving intention if this could further mutual understanding.
Michel Bakhtin writes how art must be answerable to life in the following short essay.
It is only two pages but brilliant, though I must admit it still gives me a feeling of unease because I think of the artist much more in the vein of the following quote by Marcel Duchamps as in the moment of creation almost like a medium of divine power or inspiration. Only once the work is completed does the artist hold his or her breath in expectation and uncertainty over how the audience will receive it…
"To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out into a clearing.”
In some sense, I’d much rather this latter idea of the artist being completely faithful and true to his or her inspiration, and that means free of any answerability to another; a work of art, a poem or a scientific result pursued for its own sake. Yet I also see that Bakhtin is right. The author is not completely irrelevant and cannot be separated from the art, even if the art can stand alone as symbol of truth without the author, still the author must both be open and answerable to others and take a certain responsibility for how his or her creations impact on others.
But perhaps, even more than this, we should be responsible for the mediumistic state, paradoxical though that sounds. For example, I know that artists are sometimes disturbed by praise and blame (the spectator's view) and need to withdraw to find their own sense of self-worth. But what if life and the process of creation is itself a work of art? The question then becomes: “What is it that excites our creativity to produce beautiful works?” Without spectators, what is our destiny, our life purpose, our true responsibility and duty. “If you do not do your duty, then you will die” as Buddhadasa says. The mediumistic state must be a reflection of that duty. If only we could both awake this inner source of creativity, and direct it wisely.
verkur: My friend Khadijah and her thoughts on Lady Gaga recently being spotted donning a “burqa”: The thing about this appropriation of the burqa that people need to understand is that people like Lady Gaga haven’t done a thing for the communities [here and abroad] that wear, live and breathe the garb who are subjected to harassment for doing so. The words “appreciation” and “admiration” are painfully hollow when you take a piece of clothing from a community and strip it of its intent and the consequences that come from it. Lady Gaga makes millions and taxes subsequently take a huge chunk of those millions. Therein, a quarter of her taxes are used to ravage Muslim majority populations. Has she spoken out about this? Has anyone orientalist who bastardizes our garb done so? Where were they when the Sikh tragedy happened? Where are they now when Newsweek posts a horribly offensive article on Muslim rage, aggressively written by their puppet Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who I’m ashamed to call my fellow Somali? Do they come to our defense when we’re expected to kneel over and apologize on behalf of extremists, who funnily enough kill us as well? If I wear a burqa, nijab.. or hell even a hijab, I’m a stupid, brown savage who has no capacity to think for herself. But when Gaga wears it, its revolutionary and fashionable. People love to scream equality and colorblindedness when such an event arises, but such a world is completely theoretical until we fix these the caricatured perceptions about Islam. The power dynamics here cannot be ignored.
Q. Cultural appropriation is being without caring & understanding, but if anyone who adopts foreign culture is seen as appropriating it, is that not condemning them to stereotypes of their own culture? Doesn't culture express solidarity, not difference?
verkur: I reblogged a quote that spoke about a very specific occurrence, so I don’t understand how that equates to me saying that “anyone who adopts foreign culture is seen as appropriating it”.
In any case, wearing a burqa in hot pink & stripping it completely of what it means to the women who wear it & being ignorant of how Muslims suffer from the atrocities committed with the use of her tax money is incredibly callous. And can’t be defended. At least I’ve seen people whose appropriation ~tried~ to be respectful & educate the public about what these symbols truly mean.
Culture expresses solidarity with the people within that culture. but all cultures are different. Perhaps they express similar things through practice but their practices are different. The symbols they adopt are different. Their experiences and oppressions are different. If you’re not from that culture, you will not experience what they specifically experience. So it’s not okay to be wearing their burqa & completely trivialize the symbols of their culture or religion & completely obliterate & whitewash all the background noise that comes with it. 

Anyway I’m busy obviously, or I could answer this better, but I think just reading up about cultural appropriation can give you the answers you need
P.S. Sure I've seen respectful appropriation. Although if people are mad I wouldn't deny them that... because the person who appropriated those symbols have never had to go through what they went through. gaga wasn't even trying to be respectful though. It's sad because she's a smart woman & should have known better.

Lady Gaga's song is offensive, racist and also terrible music. It doesn't come from a deeper place like Lana del Rey and it's such a mis-use of the public attention that she commands. Instead of denigrating those who already suffer, she should use her voice to give a beautiful message. I hope people just ignore it for the rubbish that it is.

INTERMISSION: (third-party conversation on the subject)
samsaranmusing: So I saw one of those “cultural appropriation” infographics telling me that it is not okay for anybody except full bloods to wear indian regalia. It said that only “these” people could wear headdresses and showed some modern Native Americans in Green Jumpsuits and Reeboks wearing full feathered headdresses. Now, since those headdresses were meant to celebrate war honors I have to wonder just who those guys were counting coup on. I have white skin but I also have an Indian card and the Chickasaw nation and the Department of the Interior consider me sufficiently Native American.
Let’s face it. This cultural appropriation stuff is racist nonsense. It is as bad as the old days when you weren’t “white” enough to stay at a hotel or use a public pool. It’s the old “one drop” theory in reverse and it is just as racist and just as ridiculous. By the way I have been to Pow Wow and was treated kindly by those who looked a little more Indian than I. Most Indians I know think this is a bunch of crap dreamed up on college campuses not on reservations.
It is political correctness gone mad. You can respect another’s culture or be disrespectful. So, if you want to wear turquoise and silver Navajo jewelry then do so. In fact the sale of such jewelry is a great source of income for some native peoples. Just be cool about it. If I want to wear a kurta I’ll damn well wear one. There is nothing more comfortable on a hot day. Want to wear a bindi go ahead. Want henna designs on your hands? Why not, they’re beautiful. A saree? There is hardly a more flattering garment for the female form than a saree. Just don’t be a douche about it.

gigasunlove: in short, how I feel about “cultural appropriation”
(and yeah, I realize there is a fine line between supporting/appreciating a people’s culture and actually exploiting it, but the exaggerated stance that every-single-thing is automatically cultural appropriation is ludicrous to me)
be respectful but do what you want!!
and normally I don’t post a lot of culturally sensitive controversial shit but I’m just riled up because someone I really like said that by going to another country and learning their language, that’s cultural appropriation and I completely disagree. like hell yeah I’m gonna learn some Setswana while I’m in Botswana, and I want to learn Portuguese before I go to Brazil, and I’m damn well gonna learn any other languages (or at least TRY to) before I visit another country. I’d think that going there and being an asshole who expects everyone to know English and help you get around is WAY more offensive……. but idk just my two cents
and while this post was originally more about physical stuff - why shouldn’t I be allowed to get my hair braided in Botswana? why can’t people who are into different Asian philosophies (people of any/all races!!) be allowed to wear a sari or bindi? a burka even, if they so choose? can I not wear rainbow because I’m not gay? is that appropriation too?
(it’s not)
P.S. I think people have a right to be angry about how minorities and poc are treated but that anger shouldn’t merely be channeled toward accusing everyone in their vicinity of appropriating a culture(s)… and I do think there are a number of really offensive things in the world but people can get really extreme… cultural diffusion (like the things listed; henna, saris, etc) is not the same as appropriation and people tend to use them interchangeably
angerofthegods: See, here’s why people are so quick to jump to the side of appropriation rather than support or appreciation for a culture: because people outside of any given culture feel so damned entitled to do whatever they want that they disregard any kind of nuance or deeper meaning into the symbols, traditions, or philosophy that they are adopting as their own, even temporarily. Is it wrong for someone who isn't southeast Asian to wear a saree or bindi? No, not in the strict moral sense of the word. But when you KNOW that these things have deeper meaning than just looking cool (sarees can be worn myriad different ways, each denoting something about the culture or background of the person wearing them, and bindis are derived from chakra points denoting spirituality or wisdom), and feel justified in wearing them anyway just because “well, I don’t MEAN to exploit anyone’s culture, I just want to appreciate it”, then you’re being appropriative. Being “into” a culture doesn’t give you the right to do anything. Your intent does not excuse your ignorance, nor your arrogance, in deciding to pick and choose what aspects of a culture you like, utilizing them for your own ends, and then discarding it when you’re done. Nothing exists in a vacuum. 
Whoever attacked you for learning a language or getting your hair braided was wrong, full stop. But you’re not in the right by assuming you have the right to just adopt whatever culture you want and then justify it by declaring the innocence of your intent. Further more, as someone who isnt’ of those nationalities which normally wear sarees, bindis, or burkas, you have the privilege (yes, I said the p-word) of divesting yourself from any negative connotations which are attached to those symbols in modern Western society. A white woman wearing a saree or a bindi or a burka is seen as hip, or fashionable, or edgy (see: Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, et al). A woman of Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern nationality is seen as a novelty, an outsider, or a threat. If you don’t believe me, look up the praise those celebrities get for appropriating said styles, then juxtapose that with the very, VERY common attacks that occur right here in America on law-abiding citizens of Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern descent who did nothing but respect and embrace their heritage in the same way that immigrants (Irish, Italian, German, etc) have done in this country since day one. 
You’re right to be angry at whoever told you that learning a language or braiding your hair is appropriation: that’s them conflating several different issues into one convenient argument. But your rage beyond that is misplaced and detrimental to actually understanding what the discussion about appropriation or exploitation of cultures is about. 
gigasunlove: Bernard is my hero.
purpletoupee: I just think more energy should be put to educating people about other cultures and stomping out the stigmas rather than damning ignorant people.
gigasunlove: agreed, though it’s really hard to change these ignorant perspectives, like seeing someone wearing a burka or turban as a threat, when these things are relentlessly reinforced by the media… doesn’t mean we should stop trying to educate people by any means, but there’s a lot of work to be done (and a lot of work that needs to be undone)
The issue of cultural appropriation as a concept is clearly bothering
others, not just me, partly because of a sense of uncertainty what exactly it is (like this post which we can all agree in retrospect was based on a misunderstanding: 
But it is a response to a post by samsaranmusing who has a point in saying it's based on a kind of reverse racism. I had my own thoughts already which I wanted to share. Firstly, you have to accept that it's a "victim decides" concept, and so what Nietzsche might unfairly call slave morality. But we can also accept that when someone has historically suffered abuse, one must be sensitive around the issue (e.g. use of the n-word) or as Chomsky cites, the use of Tomahawk, Apache etc. for missiles and helicopters. What is disturbing is how Muslims see themselves as the victims today. Of course in many ways, they are the most recent to bear the brunt of America's wars (though in another time, and in some local places it might well be the reverse, with women and minorities in Muslim countries also facing historic struggles) and the key point I do take from you is that a victim of struggle (woman or minority in a Muslim country, Muslim in the world) should not be blamed for their victimhood or collective punishment if they do see themselves as victims. Of course the irony is that people in America see themselves as the victim. We all fail to have a proper perspective for the suffering of the other, believing "we are the victims". There is a book called "We are all Moors"...but this is how the Jews have felt throughout history, and this sense of being a victim became self-fulfilling. We are all masters of our own destiny also. If we're concerned about the use by others of our culture, then firstly it means we are weak, and maybe we want to keep our culture to ourselves and our own definition, we don't want to see it abused because it reminds us of our own historical abuse. Because if we are strong, like the ancient Indian tradition of yoga, then: we might criticize and redefine ourselves, and celebrate our own definition, and not get too upset about how others appropriate, because we're not afraid of losing some sense of identity, and in some sense our culture is a world culture to develop and profit the whole world. I'd much rather if each culture could feel itself strong and take the latter attitude...but sometimes things are indeed too sensitive.

Sorry for bothering you yet again with this issue, but it actually risks further alienating and dividing people from a culture when that culture gets so easily offended about appropriation. And it seems this is something we really all need to get to grips with and be more tolerant.

verkur: Reverse racism doesn’t exist if the oppressed race doesn’t have the means to systematically oppress you back. Muslims do not have this. The blacks do not have this. The native americans do not have this. Reverse racism, for these groups, & for most if not all, does not exist. 

Secondly, I think it is up to a culture to decide if they want to define themselves - that is their right. And when oppressed, their culture is the one thing they have left to hold on to. We don’t have a right at all to demand cultures to conform to our ideals. That’s just not right. What are we doing for them that they should pander to our ideals? Are we helping their children live without fear of being beaten? The women from being raped by even UN peacekeepers?

I think the oppressed minorities can be more tolerant of appropriation if it wasn’t always so disrespectful. Like I said, respectful appropriation has been done & I have no problem with that. But most appropriations are subtle exercises in power — they trivialize the sacred & cultural symbols of peoples who are being actively oppressed and killed with the use of their tax money. If you’re not going to speak for them & help them, at least don’t disrespect & mutilate them, you know? 

Of course it’ll be ideal to have a more tolerant society. But for that to happen, lift them from the blatant injustices first. Because I don’t think you get to ask oppressed groups to be more tolerant when you never had to go through the sufferings they went through. For those who are privileged enough not to have to go through systematic racism or discrimination everyday, they have to understand that oppressed minorities have far more things to think about than the feelings of their oppressors (active or unconscious). What about their feelings? Why should they think about placating the people who want to re-define symbols that don’t even belong to them? If they don’t want you to do it, respect that. Wearing those symbols have brought them injustice & when you use it you’re not going to get the same injustices. So respect their pain. Otherwise, if you appropriate something disrespectfully, at least be honor-minded enough to accept their criticisms. That’s all they can do you know, criticize you. At the end of the day, they’ll still have to go through day by day being discriminated against, having lower job opportunities, and feeling discarded by the countries they live in.
Hey. Thanks for the very eloquent response. People do get hurt though, yes educate them, tell them what the culture really means. Treat them like a child who mis-spelled a word in English, no big deal, they're free to spell it wrong, just make it clear as an error... They are not the oppressor. Often they are the ones who are most willing to speak on behalf of the oppressed, so much so that people worry that the oppressed themselves might be drowned out and not heard, a real concern... But why go out of one's way to attack potential allies for their clumsy first steps... It really is a last resort of the oppressed to do that, they see themselves as oppressed as defining who they are. There's a lesson to be learnt in this regard from those who are oppressed no longer, like Germany or China or Japan. You're absolutely right about culture being a rock to hold onto for these people, and they have the right to guard that preciously, just as countries defend their national borders. Ultimately though, it is just a temporary attachment. The real rock of faith is not external, but it's in the heart...even for non-believers, it's love. (Christians were offended by the Like a Prayer video by Madonna with the black Jesus, perhaps disrespectful, but I must admit I loved it, it gave a different perspective to the old tradition, a different kind of sacredness.)

verkur: Eeks I don’t feel like I was eloquent at all haha. Sure I don’t mind. Yeah I know there are obviously very well-intentioned people & it is harsh to call them oppressors. But not being aware of the political and systematic reality that oppresses this people & wanting to appropriate their symbols does re-enforce the very system that oppresses them. Hm btw you can read this:  
My friend wrote it she’s far smarter & more eloquent than i am. she talks about what you’re concerned about — if you’re a well-intentioned person etc. <3 peace
I have a question. An honest question because this whole website has given me doubt about something. I am white. My mother grew up in Venezuela and didn't know race existed till she was in middle school. My whole life I've wanted to help people, specifically girls, children. I want to fight to give girls a future in other countries because I was so fortunate and want to pass that on, to help others be fortunate. But you and so many others make me feel like I'm not allowed to help people in other countries because I’m a white American. I understand all your points and where you’re coming From, but would it be that terrible, that offensive to everyone if I, as a white female with the opportunity to learn something like international law went to help campaign for the rights of girls trapped in situations like sex slavery in other countries? Am I not allowed? I’m not asking to be rude, I promise! I’m trying to avoid offending anyone!

thymoss: Hello. Look. I understand the desire to ~~help, and while it’s an unpopular opinion, I do believe that intent does count for something, but at the same time not everything - this is supported, at least, in my religion, and personally I’ve always felt that as well, so let’s start from here: while I do believe you don’t want to cause offence, I need to be upfront about you coming off as accusatory and aggressive somewhat nonetheless, especially as you’re a person whose good intentions are quite largely triggered by white guilt which itself is a product of a slew of kyriarchical minefields.
But moving on. I’ve always been upfront that while I’m a ~~Muslim girl of colour, in a country where my race places me at the brunt of certain amounts of minority oppression, I’m still excessively privileged class-wise so I do identify with the desire to “help those less fortunate”.
Long answer short? Being ignorant of race and racial structures etc etc is a privilege in and of itself. And the process of learning is a responsibility that stems from said privilege. This process including learning that yes, your intention to “do good”, if it’s a function of the white saviour complex which has justified entire historical events worth of atrocities including but not limited to recent American wars and the ~~war against terrorism and the constant need to save the Muslim woman. 
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Read this. Absorb it. Deconstruct it and look closer at your intentions and understand that your idea of “helping” does not exist in a vacuum, and may very often be driven by the desire of white persons to “save” persons of colour who are so commonly dehumanized in the process. That the act of exercising your privilege to “help” may often just serve to trample over their voices and to assist in structures that entrap such persons in their disadvantaged positions - see, voluntourism where persons in so-called “third world villages” are paraded like side shows to be oohed and aahed over, where college students go overseas to “teach” kids in villages often charred from wars exacted from the same countries that said college students hail from.
And hey. I’m a law student. I even dabbled in international humanitarian law, conferences here and there, and you know what? I was. Incredibly disillusioned. The only persons I met who didn't disillusion me were without fail, persons of colour who understood their own struggles and the shared struggles of their people on a fundamental level.
Your question is, What Can White People Do? You can learn. And you can unlearn the narrative that teaches you that to “help” means to fly over for a summer or two, or even dedicate a life “representing” women of colour. What can you do?
You start at home. You start in your country, learning the ins and outs of the legal system, if that is the path you so choose. You learn the violent history of colonialism and the insiduous current narratives of neocolonialism which continues to justify endless wars and the military industrial complex, and even the prison industrial complex which plagues your own country and persons of colour within your own country. You need to understand that the brokenness of your system is what is often causing the problems you feel so deeply you need to help. You need to advocate for the re-instatement of basic human rights and the right to trial which is stripped away from both persons in your country and from persons who are droned like names being crossed off lists without even the pretense of due process. You need to yell against the atrocities of Guantanamo Bay and the violent and utter lack of respect it represents against the international human rights system. You need to hold your country accountable to what it is inflicting on the women you feel so deeply you need to help. Even issues like sex slavery, should you look deeper, are very often a product of women driven to desperate measures, of families forced to sell their little girls due to desolate poverty, all of which are one way or another connected to the oppressive capitalist systems that continue to exploit their countries.
Please. Fix your system. That’s how you can help. There are wonderful wonderful people in the countries portrayed as helpless already doing so many things for themselves and their communities. What they cannot do quite as well is change the external systems which are oppressing them from the outside in. The good news is: that is what you can do. It’s not going to be easy, but hell, nothing good ever is.

No, you were really very eloquent! I really want to make a record of these arguments and organize them in my mind because I'm still not happy. And thymoss calls out the tone of the question for being slightly aggressive, but does not see this in her own resentment.

In the most general sense, you want to emphasize that morality is grounded in the Other (not one's own principles or divine guidance for example). Nietzsche would call this "slave morality".
Some (perhaps Levinas?) might argue there is no other kind of morality. This opening to the other should be something beautiful, not a mis-directed rage at one's own suffering. This beauty is vulnerable precisely because we are always inadequate. We can never be certain how the other will respond. We always fail to live up to our moral ideal.

Now, of course this inadequacy is a fact, and it's why I said I "wasn't happy" lol. But it should never be allowed to turn into bitterness or Nietzsche will be proved right. And moreover, it will not save us, just as the Jews weren't saved by their acute awareness over the years leading up to their successive expulsions. 

On the contrary, slave-morals are a self-fulfilling prophecy. We must be active! Worrying about how others abuse your culture is trying to change others and neglects your own power to bring about change in oneself.
I’m also reminded of the Tibetans who suffered under Chinese occupation, and instead of being filled with hatred and anger, what the monks said was that the greatest danger was that they would lose their compassion for those who had abused them. Coming abroad then, greed was just as dangerous an enemy for them, as pain had been previously.
Finally, there’s also a mistaken notion of the West and in particular America being the oppressor. Meanwhile, those in America often feel the corporations are the oppressors. And the corporations feel oppressed by governments, citing how regulations and taxes have made them go bankrupt. Perhaps everyone feels oppressed one way or another, not to lessen the truth of genuine oppression. But this is something worth considering. In some sense, suffering is universal. It doesn’t help to see oneself as a victim as a permanent state of affairs, just as it doesn’t help to blame someone for feeling a victim for having suffered victimization. And yet this feeling of victimhood is a kind of virus of the mind like greed or anger, and the only problem with these viruses of the mind is that they lash out at others, often those most inclined to help us heal, and hurt them also.

In Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean was caught with the stolen silver candlesticks, caught in his own web of greed, what was the priest's response. He refused to be hurt... "but why didn't you take the silverware I gave you also?" Ah, but this is too idealistic! Still, the mindset is beautiful. The relieving of greed, resentment and hatred in one simple act... of forgiveness, and redemption.

This is still a conversation in progress, but we agreed to pause at this point for reflection, and to share our thoughts with samsaranmusing, gigasunlove & others who might be interested. verkur concluded that if it came down to a choice, she was more concerned about protecting the feelings of oppressed minorities facing systematic discrimination than those who might be hurt by their artistic freedom being restricted, and that we need to fix these discriminations before we can ask these people to be accepting of their symbols being appropriated. Despite my concerns with cultural appropriation as a concept, if it encourages us to address these discriminations, then it will have achieved its desired purpose — to expose and face up to prejudices and inequalities which we might otherwise ignore (because they are hidden, or belittled or simply because we'd rather not think about them), so that people of different cultures can truly dance and come together as equal partners in this beautiful world.

Thanks so much for the discussion, and a blessed Eid! 

Conclusion — A metaphor we all love: Do you remember "The Time Machine" by H.G. Wells? It is a story set in the future about a beautiful peaceful human race (the Eloi) living in paradise on Earth, but without knowing it they are controlled and provided for by Morlocks who live underneath and only come out whilst the Eloi sleep.

Now imagine, we are all innocent like the Eloi, without race, colour or creed, without hatred, without greed. We meditate, we are happy, this earth a paradise. But if we are looked after and provided for by leaders and bosses who are Morlocks and they, without our knowing it, discriminate against the old, against some races or creeds, then though our life may be peaceful, it is only because war and hatred and inequality (that used to be exposed in the past) have now become hidden. (Just as today, death and punishment are hidden, when once they were horrifying public spectacles.)

So if we are to create a new paradise, we might not be racist ourselves, but nor can we be like the Eloi and ignore hidden prejudice because we do not know of it, or belittle it in comparison to other times and places, or what is most common today (e.g. regarding the source of the food we eat, or the working conditions of the products we buy) prefer not to think about it. (In some sense, there's a complicity because even workers who suffer poor working conditions might not want us to think about it, because their livelihood depends on the employment.)

Prejudice, whether open or hidden, is always based on fear. Whilst there are still Morlocks, we are perhaps right to fear lest we sleepwalk into a false paradise like the Eloi. Any such paradise would only repress injustices that must be dealt with first. But we must do so united.

The most prejudiced places in the world are not the great multi-cultural centres, nor their opposites where a foreigner is hardly seen. It is rather those places polarised between usually two cultural identities in a struggle for identity that pits "us vs. them". Being overly protective of our cultural identity as our only line of defence against prejudice risks only further separating us. Reliving the ghosts of the past risks keeping them alive in the present.

The way forward I would suggest is to be like the Eloi, but awake! Awake like Buddha. Together, we stand strong. This does not mean being monolithic, or tied to a single ideology, but united as the universe is united in all our diversity.