We have all seen it, countless times. Someone wearing a bindi at Coachella, the “Namaslay” t-shirt, an article about the benefits of a “newly discovered” spice called turmeric and the boutique yoga studio full of culturally homogenised clients. None of those break any rules yet, it still doesn’t feel quite right does it? You’re not too sure if you can or should say something so, instead, simply mull over it alone or at the most mention it to a few friends. This is typically met with one of two responses- total outrage from those who share your views or somebody telling you you’re overreacting because, “not everything is about race”.
Spoiler alert- it is.
Our educational system, law enforcement and even our national health service are all doing a disservice to people of minority backgrounds. These important sectors are influential parts of our society, they impart knowledge on the new generation and quite literally help bring life into the world. I praise the dedication and hard work that NHS staff put in on a daily basis but we need to talk about how a mothers chances of dying during childbirth is 5 times more likely when they belong to a BAME group. It’s hard not to relate social, economic and cultural issues back to race when there is constant proof that being anything other than white and slim adds barriers to your life at every turn.
Why are we not taught about the atrocities caused by the British Empire? The use of India as Britain’s cash cow for 200 years that led to its economical downfall. We are presented with an image that India was a country that needed saving, a poor uncivilised nation. In reality they were wealthy enough that an estimated $45 trillion was looted and never acknowledged. India has been free for 73 years but our stories are still somehow imprisoned.
You see, the thing about being someone from a minority background is that when you experience misappropriation of your culture you aren’t only thinking about that one specific incident. It’s your background knowledge coming in to play as well, the truth that when India was colonised the value of practices such as yoga and ayurveda was taken away, even banned in places. It’s my memory of taking the bus home from school with mendhi on my hands and being made fun of; but those people are now probably lining up for a funky henna tattoo. It’s the fact Sikh people wear turbans and get called terrorists but you can buy a Gucci head wrap and call it high fashion.
Our social and cultural traditions that were undermined for so long are now being parroted back to us in a more palatable way. “Exotic” things are cool, but the people aren’t. It seems mainstream society wants our things, but not us. What is the right amount of exotic? And at what point does who we are stop being marketable?
Recently I was scrolling on Instagram and paused when I saw the schedule for the Happy Place Virtual Festival, a month long wellness festival founded and run by Fearne Cotton and her team. It comprised of talks, workshops, yoga classes and other activities with the aim to make people feel joyful, included and less stressed. Like most businesses when Covid hit they had to quickly readjust and the festival became completely virtual.
Each day a post would go up on to their Instagram feed that contained the schedule of events, and on this particular day, something jumped out at me. Nestled between my regular timeline of dogs, food, and yoga poses I haven’t quite mastered yet (pincher I’m looking at you) was an event by Happy Place titled “The Story of Lakshmi and a love meditation” held by a white woman. Suddenly, that feeling came back, this isn’t quite right… is it? Aside from the fact that the goddess Lakshmi has nothing to do with love (she’s the goddess of wealth), the idea that this huge, mainstream platform hadn’t bothered do it’s research to accurately honour and represent our culture and, furthermore, couldn’t source someone of South Asian origin to lead this discussion made me angry. The irony that specifically the goddess of wealth was being appropriated and likely lining pockets of non brown people, wasn’t lost on me.
I immediately looked at the comments and was pleasantly surprised that the people who came across this before me, did in fact think this was cultural appropriation. Hundreds of Instagram users from all backgrounds showed up in support asking for answers and an apology. By the end of the first day we had not received any response from the organisers and collectively decided to readdress the issue the next day.
We commented for days, tirelessly sending messages, leaving comments and contacting anyone with a platform who could help flag what was going on. I wasn’t even sure the influx of direct messages that we were firing off multiple times in a day were being read. My private messages were filled with a new support system, people who felt the same, who had enough of whitewashing in general and wanted to do something about it. I don’t know what was different about this time over others but it felt like we were in it together, we couldn’t stop until we made a positive change. I made sure each comment I left for the Happy Place team was politely worded and open for them to engage further with me, no swearing, no name calling, just my genuine concern.
Eventually, we received a reply, one from the Happy Place account and one from Fearnes. They said the festival has many teachers who are fully immersed in the traditions of teaching. I responded with a detailed and lengthy message agreeing that the festival as a whole is a great idea and how it should be a safe space. I posed one simple question- were they willing to disclose the number of yoga teachers involved in the festival that were of South Asian heritage?
As the days went on I noticed more new faces joining in, with what essentially was an online protest which was fitting for our post coronavirus world. We had the regulars showing up at the front of the comments leading the way followed by new additions liking their way through our messages and adding their own voices too. It was exciting to feel like we were doing the right thing, giving ourselves the power to speak up no matter how large, or small, a platform we had. Nothing bonds you together with a group of strangers like working and fighting together for a cause- it was incredibly empowering.
There were negative effects too. We were taking hours out of our day in the middle of a pandemic to seize back our own stories and looking for a way to control our narrative; which was emotionally draining and mentally straining.
Finally, one Friday morning, Fearne Cotton asked if I was free to talk. We hadn’t directly communicated until this point and I was grateful to have the chance to speak to her privately and explain my point of view. We talked on the phone respectfully, she sounded like she genuinely cared and I was surprised how honest our conversation was. I reiterated that I wanted to help to educate those involved so we can move forward in a positive way not to “cancel” her. I was stunned when she asked if I would be interested in collaborating on something with her for the festival to speak our truth, I agreed and we bounced a few ideas around regarding our next steps forward. Finally it didn’t feel like it was us versus them and our emotional labour was paying off.
We filmed a long talk titled, “Understanding Cultural Appropriation” on the Monday morning so it could be uploaded as soon as possible and become part of the festival. I nervously joined a Zoom call with Fearne Cotton and a few team members who were thoroughly welcoming. I felt comfortable and she explained that this was my platform to speak. She told me that if I made any errors or said something I didn’t want to have online it could be edited out. When it was over she asked if I felt there was anything we had missed. I glanced at my colour coordinated post it notes that were my prompts and said, “Actually, one thing”.
This was a huge leap forward for all of us but inclusion and diversity isn’t a one time thing, it is constant. Happy Place needs to continue to ensure they reflect these positive steps in their future events too. A lifetimes worth of work is ahead of us and we all need to be invited in to places that we deserve to be in.
I hope this encourages you to speak up about anything no matter how small or big, because you matter. It matters who is telling our stories because the narrative around people of colour has been skewed for so long. We need to be our own storytellers. I am proud to advocate for societal change and hope to continue to shout our stories from the rooftops!
Vaani Kaur is a secondary school english teacher, yoga instructor, and activist based in London. She is passionate about education and wants to use it to decrease the stigma of taboo topics and increase the diversity of South Asians in the mainstream. Vaani noticed a lack of representation in children’s literature and is currently writing her first novel in which the protagonist is a young brown girl. She hopes to engage all types of readers especially ones who don’t traditionally see themselves in books
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