The issue of identity and culture is complex

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Pradip Rodrigues

After Kamala Harris the Democrat US Senator declared her candidacy for President of the United States, she was asked by a news outlet how she identified herself given that her mother is Indian and father, Jamaican. Her answer to that was not Indian, not Black but a “proud American.”

Over the years and more so in recent times, Ms Harris has gone out of her way to point out her African roots, not Indian so much. The issue of identity is something that many immigrants struggle with in the western world.

There are probably many Indians who were hoping she’d play up the Indian half of her racial identity and there are many blacks who think she isn’t black enough. But in a true melting pot the question really is, how much does or should your past define your identity. Should immigrants be encouraged to walk away from their identities and simply refer and think of themselves as proud Canadians rather than hyphenated ones? There is a case to be made for immigrants to identify more strongly as citizens of the country they’ve chosen to move to and identifying as a mainstream American or Canadian rather than a hyphenated one. It’s a matter of optics.

One thing is clear is that Ms Harris, like ex-US President Barrack Obama never highlighted their ethnicity or fetishized it. By identifying with mainstream America, they made Americans believe they were one of them.

So it is quite likely that if Ms Kamala Harris was Canadian, she would not be seen chanting slogans outside the Pakistan Consulate in Toronto last weekend in response to the Pulwama suicide bombing in Jammu and Kashmir.

Here’s why I think she would not be at such a rally.

If there were attacks on South Asians in Canada, I could see her protesting alongside other Canadians not at protests that were exclusively made up of South Asians.

I could see her instead at rallies that are attended by all Canadians. For example after the deadly 2015 Paris attacks that claimed the lives of 130 people, she would certainly have been at a vigil in a Canadian city that was attended by hundreds of Canadians who stood in solidarity with Paris. She’d definitely be at protest rallies and vigils over issues that concerned mainstream Canadians.
It was heartening to see over a thousand South Asians being mobilized to protest Pakistan sponsored terrorism in India but going forward it would be great if we also made our presence felt at rallies that outrage Canadians and stand in solidarity with people who are grieving or protesting something that happened or concerned them.

The protest outside the Pakistani Consulate would have been so much more powerful if this wasn’t just a strictly Indo-Canadian protest, but rather a protest where Canadians of all ethnicities protested the scourge-terrorism, it would have got publicized much more widely.

Maybe South Asian organizations should begin a sort of an outreach and lend their support to mainstream causes.

As a community we could begin by voicing our outrage, support and commitment to causes and issues that go against Canadian values and human rights regardless where it occurs and to whom it occurs. We could have more leverage in bringing together more Canadians to protest with us when something happens in India or directly affects the community here in Canada.

Can you dance to music made by certain ethnicities?

Recently a Fort McMurray minor hockey team was forced to forfeit the season due to safety concerns after they received criticism and threats for performing an Indigenous locker-room dance. Never mind that some of the players on the team were Indigenous, the fact that there were also Caucasians dancing to the beat of a song by Indigenous electronic group A Tribe Called Red led to charges that they were being disrespectful to Indigenous culture.

A statement shortly after from the Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association apologized and called the actions by members of the Midget A Junior Oil Barons disrespectful.
I am quite sure that the Indigenous electronic group A Tribe Called Red didn’t plan on this song to be for the exclusive pleasure of Indigenous people. If that were the case, no way would the song have been uploaded on YouTube which incidentally has been viewed over 5 ½ million times.

To a lot of rational people still living in Canada, this must sound baffling. Here are kids dancing to a song to enhance their motivation and for anyone to suggest they were mocking Indigenous culture is very unfair.

Just listening and dancing to Indigenous or ethnic beats could lead to charges of disrespect. Performing or creating something artistic that happens to be inspired directly or indirectly by some ethnic source could lead to charges of cultural appropriation as was the case in 2017 when Amanda PL, a local non-Indigenous artist was forced to cancel an exhibition of her work in Toronto. Her works were inspired by the Woodlands style made famous in the ’60s by the Anishinabe artist Norval Morrisseau, who focussed on nature, animals, Indigenous spirituality and medicine. Critics denounced her for monetizing art from an Indigenous source.

In 2016, the yoga class at the University of Ottawa was cancelled because the teacher was Caucasian and would be teaching yoga appropriated from India.

Today if someone famous or maybe not famous at all dresses up some ethnic-inspired clothing he or she could be shamed by social media for exploiting or disrespecting the culture. This is getting more and more crazy. No one would suggest PM Justin Trudeau set out to disrespect a billion Indians when he and his family donned fancy Indian clothing on their much pilloried visit to India in 2018.

There needs to be a more commonsense approach to this issue of cultural appropriation and deciding when something is disrespectful and exploitative.

If artistes can no longer be inspired by cultures they love, then art suffers. If yoga was not taken out of India it would not have got global prominence. The world would be poorer without yoga. It is the reason hundreds of thousands of westerners make trips to India in search of peace and spirituality. -CINEWS

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