More Cultural Appropriation: The Swastika


The story we published recently about cultural appropriation reminded me of one of my favorite incidents in our series. It resides in the Cultural Detective Global Business Ethics package, and involves a corporate newsletter publishing photos from the office in India. One photo, taken at a temple, shows a swastika.

Outraged, an anonymous writer emails the newsletter editor to complain about a lack of cultural sensitivity, a lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion. The newsletter editor is crestfallen; the comment saps all his energy. It is exactly his commitment to inclusion and diversity that has motivated him to include posts from offices worldwide! How much harder can he try?

The swastika is sadly a symbol of genocide and the Holocaust for many; something to be reviled. There was an unsuccessful effort to ban the use of the swastika in the European Union. Seeing this symbol can bring forth indescribable pain and outrage for many people.

Swastika is a Sanskrit word, a religious symbol of good fortune used by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and others worldwide. It can be seen in the art of the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Celts, Native Americans, and Persians as well.

To me, the swastika is one of the world’s most horrifying misappropriations of a cultural symbol! I’d welcome hearing from anyone who knows the history of Hitler’s and the Nazis’ appropriation of this symbol.

It is important for us to understand both of these very different realities. To some, the swastika symbolizes genocide and hate. To others it symbolizes beauty, the steps of Buddha. Does this therefore mean we should not use it? That we should? Can we transform its use through ongoing learning and dialogue?

Back to the incident, learning to make the most of learning opportunities such as these, to encourage cultures (organizations, communities) in which people listen to, respect and collaborate with one another, is what Cultural Detective is all about. Thank you all for joining us in this mission!

21 thoughts on “More Cultural Appropriation: The Swastika

  1. Here’s a little story I (as a fire starter) wrote a few years ago about this very topic:

    Totally Crossed out – A Faulty story
    Once upon a time there was a Hindustani woman living next to an old Jewish woman. These women usually got allong very well. The Jewish lady has lived through the World War II, and is a concentration camp sole survivor. Many years has passed since the war and she has picked up her life, and has happily remarried. Still, the horrors which the Nazis put her and her deceased family still haunt her on occasion. The Hindustani lady is a very religious person, and her life is filed with ancient Hindu rituals to invoke all the positive energies of life. Many of these rituals have been handed down from generation to generation.

    One of these rituals involves the holy symbol “Swastika”, the good luck charm for “well-being”. One day the Hindustani lady paints a red swastika on her outer wall, as part of an ancient ritual to call upon the good. The Jewish lady however associates this symbol with the atrocities done by the Nazis and feels (mortally) offended by that sign. She demands it be taken away, and when the Hindustani woman declines, the Jewish lady goes and removes the painting from the wall herself. The Hindustani in turn feels offended, because this is a holly symbol of good and peace, and part of a sacred ritual. She accuses the Jewish of sacrilege, and repaints the sign.

    This goes one for a while and in the mean time the emotions flair up. Eventually, it comes to blows. When the husbands arrive and restrain the women, they demand to know what’s going on. Both women are screaming and accusing the other one of severe lack of respect for one another, each others religion, and history.

    And the husbands wonder: who’s fault is this?

    Erin Reemnet (13/06/07)

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    • Wow! Erin! What a powerful story you wrote those five years ago! And so very generous of you to share it with us here! Bless you. It feels like one of those fables, for me, that captures the core essence of cross-cultural miscommunication. Both sides well intended, one thing leads to another, things worsen, and bam! Might I ask who you are, Erin, and what sorts of good things you are doing out in this world, that lead you to write such a terrific little story? So happy to have you join us here!

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      • Hi there Dianne
        Glad you liked it. Erin is actually a pseudonym, my real name being Erwin. I’m a teacher/coach and amateur (in the original sense of the word) writer in my free time. I used to have a blog on Yahoo360, but stopped blogging after yahoo cancelled the site. I wrote this particular parable some years ago after a (heated) discussion with a friend about the fact that the display svastikas are banned in many countries. Personally, I think it is a grave mistake because the ban just serves to enhance the negative connection between the symbol and the nazis, instead of allowing for its original beauty to shine through.
        I found your post through the Cultural detective’s FB page, and needles to say I was happily impressed with it. That’s why I shared the story: I think it’s a beautiful and important thing you’re doing, highlighting these (mis)appropriations.
        Keep up the good work!
        Erwin!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, Erwin, we are most pleased to have you join us here as well as on Facebook. This community has truly been amazing, and seems to grow every day. I do hope you’ll share more of your terrific writing with us at some point!

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  2. There will always be those who will use symbols in a negative way thereby making the issues of displaying them controversial; we can try and be as sensitive as we can without outright banning use of symbols which after all are supposed to have only positive meanings. Perhaps discreet explanations for those who are unaware might go a long way; whenever I have explained to ignorant people what certain things really mean, they have been quite understanding. And my forefathers were hiding Jews (and others persecuted) during the Holocaust, and I grew up with all the stories, so I am after all very sensitive to the issue.

    Please note though that the Nazi Party went the left-hand path with the swastika, which was done intentionally – to me it always depends on which direction you are looking from at for instance a flag, but on most pictures you can notice the difference.
    The swastika was not the only symbol the Nazis took from other cultures; the Rune symbols they took from Skandinavian culture and also used with obviously negative connotations including the infamous SS, whose insignia reads ‘Sowulo Sowulo’ – here is a description of ‘S’ out of the Elder Futhark (I just grabbed it online so I do not have to copy it out of one of my books): ‘SOWULO “soe-wee-low”
    Meanings: The Sun, Light, Positive Energy, Life-Giving Force, Accomplishment, Discovery, Clarity, Wholeness, Growth, Victory, Healing, Fertility.

    Like the sun, Sowulo symbolizes a life-giving force, a brilliant energy whose light enables growth and dispels the darkness. This rune represents a optimistic time, where you gain the power to bring about positive changes in your life, and the drive to set things into motion. Sowulo is a rune of action, of capability and vital health, cleansing and healing when the achievement of goals is possible and encouraged like a fire from within.’

    Some of us Skandinavians are confronted about the use of these symbols, which have also been in use for thousands of years, and had obviously nothing to do with the Holocaust or the Nazi Party.

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    • Dianne, the Elder Futhark is the ancient Skandinavian script – or alphabet – which is also connected to the ancient religion; that is what has been used.. and violated by the Nazis. There is a lot to be found I am sure, aside from what I know about it. Some well studied fascists have at least copied Nazi doctrines in this regard; I read years ago a reclusive group in Virginia was still using the ancients’ symbolisms – its leader had some of them prominently displayed as pictures showed made by those who went to interview him; with twisted purposes of course, as many of us Skandinavians who know about our history are horrified this has been done to our beautiful historic faith and script.

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      • The impact around this post has been really interesting. PPT slides shared with us around the use of symbols (we’ll share them in a future post), short story, other examples of misappropriation….. Thank you all for raising awareness that hopefully leads to dialogue and collaboration in this world of ours!

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  3. Hi Dianne,
    I was intrigued by your article about swasticas. My father was half Cree Indian. He left me a beautiful Indian basket believed to be well over a hundred years old. It is straw colored with black swasticas woven in around the entire basket. It is 8 3/4 in diameter and 4 1/2 inches high.

    When people first come to my home and see that basket on display, they either make a comment or question my intentions of displaying it.

    Roger

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    • It’s good to hear from you after a very long time, Roger! I trust you are well? Thank you for sharing this. The basket sounds gorgeous.

      Yes, the swastika seems to have been used by indigenous Americans and Canadians for a long, long time. I have not read how they came to have it or if they spontaneously invented it, but I do know its use is well documented. I remember my mother’s Native American basket collection contained several swastikas, and she had some pottery with that motif as well. Actually, when I think about it, some of the yei rugs woven by Navajos contain designs very reminiscent, at least, of the swastika.

      This week (I think, coming up soon) we have a post scheduled that includes a download of a ppt that will interest you. It includes photos of swastikas from different world regions, including North American natives.

      I’m sure you are doing wonderful work in the world; I’d love to hear more from you!

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