For the conscientious traveler, heavy questions loom over every trip: can I witness and even participate in a culture without harming it? Is it okay to take pieces of a culture that I admire and use those pieces in my own life? Is ethical travel possible? And one of the most important questions travelers from developed countries—particularly white travelers—can and should ask themselves is: if I take a piece of this place, am I appreciating or appropriating?
Those are questions that Brook Eddy, founder of Bhakti Chai, may wish to explore deeper after a recent backlash. Her 2002 trip to India resulted in the creation of a multi-million-dollar chai company, Bhakti Chai, which she calls “India in a cup.” According to a glowing profile by Inc., Eddy visited the country after hearing an NPR story on a 20-million-strong social movement (one which she said “no one” had ever heard of), fell in love with chai, and started experimenting with her own recipe when she returned to her home in Boulder, Colorado. Her experiments led to a small operation where she would sell her concentrate in mason jars to local cafés and eventually to $10 million in seed money from angel investors and private equity firms. Her product is now sold at Target, Whole Foods, and more.
As Bhakti Chai’s success has grown, Eddy has launched a social giving initiative called GITA (Give, Inspire, Take Action) which has donated over $500,000 in grants to myriad causes since 2015. But this tale of the American dream distilled down into one woman (and by one woman) is getting increasingly messy: Both Inc and Bhakti have been hit with backlash to the profile and the questions about appreciation vs. appropriation are flying.
Chief among the reasons many people are mad at Eddy is because she—a white woman from the U.S.—is profiting off of a piece of Indian culture, gaining financial benefits from Indian culture while not actually being Indian. Determining whether or not something is appropriation is complicated and doesn’t (and shouldn’t) always boil down to “because she’s not from that culture.” But the way Eddy discusses her product and Bhakti’s brand gives us insight into why so many people are angry.
Eddy told Inc. that she hopes “the pulse and the vibration of India will come through somehow. I want that to be the legacy.” She seems to be taking ownership of the “legacy” of Indian flavors in the U.S.—while there are plenty of Indian-owned companies doing the same thing for much cheaper. (For example, one Twitter user pointed out that there is another Boulder-based chai company, called Sherpa, that is actually owned by a Desi person. Sherpa’s 64 ounce bottle of concentrate runs $14, whereas 32 ounces of Bhakti’s original concentrate is roughly $20.)
Further, Eddy describes her chai “the recipe I had crafted for myself” but doesn’t explain how it’s different from traditional chai other than to say that it’s ginger-heavy, which is not unique. In fact, ginger is a chief ingredient in most chai recipes.
This all begs the question: Isn’t everyone just being oversensitive? It’s just tea. Well, no—largely because of the very recent history of colonialism in India.
India only gained its independence from the Brits in the 1940s. For centuries, the British profited off of India—their spices, their land, and what have you—while Indians themselves were subjugated. And the subcontinent is still very much feeling the negative effects of British rule. So seeing an anglo-looking white woman slinging a product which had previously been stolen for profit over the course of centuries would rightly smack of imperialism.
Plus, a few tweets point out the colonial language Eddy uses when discussing her relationship with India:
And therein lies the problem: Eddy’s business model seems to be chai for white people by white people. It’s “India in a cup” as translated into American white culture, and it helps a white American woman profit. It’s a tale as old as time in the food and drink industry: so-called “ethnic” food and drink is discovered by a white person and sold to other white people as “elevated” or “fusion” — creating massive profits that bypass the people who traditionally made the product in the first place.
These aren’t great optics, to say the least, and people are still tweeting about Eddy’s tone-deaf language. Of course, Eddy probably had the best of intentions when it came to sharing her recipe with the world. But intentions don’t matter as much as impact, and her company has clearly—and understandably—struck a nerve.
The offense isn’t the end of the world, but it will indeed be interesting to see how Eddy responds moving forward.