Often, it can be difficult to talk about certain topics because they are so linked to people’s experiences and identities. The LET’S TALK series hopes to foster a dialogue about various topics so that we can understand each other’s experiences and backgrounds, educate each other on the nuances of complicated subjects, and reconcile our differences.
In this article, we discuss the nuances of cultural appropriation and how complex the lines between appreciation and appropriation are.
Cultural appropriation: Taking and adopting parts of a culture, that is not one’s own, in a way that is disrespectful, has power imbalances and may have colonialist undertones.
Desi: Of South Asian (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka) descent.
I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of getting wrapped up in arguments on Facebook. Usually, it’s been with racist people I grew up with back home. Recently, however, I found myself disagreeing with a group of people who I usually align with when it comes to discussing political and social issues.
A friend had posted a picture of a white couple in traditional Indian garb (a white, blonde woman in a sari and her boyfriend in a sherwani). The point of the post was to discuss whether we thought that it was culturally appropriative for them to wear desi clothing as non-desi people. For the most part, comments on the post believed that it was. Personally, I saw nothing wrong with it. The photo was taken in India, thus implying that they attended an event while there. In my experience at desi parties and weddings, it’s weird for non-desis to wear “modern” or “Western” clothing as opposed to desi attire. Additionally, I have felt wary about cultural exchange being a very exclusionary concept to the point where only people of a certain culture can partake in. However, there are a lot of gray areas that exist between appreciation and appropriation.
It was later revealed that the couple wore the clothes only for that specific photo, not an event, and posted it on Instagram. They are both Instagram influencers and most likely monetized off of the post. This brings in the issue of how cultural appropriation can be intertwined with making money at the expense of the people who are a part of that culture. This conversation can get tricky though because of how technology and social media have changed our relationships and transactions with money.
To provide some personal context, I am a first generation Indian living in the United States. My parents are both from north India, my father from Delhi and my mother from Roorkee, and they came to the states in the 90’s. In order to survive in a new land, they have had to assimilate to American culture and become complicit in the face of racism aimed at them, therefore, overlooking and dismissing a lot of the injustices aimed at them. I have a different viewpoint and that is probably because I have been raised in an environment where I have always felt “otherized.” Unlike my parents, I have never felt a sense of belonging in any one place. I have had people call me a “dirty, hairy terrorist,” I have had neighbors isolate me and my family, I have felt extremely unsafe when travelling through the boonies and even in my own hometown, I have been followed in stores, I have had kids in school yank my braids (hence why I stopped wearing them for some time) and push me around whenever I wore a salwar kameez to class, I have been stalked, I have been the end receiver of death threats.
These experiences have made me rightfully bitter.
It’s not easy for me to be forgiving when I see a white person wearing a bindi or donning traditional desi garb because if I do the same, I am instantly mocked and otherized. Even to this day in a city as progressive as New York, I deal with random strangers coming up to me and speaking in an offensive Apu-esque desi accent whenever I dress in the garb. White people are made to feel trendy. I am made to feel subhuman.
A lot of my desi friends growing up have had similar, if not worse, experiences which have resulted in fear and self-hatred. I know a lot of people who have chosen to assimilate more, “control their FOB-ness,” and even reject their heritage in order to fit in. I also have friends who have become unapologetic in their desi-ness and have chosen to express it more as a reaction to mistreatment. I tend to belong to the latter half. I understand the privilege that I have in that because I was raised in a relatively safe community where I was able to express my heritage. For many folks, self-expression isn’t even an option. I am also privileged because I am very close to my heritage. As a child, I spoke Hindi before I spoke English and went to India at least once a year. In that sense, I am very much tied to my roots. This is not to say that I am absent of self-hatred or that I haven’t had to tone down the expression of my identity.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to take a step back from my anger and try to address a situation of injustice as objectively as possible while still staying true to my experiences and emotions. I used to be so radical to the point where I would completely tune out if someone had a different opinion than me because I believed that they were rejecting my experiences and thus my humanity. I also believed that I wasn’t there to exist to expend labor into trying to educate people.
However, these conversations are important to have. This labor needs to be happening. Not everyone has access to the same resources or lines of conversation that can enable them to be able to have these discussions. Additionally, a difference of opinion doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is against who you are as a person. It has to do with our personal experiences and how our environments have shaped how we view the world. However, in order to engage in this dialogue, there needs to be mutual respect and openness so that we’re not only listening to respond but listening to understand.
My questions are, where are the lines with what is and isn’t appropriate? Is it productive to have definite, drawn outlines or are these conversations a lot more nuanced than that? If we want to break down the social, political, economic, and racial implications of every action, what do our criteria for criticism look like?
I want to hear from all of you. Comment below what your thoughts are, and what you have personally experienced in your lifetime. Feel free to also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM us on Instagram @spicy.zine or me @okracupid.