Educating yourself and being yourself: the dangers of cultural appropriation by Harini, a student intern.
I was the only brown kid at my school until ninth grade. Growing up in a town I once described as “never realized the Union won the Civil War,” it was no surprise that all my friends were white. I was careful to conceal any aspects of me that did not mirror their own personalities, effectively whitewashing myself. I laughed along with their mockery of desi culture, its gaudy outfits and pungent foods, all the while ignoring the guilt and defiance that part of me felt at hearing my own culture ripped apart by people who had none of their own.
Once I reached high school and began making friends with people from similar backgrounds to me, I realized the error in my ways and embraced my heritage with a group of people who respected and shared my culture. I packed the foods I liked to school, and posted pictures of me, donned in traditional clothes, to social media for the world to see.
Around that time, American culture began to shift. Suddenly, the ingredients in our foods that were once considered ugly and smelly were now labelled “superfoods,” and they were all the rage. Our jewelry was considered the epitome of fashion, despite being practically taboo not too long ago. This led me to the question: why is something considered acceptable only after Western cultures adopt it? People have been wearing naths and eating turmeric for centuries, so why was it suddenly considered a trend? Moreover, why was it a trend to begin with, when the sole reason the elements of our culture exist with a meaning and value that was being completely disregarded by Western culture?
Actress Sonam Kapoor wears a nath on the red carpet.
I grew angry each time I would see someone that once made fun of desi culture wearing bindis for Instagram. This was a piece of Hindu culture that was symbolic, and it was being reduced to a costume. For these people, this was an expression of appreciation, because apparently there was no better compliment to a culture than the validation of a westernized person. There was no consideration that disregarding the meaning behind these things (whether they are intended for brides, as a mark of celebration, etc.) was offensive.
However, white people are not the only ones guilty of doing this. Non-desi people of color often see their non-whiteness as a free pass to appropriating cultures outside their own. Desis are guilty of appropriating other cultures as well, so no ethnic group is entirely free of this offense. The entertainment industry is the worst offender, with a history of using blackface to depict villains and demons unscrupulously.
Of course, appreciation of a culture is acceptable. For example, eating ethnic food, consuming media, and learning a new language are all forms of appreciation that are inoffensive.
When a person uses an element of a culture they do not belong to as a costume while ignoring the ethnic, national, or religious significance of said element, they are appropriating a culture. Appropriation is not just about material items. It can take different forms, like stealing opportunities that should belong to people of an ethnic group or religion. This is seen too often in Hollywood, with white actors playing roles that represent people of color, with (see Matt Damon playing a Chinese general in The Great Wall). White actors find themselves under fire for accepting roles depicting Asian characters that are heroic and central to the story, while actual Asian actors are too often offered minor roles that exist for comedic effect or to create a backdrop for the important white characters. The way in which the West regards Eastern culture is dubbed “Orientalism,” a concept that has come to possess a negative connotation only because it reflects said perception.
Furthermore, brown actors are used interchangeably, regardless of their ethnicity. A recent example of this is the casting for the live-action Aladdin movie, in which Naomi Scott, a biracial actress of Indian descent, is playing Jasmine, the princess of the fictional Agrabah, which is canonically located in the Middle East. So, why are brown people seen as transposable? Why is our culture regarded as easy?
Bridging the gap between Western ideals and pride in one’s heritage is in the hands of brown peoples’ white peers and the media. Looking back on my journey as a brown girl growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, I can see my growth from someone who tried too hard to imitate her white friends, to someone who is unashamed of who she is. Much of that personal development came from being receptive and open to criticism. Often, people don’t realize their actions are offensive because of how common appropriation is. Ignorance is a slippery slope, so being informed is vital, as is holding others accountable for their actions. Learning the difference between appreciation and appropriation is the first step to respecting all cultures and regarding them as equal.
Below are some articles about recent instances of brown culture appropriation and orientalism: