Is cultural appropriation really an issue?
The topic of cultural appropriation has had a resurgence in the news lately, as video footage was recently released of a black female San Francisco State University student telling a white student that his dreadlocks constituted an appropriation of African American culture.
Cultural appropriation, for those who don’t know, is when a facet of one culture is taken and misused or used insensitively by someone of another culture. Prominent examples are dreadlocks, associated with African American culture, worn by individuals not of African descent, or non-Native Americans wearing feather headdresses, which are regarded as highly respected or even sacred, as fashion items or Halloween costumes.
The issue of cultural appropriation has never been as intimately tied with aspects of Indian culture as it has been with black or indigenous culture. However, recent events seem to indicate this is no longer the case. Beyonce and Coldplay recently dealt with controversy over a music video for the song “Hymn for the Weekend,” which was set in various Indian locations, like bustling streets during a Holi celebration or ancient temples with orange-clad mystics.
Particular condemnation was aimed at Beyonce for wearing a sari. The video was held up as an example of the West appropriating Indian culture, despite the video having been created and directed by a person of Indian descent.
This “controversy,” along with the recent Holi celebration on campus, spurred on my thought process regarding appropriation of Indian culture, as well as the broader concept of cultural appropriation. Holi, the Indian festival characterized by throwing colored powder at people to celebrate life and joy, has become a staple at college campuses across the nation.
The festival serves to celebrate Indian culture, as well as to just provide a good time. Despite the good vibes, however, some have claimed that Holi celebrations are culturally appropriated when enacted on campuses. Apparently, some people believe Holi can only be celebrated by Indians now.
Personally, I never really saw Indian culture as being appropriated at all. I’m not offended when I see a white girl wearing a bindi and sipping the chai latte she got from Starbucks while she tells her friends about the henna tattoo she got at Coachella. Nor am I offended when I see a guy with a back tattoo of Ganesha or some Sanskrit phrase he saw on Facebook. One example is just a basic white girl, while the other is just a hippie.
More than anything, I see those examples as people celebrating a culture that I come from. I’ve seen many Indian girls giddily dress their non-Indian friends in a sari when they all go to an Indian wedding. I’ve heard from the man with the Ganesha tattoo that he genuinely understands and lives the principles of Hindu philosophy, even if he himself was not born Hindu. I understand these instances as moments of cultural diversity, of my culture being shared and celebrated by those who may have never gotten to experience it otherwise.
Or maybe my own privilege is showing. Indians haven’t had to face the struggles that African Americans and Native Americans have had to in this country’s history. Indians haven’t had to face the prospect of their own culture being destroyed by another. Just because there are people walking around with Ganesha tattoos, doesn’t necessarily mean I should get Jesus tattooed on my arm just because I like His message.
But at the same time, I keep thinking of how culture itself, as a concept, is fluid and constantly changes and interacts with those around it. I myself see this with my own culture. My ancestors come from the Punjab region of northwest India. Punjabi culture is itself a mix of cultures.
Punjabi culture was influenced by Persian culture from the west, Turko-Mongol culture from the Mughal conquests and Hindu culture from the rest of the subcontinent. There are aspects of Punjabi culture that could only exist when these cultures came together and comingled. That mixing could be seen as cultural appropriation.
Going further, how do we know where one tradition even started? To reference the first example, dreadlocks, while modernly associated with Black American culture, have also been found portrayed in Ancient Grecian sculptures. The Vikings were known to style their hair in dreadlocks. Hindu mystics wore and still continue to wear dreadlocks.
The name for my ancestral tribe in India derives from the Sanskrit word for dreadlocks. So which culture has ownership of dreadlocks? To say that only African Americans do seems, ironically, racist, as it’s another way of saying, “Only black people wear dreadlocks.”
To conclude, I don’t think I accept the notion of cultural appropriation. Culture itself is fluid and dynamic. It’s hard to pin down exactly where the boundaries are. Now don’t get me wrong, if you take a sacred item of one culture and wear it as a fashion accessory, that makes you disrespectful at least and racist at worst.
But I have always been of the opinion that people should be able to do what they want as long as they aren’t physically harming anyone. It seems racist to put people into a box based on race and have that box determine what they can and cannot do.
Do I have to remove my Latin tattoo because I’m appropriating Roman culture? Can I not eat Chinese food anymore? How can I celebrate another’s culture if I cannot partake in it?
You can’t say how much you value cultural diversity while simultaneously shouting about cultural appropriation. Those concepts are mutually exclusive.