I have been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation lately. What does it mean to appropriate something? What is the line between appropriation and appreciation? Does it even matter? I cannot talk about appropriation without going back to my childhood as an Immigrant in New Zealand.
When I was a child being seen in public in traditional clothing was to cause cringing embarrassment. Traditional clothes were the sign of a ‘bad immigrant‘ someone who was not properly assimilated, who didn’t understand who backwards and uncivilised it was not to wear western clothing. Even my father would talk about how uncouth it was to wear Indian clothing on the street. Conversely only Indian clothing was acceptable in Indian spaces like cultural events and at the Hindu temple we sporadically attended. I have always loved the clothes of my culture. The rich fabrics, the way they move, the way they glitter and even the way they smell. Accessories like anklets, pottus (bindhis) and even earrings have a deep emotional connection to culture and family. I learned early on that I needed to compartmentalise parts of my life and that it was only OK to ‘be Indian’ in certain contexts. I absorbed lessons that the visible symbols of my identity were worthy of ridicule and to treasure them was to open myself to ridicule.
This meant I developed a cultural cringe that was appropriate for a ‘good immigrant’. I openly disdained my culture in order to appease whiteness. That is not what I thought I was doing, but the acceptance I crave could only be found by internalising the superiority of all things white. It was in this context that in my second year of university I loaned a treasured sari to a white male friend so that he could attend a themed party in drag and brown face. At the time, any white person wanting to take part in the trappings of my culture acted as legitimisation. A bollywood themed party where white girls where Saris without pleats was a sign of approval from whiteness.
To me this is why thinking about appropriation matters. Whiteness tells us our non white cultures are other, inferior and savage. It mocks us and denigrates us until it finds something exotic and interesting. Then it takes what it finds and packages it, repurposes it and sells it back to us in a format that is now legitimised by its approval from whiteness. This is the dynamic at play when Gwen Stefani is celebrated for being edgy and cool for wearing pottus (bindhis) but a South Asian woman on the street in white majority country has racist slurs hurled at her. That is why appropriation and appreciation are not the same thing. It is appropriate when you are invited into a culture to embrace it respectfully. It is not appropriate to sample parts of something you don’t understand, totally divorced from its context in the name of fashion or appreciation. Some would argue that these differences are simply a matter of semantics but I disagree. It is a matter of understanding the many layers of power and privilege that are at play.