A lot has been written on this subject recently, both in the world of fellow intercultural-relationship bloggers and in the mainstream media. The whole debate has on more than a few occasions ruffled my feathers. There seems to be an increasing number of condescending and negative anti-cultural appropriation articles out there (amongst some quite valid ones) so I thought I would do my bit to re-dress the balance and put my point of view out there. As usual there is a comprehensive list of links to other articles and blogs at the end.
So, cultural appropriation, what is it? Dictionary definition says:
“Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.”
So why is it such a touchy subject? Wikipedia says:
“Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights… According to authors in the field, cultural (mis)appropriation differs from acculturation or assimilation in that the “appropriation” or “misappropriation” refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context.”
Well thanks for clearing that up Wikipedia. I could carry on in a very academic discourse now about the “exotic” and the “other” and how neither of them are particularly wholesome terms when you are at the receiving end. I will state from the very beginning that I do not support cultural (mis)appropriation when it is done with bad intent and despite not being the biggest fan of stringent political correctness, when it is done in an uneducated and disrespectful way that causes offence or hardship to the culture in question. However, this article is not an essay – I want to share with you my thoughts on why it is not always a bad thing – or at least that certain acts need to be re-termed as per wikipedia above suggests.
So why am I in such a tizz about it all? Well there have sprung up actual hate groups – internet trolls who set out to harass and humiliate the ever growing number of white women in relationships with Indian men (I’m sure there are equivalents for other nationalities/races also but I’m going to talk about the one relevant to me). I find this bizarre and shocking. I’ve also read a great deal of articles also with subjects covering everything from white people shouldn’t be allowed to practice yoga or wear bindis to horrified reactions to various pop star’s costume/ dance move / music video locations choices. A lot of these are more than a little over zealous in their condemnation of the act.
I like to think that we have moved on somewhat from the hate and prejudice of the colonial and apartheid eras and that the world is slowly embracing this concept of a ‘global village’ where idealistically, we are all in it together and equal. OK so we are not quite ready for world peace just yet and intolerance is rife but on the whole, we are living in increasingly progressive times. Due to the internet and wider accessibility of air travel, cultures are mixing now more than ever with more bridges being built than burnt. I am ever the optimist.
More and more as we occupy the same geographical spaces, we are naturally mixing our cultures together – our music, art, fashion, marriage, religion. It’s a natural and I would argue healthy process. It is certainly an unavoidable one – so why are some people so determined to fight against it? Minority cultures are not being lost – if anything they are spreading and receiving new acceptance, recognition and appreciation and without some degree of cultural exchange this would not be possible.
In this day and age it is so important that we learn about and try to understand each other’s cultures – ignorance breeds fear and contempt and therefore oppression. When the unknown becomes known it is less threatening. Popular culture and imagery is a very effective way of spreading ideas and concepts – even though often they may be in a very base and stereotypical form. Children learn through role play and make believe – why can’t we allow a degree of that in adulthood and in popular culture and accept the innocence of it? If we look at the bigger picture and the greater good, global society as a whole is making an effort to understand each other. In this organic process there is bound to be a few misguided (mis)appropriations and reactions to them, but this is all part of the natural process of communicating and understanding each other better. A constructive critique is a much more positive way to approach public acts of cultural (mis)appropriation as well as a degree of tolerance and maybe a few ‘ten points for effort’ pats on the back where it has been done, perhaps badly, but with the best of intentions.
Anyway moving back to how this affects me personally, when you are in an intercultural relationship you are in love first and foremost. You don’t consider that you are white and your culture is ‘dominant’ over your partner’s Indian culture – it doesn’t even enter your brain. If you happen to live in India you feel very much the opposite on occasion as this is what is going on in your daily life – you are the foreigner and the minority. You consider that this is the person you love and both of your culture’s are of equal importance. You participate in each other’s cultures. You respect each other’s families by adopting each other’s customs. You learn each other’s languages. You celebrate each other’s festivals. You are a unit – two into one – and when you raise a child together it becomes even more so as that child has a right to know and feel a part of both cultures.
When I hear of these hate groups protesting at a white woman in a relationship with an Indian man having a Hindu or Sikh wedding ceremony or wearing a saree or bindi at a formal event and accusing her of appropriation I think this is hugely unfair. It’s not appropriation – it is the unifying of cultures and done in a very respectful way. Then you see the idiotic counter arguments “well you Desi girls wear Western clothes – why is that OK but me in a saree not?” Then you see the argument back “well your culture is dominant and mine is not so my prejudice is OK!” I find the whole thing totally ridiculous and pointless and detrimental to discussion and resolution of the core issue.
Should I feel guilty that I happen to be born white and have more advantages to those born brown or black – what good will guilt do for the situation? That is a negative emotion will only drive division. What I should do however is check my white privilege, understand history, why it is ‘black lives matter’ not ‘all lives matter’ and why these prejudices exist and make it my duty to fight for racial equality and stand up for people who are oppressed or disadvantaged so that history never repeats itself.
Should something out of my control like my genetics equate to not being allowed to respectfully wear an item of clothing? Reality check ladies! It just does not matter. It’s a piece of cloth. Inside our clothes and skin we are all the same. Everyone, no matter what colour they are needs to eliminate prejudice and hate and only then can we have true equality and resign discrimination to the vaults of history where it belongs.
We have to move with the times and fashion, art, music all now use elements of different cultures together because they are aesthetically beautiful and now accessible to all in the modern age. I wear Indian clothes sometimes because I think they are beautiful, for the same reasons I love the cut of Chinese dresses – so elegant, and I adore the colourful traditional woven fabric of my Moroccan skirt. Me and my Indian friends both love DJ Shadow’s ‘Bombay The Hard Way’ album – the Bollywood samples sound great with hip-hop beats and electro sounds. I have some stunning artwork from Thailand hanging on my wall. Many would (I feel wrongly) argue that this is appropriation – but is any of it negative or disrespectful or destructive in any way?
To suggest that only Black people should be allowed to listen to Black music as it is ‘theirs’ or only born Hindus should be allowed to pray to Ganesh and practice yoga because it is ‘theirs’ or that no artist should be allowed to explore working using an ancient technique from tribal South America because it is ‘theirs’- is an unhealthy attitude to take. None of these acts are done with the motive of oppression nor do they result in it.
Knowingly capitalising on or exploiting another culture or appropriating it in a derogatory way is never ok.
To restrict the freedom to be able to explore, understand, experience first-hand and participate in each other’s cultures will only encourage division and intolerance. If we can get out of the mind set of viewing White, Western culture as dominant and consider everyone to be equal and start treating each other as such – resigning the past to the past and moving on together towards an ideal future, then maybe we can manifest a better reality- one where we have a vibrant and diverse global culture that has learnt lessons from the past but refuses to stay there. It will for sure take years to redress the balance and a lot of uncomfortable conversations and a tonne of education and rebalancing of opportunity. I still remain the optimist.
Just a note – I’m not endorsing any of the views here – just giving some different opinions and resources.
What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm
12 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation – My Two-pennies Worth!”
I must spend far too much time in India because I have never heard about this movement. When I don a salwar/kameez in India, the locals often come up to me, compliment me and thank me. I am rather taken aback. Does it stem from fear and insecurity? I will read your list to better inform myself. Thanks for a very thought provoking post.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Ninagrandirose – This movement is sort of an online thing. I haven’t heard of any incidents in real life. People sit behind screens and often anonymous or fake accounts and attack white girls that somehow have tapped into Indian culture.
My half a penny on the subject – I have been living in India for almost two years and frankly I have never encountered this situation in real life. People are rather happy to see me try and blend in or respect their culture.
When I see these things online it almost offends me, because I come with love and best intentions. At the end of the day my Indian families happiness about me wearing Indian attire, participating in religious events, cooking and eating Indian food, etc., will always outweigh these hateful people online.
I live in a small town, so it’s a must for me to wear Indian outfits quite often. If we lived in a bigger city, then I would definitely get away with Western clothes more often .
Yes, I understand exactly where you are coming from. These little groups of hate-spewing second-generation Indian girls will calm down one day. Until then, take comfort in knowing that they are absolutely wrong about us.
Some may argue that we have the privilege of not having to deal with discrimination and therefore we think it’s easy as pie to consider everyone equal. While I cannot dismiss problems other races may face, I know for a fact that clinging to culture as “yours” or “mine” really does promote division and discrimination. I cannot stand for that.
Maybe the majority of white people don’t experience discrimination in their daily lives, but ex-pats and especially ex-pat women do on occasion – we all know about the misconception that western women are sexually free and easy that we have to put up with.
I have a pretty thick skin and have not personally been subjected to online bullying by these girls (trolls) but it makes me so cross when I see or hear of these comments on other’s blogs or instagram etc. The problem is that most of these girls are immature and it is impossible to open a sensible dialogue with them – still though you are right – when they grow up hopefully they will calm down!
I get nothing but positive reactions when I wear Indian clothes in India. And when I wear salwar or churidar-kurta, people ask me, “Do you ever wear a sari? I want to see you in it!”
You’ve got some good pennies there! 🙂
Excellent piece, you’ve probably done a better job of articulating my views than I could 🙂
An excellent piece, you’ve probably done a better job of articulating my views on the subject than I could 🙂
Nicely worded! I completely agree with what you have written and experience all the above daily. I only recently decided to start blogging about my life as a foreign bride living in Punjab and the amount of hate I receive from other Indians (all online of course) really surprises me. Particularly how I don’t know about their culture because I am a foreigner so shouldn’t write about it. We also receive a lot of haters when my husband and I are out in public together. Especially when I wear the Punjabi attire. It would be nice if we could all accept and embrace each others cultures.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’m lucky not to have had much of the online hate mail but have heard what other ladies have suffered. I find it all rather bizarre. Sorry to hear you are experiencing this in public also. This is not something I’ve faced, but my advice would be get your hubby to teach you some good retorts in perfect Punjabi and put those haters in their place!