“Cultural appropriation?” I ask when my friend uses that term to justify why she can’t post a picture of herself wearing my sari on social media. She nods.
I suddenly have a flashback to second grade, when I brought my mom’s bindis to school for show-and-tell. My class was thrilled to put little Indian stickers on their forehead. They were surprised to see how my nose ring stayed on, though I was seven and not old enough to have a nose piercing. That was the last time I lived in the USA.
This time, though, something had changed. I still find that people appreciate my culture, but somehow there is fear about this appreciation, too. A fear that by engaging with somebody else’s culture, you are somehow disrespecting it.
Now, I understand cultural appropriation. Dressing up as a Native American for Halloween, or even as someone from India, isn’t funny or creative; it’s violent. I didn’t particularly appreciate Heidi Klum’s portrayal of the Hindu god Shiva or how Katy Perry opened the 2013 American awards as a geisha. There are some things that are meant to be sacred in a culture, such as a crown reserved for an Indian goddess (not to call anyone out, but Iggy Azalea, what were you thinking when you did that in “Bounce?”). But at the same time, I’m somehow kind of honored to have my culture portrayed in Western media. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid in my high school who was overjoyed that Coldplay shot “Hymn for the Weekend” in India. That’s appreciation. Right?
The question I’m throwing out into the universe is this: When does appreciation become appropriation? I asked this question to a fellow Indian friend, who said that the day we start getting pumpkin spice lattes and wearing Uggs with black skinny jeans was the day we start appropriating white culture. I remember as a young kid in Minnesota, I was always invited to do “white” things with my friends: going to the YMCA, eating beef hot dogs (don’t tell my Hindu grandparents, please), and watching football games.
So I guess it was easy for me to let my white best friend try on my Indian clothes, listen to Indian music, and try to copy the Hindi words I hardly know. That’s probably why I found my first friend’s suggestion of cultural appropriation strange. I never thought about it like that. Her definition of cultural appropriation was “the adoption of another culture without understanding or respecting it.” That’s simple enough, I thought. But the definition still didn’t sit comfortably with me. There have been times that on my trips to India, I bought my white American friends “kurtas,” or what Google defines as “a loose collarless shirt worn by people from South Asia,” without them knowing about how kurtas were made or of what they were made. I was so happy when I saw my friends wear them. Was I helping them appropriate my own culture? What about when Western fashion started to sell kurtas as “linen tunics”? Was it only cultural appropriation then?
What I realized was that there are no defined lines. I mean, a big part of it is whether the arbiter of appropriation is from inside the culture or outside of it. I know various Indian girls who wear bindis without knowing the scientific reasoning or even cultural reason for wearing them. I know I didn’t even know what they represented until second grade, when I had to know what I was saying because it was show-and-tell, for goodness sake! Of course, that wasn’t appropriation at all.
What that showed me is that I ought to know more about my own culture before I go around sharing it. Just kidding: I still shove Indian things in my friends’ faces. The only difference is that now I tell them whatever stories I know regarding that tradition. I do hope that in sharing my stories, more people will share theirs. Culture is a beautiful thing; it would be sad if we’re ignorant about it just because we’re scared of appropriating it.
Srivinas is a member of the class of 2020.