Last year, I wrote a personal column for my high school’s newspaper about dealing with cultural appropriation. The column expressed a frustration that many minorities face. As an Indian-American, many aspects of my culture, from clothing to music, are used by white people on a regular basis. Walk into any music festival and you will find hordes of white girls donning bindis and pieces of saris. Most do it without realizing that their fashion statement is the same red dot that makes people tell my family members to go back to their own country. I saw their style choice as a negative form of appropriation that allowed white people to seem cool or interesting while I would have been ridiculed for wearing the same thing, even though bindis and saris are part of my own tradition. The article was well-received by my classmates, and I later used it in my application to write for Her Campus Kenyon. Despite the positive feedback and the hundreds of think-pieces on the internet that support my article’s claims, I have recently had doubts about my initial angry reaction.
Cultural appropriation, like all matters concerning culture, is an extremely complicated issue. First of all, it’s hard to define. Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in America On defines it as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This definition raises a lot of questions, such as: How do you seek permission to take something from someone else’s culture? Who do you seek permission from? Who decides which cultures lay claim to certain traditions, especially if these traditions have roots all over the world? and What do you do if you are mixed race? Once you settle these questions, another important one arises: What is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing? On one hand, it is important to protect the traditions and originality of the art, language, clothing and food created by a specific culture. On the other hand, cultures require their traditions to be shared on a broader scale in order to survive.
Don’t get me wrong. There are completely legitimate and inexcusable acts of cultural appropriation that need to be stopped. A football team’s mascot should not be named after an already degrading term for Native Americans. White record labels should not use black artists without paying them their royalties, as many did in the 1950s. These types of injustices cannot be seen as anything other than racism. However, where do we draw the line between appropriation for the worse and appreciation for the better? In some cases, the very nature of culture demands that it is shared. For example, hip hop dance originated in African American clubs and social dances, but it was eventually used by white dancers who saw a new art form that held many new possibilities. Without this dissemination of culture, hip hop would not be the popular and expansive form of dance that it is today. This is why white people twerking is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it becomes a problem when black women twerking is used as an accessory to boost the career of a white artist. The reason why this is not ok is because black people are directly being exploited for the monetary success of a white artist, and there is not a mutual exchange of respect. And that may just be the key to understanding this entire issue: respect.
This brings me back to the article I wrote last year. Was I right to feel anger towards the white girls appropriating Indian clothing? In a sense, yes. I was right to be angry at the general fetishization and trivialization of Asian culture in American society. I was right to find it unfair that these girls would get Instagram likes for wearing saris while I would get jeers and insensitive questions if I wore my own. However, it is possible that these girls were Hindu or had Indian family members even though they looked much paler than me. It is also possible that by wearing Indian clothing, these girls were helping to normalize the interchange of culture in America. Amidst the anger I felt at the time, I have to admit I also felt a sense of comfort and joy in seeing parts of my own culture so easily used within the white world that I had learned to conform to. It made me feel respected in the smallest of ways, and maybe that is enough to start a mutual exchange of culture. I don’t have a concrete answer for how to define cultural appropriation, let alone what we should do to stop it, and I doubt I ever will. All I know is that working through these issues will be difficult, but it is worth discussing, as we must reconcile the need for cultural sharing and the detriments of cultural exploitation.