Whole Earth Festival & Cultural Appropriation

Whole Earth Festival or Picnic Day? I have experienced both, and I can say with confidence that I enjoy the Whole Earth Festival at Davis much, much more than Picnic Day. Whole Earth brings great food, lively music, and beautiful art and handiwork to the campus. Still, parts of Whole Earth made me wince. As an Indian-American woman, I can’t say that I’m a fan of the cultural appropriation perpetuated by many of the vendors and festival-goers.

While walking down the center of the Quad, I noticed a number of booths advertising henna tattoos. Well, more specifically, I noticed a number of white women advertising henna tattoos. When I approached a booth, one of these women — her arms coated in intricate, auburn-colored patterns — invited me to look over some designs. She then told me that the artist would be happy to apply any of these designs to my own body.

“Where is the artist?” I asked. “Can I see them at work?”

The girl nodded, her blond curls bouncing, and pointed. In the corner of the tent was an Indian woman hunched over a table, delicately holding a cone of mehendi.

“That’s her,” said the representative, and, with that, my heart broke.

My heart only continued to break as I walked further down the path and saw more tents that resembled the first one. The ladies at the front were white. The artists in the back were brown. I found it disturbing. Did these white women make the concept of henna more “trendy” or palatable to onlookers? Was henna only beautiful when it ran up and along the sides of paler arms? Did they know where this ancient art form had begun?

At Whole Earth, I was surrounded by Buddha figurines, incense, paintings of Indian gods sprawled on the forest floor as they achieved enlightenment, and self-proclaimed “yogis” in Indian attire. One woman even told me that a renowned sage had traveled all the way from India to teach meditation to the young people of Davis, but I have my doubts. Nothing about the experience was reminiscent of the times I’d spent in Hindu temples, deeply sacred spaces for me. This felt like an alternate universe, or a dream that left me incredibly uneasy. The culture I’d been forced to abandon as I assimilated into mainstream America was now plastered on the walls around me, but it had all gone terribly wrong.

Growing up, my Indian peers and I were teased for wearing bindis to school, applying coconut oil to our hair, singing Bollywood songs that no one else knew the lyrics to, or eating dosas and rotis and those notoriously fragrant curries. I distinctly remember sobbing into my mom’s lap as a kindergartner, begging for Lunchables and distraught by the insults a white classmate had thrown at my favorite beet curry. When we did these things, we were fobs.

So now, when I see people who are not of Indian descent heralding what they see and consume from my culture at Whole Earth Festival as exotic, and wanting to adopt this beautiful culture as their own, I have to roll my eyes. Cultural appropriation goes beyond Whole Earth, too. It’s the #bindibitches hashtag that resurfaces every year at Coachella, it’s the Indian “costumes” in Western music videos and the multi-million dollar industry that yoga has become in the United States. Has my culture really become nothing more than a business?

I’ll agree, not all aspects of a culture are beautiful. But a culture is composed of the collective customs, arts and achievements of the group, not just a few cherry-picked details. I take issue with those that pick and choose their favorite parts of my culture without attempting to understand its significance. At the end of the day, you can take off your bindis, let your saris fall to the floor and scrub the henna from your hands. But henna lasts longer on skin like mine — I can’t easily remove my heritage or my cross-cultural identity crisis. American society demanded that my parents and I assimilate — and for that, I refuse to allow that same society to turn around and appropriate.

I’ll also extend my sympathy. I’m sorry that, for a number of Americans, their cross-ethnic heritages are messy or shrouded in mystery, leaving them with no culture to identify with. I can understand why mine, with its richness and vibrance, can be so appealing. I won’t stop you from appreciating what my culture has to offer, but I will ask that you invest time in understanding what it means to me, and to millions of others.

And to my fellow Indians: if we call out others for appropriating our culture, let us also be cognizant and critical of the ways in which we do the same with others. There is no other culture that we have the right to adopt as our own, and we must recognize that. It is a deeply disrespectful disservice to your peers, and to the world that the Whole Earth Festival celebrates.