UrbanAsian breaks down what Cultural Appropriation looks like and explores turning it into Cultural Appreciation.
Being a first-gen Indian American has allowed me to go through a unique trajectory of ups and downs in recognizing who I am and what makes me whole. This is by no means is an ask for sympathy of any kind – rather, a call to acknowledge what can be gained from seeing experiences through another person’s eyes. I believe that seeing the world through another person’s perspective is a kind of superpower that is invaluable. To see like that once is to be able to use the power of perspective for the rest of your life and that’s the lens you will be able to see cultural appropriation through.
To be able to understand cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation we must understand the story from the beginning, so I’ll tell you mine. Being born in States equipped me with some sort of privilege that I have tried to understand and assemble over the journey that is my life. Being born as the child of immigrants allowed me to see things through many perspectives and ultimately is, my superpower. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s backtrack for a minute. As children of immigrants, we are thrust into a world that neither us nor our parents are familiar with. And this is the first step of the process. We spend the first couple years of our lives unconsciously learning and embracing our culture – for me, that’s Indian culture here in America. We learned about family customs and traditions and that’s all we knew. These memories shaped our infant years to early childhood and our very foundation began as truly Indian-Americans by being able to celebrate and enjoy the pros of Indian and American culture.
Now somewhere along the way, education started. Both public and private schools exposed us to a world full of unknowns – and that was the first time I realized, I may be different. I was thrown into a whirlwind of growing up as an American kid and some of my Indian culture got lost in translation. And that’s the interesting part, it didn’t happen on purpose, it just happened. Slowly, I started to become accustomed to the way my friends lived their lives and I started to notice differences between mine and theirs. Differences in food, clothing, and overall attitude towards school and life. If we had done a pooja (prayer ceremony) in the morning at home, I used to rub off the tilak or marking on my forehead that indicated blessings received from the pooja. I showed up to school a couple minutes early to go to the bathroom change my clothes and put makeup on. Sometimes I’d dump my lunch for an uncrustables sandwich, garlic breadsticks or pizza. I dove into my extracurriculars because outside academics in school, I didn’t do many other “American” social activities.
As this process went on and on, I became more and more alienated to what Indian culture meant for me compared to my family. It’s important to note that while I could talk about how I was made fun of for things from my Indian culture, my struggle wasn’t with the people saying these things, my struggle was with myself. From the start, I was in a constant battle to understand what this culture was and to identify with it. Before I had the chance to even embrace it in its entirety, I was plunged deep into an environment that frowns upon differences rather than accepts them. So everything I were exposed to in school; upturned noses at the sight of foreign food, calling hands “diseased” when mehendi or henna was worn, laughing at girls who wore salwar kameez’s or bindis, all of this shaped the relationship we had with our culture. It either strengthened it or weakened it.
Having been through this gives me a perspective. I see the very things I struggled to accept and embrace but now I see them portrayed in a different light. Now I see them mislabeled and taken out of context. I see their value severely inflated due to aesthetics. I see misrepresentation and most importantly, I see the exploitation of a part of a culture that I took so long to learn and love. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t love my culture in a short time if possible. I will be the first one to say, I love when people appreciate other cultures – there’s something to be said about someone going out of their way to understand and respect something that is foreign to them.
U.K. Designer Sera Ulger sells falsely labeled clothing line based on Hindu Goddess Durga and states, “I’m not a massive brand and I want to be able to express myself without someone telling me I can’t.”
Today I see “fashion” designers like Sera Ulger U.K. plastering a picture of the Hindu goddess Durga on a swimsuit selling for $116 and a jacket selling for $562. The descriptions read, “Goddess Sherwali Print is an empowering design that focuses on the feminine energy. This soft pink print has a Sri-Lankan inspired goddess which has been decorated with pearls, etc.” Not only has this appropriation been completely mislabeled, Sera Ulger then gives an interview in which she says, “Not everyone loves it but that’s okay with the creative industry, you either love it or hate it. It would cost me thousands of pounds to take it out of production, something I can’t afford. I’m not a massive brand and I want to be able to express myself without someone telling me I can’t.” Read the full interview here. A certain kind of privilege has allowed people to develop a pick-and-choose mindset to culture by using the aesthetic when it benefits them and removing it as one would a mask when it does not. Many people argue she is embracing Hindu culture and spreading awareness but her actions speak for themselves; blatantly mislabelling the merchandise that is selling for an overpriced amount while simultaneously disrespecting a religion. This is the textbook definition of cultural appropriation. When I first brought this to Sera Ulger’s attention, the graceful response I got was “F*** off!”
In another instance, music American television personality India Love sold a shirt on which she portrayed herself as a goddess dressed in a sari with six arms – a poor imitation of the Godess Kali in Hinduism usually portrayed as a four to six armed woman. Sour Punch Candy created an ad with the theme “Milleni-Yoga.” The ad read “Namaste in and eat Sour Punch Candy.” At a craft store I came across incense sticks from a brand titled Gonesh Sticks. Genieco‘s website reads, “ The new brand name was GONESH, named after the Hindu Elephant Boy, the God of Luck.” FYI – Ganesh is the God of new beginnings and the remover of obstacles. In Hindu culture, Laxmi is the closest to the God of luck being the Goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity. Otherwise, Hinduism has no specific God of luck. Ohio congressman and 2020 hopeful Tim Ryan released campaign shirts that read “Namaste, America.” The shirt quite literally reads, “I bow to the divine in you, America.” Looks like Tim used Google Translate to do his homework. As if that were not enough, Supreme’s Fall/Winter 2019 line includes a faux fur Ganesh jacket.
As cultural appropriations continue to occur, I’ve done a lot of thinking and observing to determine how this should be approached. One thing is valid – cultural appropriation is real and more common than we think. Our best option might be to shift the narrative to educating people as much as possible. With the Supreme case, a friend of mine commented that they should include a booklet describing each deity and what they mean in Hinduism – this is a great way to eliminate misinformation and promote cultural appreciation. Few of my friends that appreciate my culture came to the level of appreciation they’re at now via their willingness to learn what my culture means for me and how to respect it. Many people have brought up the point that in India, Hindu symbols are circulated and plastered on books, buildings, things sold by the roadsides, etc. My response to this is that these things are usually still treated sacredly in the spaces in which they are put. The same boundaries are not respected here in the U.S. or in Europe. The print is not what’s offensive, cultural appropriation boils down to three things – intent, disrespect and mistreatment.
At the beginning of this journey I took you through my experience as a first-gen Indian American and I listed various instances of cultural appropriation. What drives me to fight against this and dispel misinformation is what I will tell you last. In July of this year, a Hindu priest was brutally attacked near a temple in Queens, NY, while he was walking down the street in his religious garb. A man came up from behind and started hitting him repeatedly while screaming things like, “This is my neighborhood!” Also in July of this past year, a Sikh priest was attacked in his own home while his attacker shouted things like “go back, go back go back!” I fight for things that may seem insignificant like a Hindu goddess on a piece of clothing because unfortunately, we live in a world where people are still facing discrimination and hate crimes for simply belonging to and practicing their religion. It is absolutely vile to treat cultures and religions as if they are a la carte not only due to selective empathy but also because this does a disservice to everything else that makes that culture 100% whole. I just fell in love with my culture and religion so I’m going to reclaim it and give it the respect it deserves by calling out appropriation when I see it, and I hope you do too.