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Oct 09 2013

Both Sides Can Be Wrong

I ran across a tweet on cultural appropriation which boiled down to mocking someone on A+ Forums discuss cultural appropriation with the response of “Maybe Dudebros should wear a Sari or a Kimono to irritate this person”.

See here is the thing. I never had any problem with anyone wearing the clothes from my culture as long as they respected it and what it meant to the people of my culture.

My culture won’t die because white guys participate in Bhangra or white women learn to dance the Bharatanatyam. Why? Because these people are showing it a modicum of respect by trying to learn about something someone else is doing. Maybe they one day may become experts in that and can teach others.

Yes you may say that “Yoga” has gone bonkers but want to know something? The western appropriation of Yoga has caused a resurgence in India and reform to teach the “traditional” Yoga to women and make it more inclusive.

And I understand nuance. Indian culture is harder to stamp out than Native American or Black African culture since it’s so wildy variable and so good at changing and indeed making things that are foreign intrinsic to this.

The example I give is our food. Indian Food Is a Product of Colonialism And Western Civilisation.

Most of our food is spicy. Incredibly so. Compared to Mexican food, Indian food has a heat that belies the fact that just 500 odd years ago Indian food was considered “bland”. That is until the ships of the Portugese came bearing the spice that made the “curry” what it is.

Chillies. They are after all from South America. Indian farmers just ran with chillies as if Scoville units were points and points mean prizes.

The person who thinks that no one should enjoy the parts of my culture that are robust enough to be inclusive such as Holi or Diwali are rather daft. Do you think Muslim kids aren’t getting Fireworks for Diwali or Hindu kids not getting Biriyani for Eid? Do you think Indian kids would be happy that they throw paint on everyone for Holi or have a special “Hindu Only Party”?

Because that was always one of Hinduism’s Strong Points. It is an inclusive faith because it eats those who try to feast upon it.

The man who burned hundreds if not thousands of Hindus for refusing to give up their faith? MORE HINDUS PRAY TO HIM. St. Xavier is buried in India remember? St. Thomas Mount has Hindu pilgrims as does Velangani. Why? Because the Christians tried to convert Hindus and they did. The Hindus converted Christianity back by simply adding Jesus to the list of gods.

But the important point here is “respect”. You can wear the baggy silk pants, you can wear the kilt, you can wear the mask but what you cannot do is wear them to irritate someone or to make it look like your own idea or to mock us. If you cannot distinguish the line between enjoying someone’s culture and using it to irritate others then you really should not be wearing those clothes.

Stick to jeans.

 

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Ani J. Sharmin

    But the important point here is “respect”. You can wear the baggy silk pants, you can wear the kilt, you can wear the mask but what you cannot do is wear them to irritate someone or to make it look like your own idea or to mock us. If you cannot distinguish the line between enjoying someone’s culture and using it to irritate others then you really should not be wearing those clothes.

    I tend to evaluate cultural appropriation stuff on a case-by-case basis, because sometimes I think someone’s being offensive/ignorant/discriminatory, but at other times, I think they are trying to be inclusive and genuinely want to learn about another culture. I think part of the problem is that, so often, it is done as a joke or to promote a stereotype. (Another point I once saw that I thought was good was someone saying they don’t mind if people do stuff from other cultures, but they get upset when people who are actually from that culture are considered weird or different, but when a white person does it, they are not judged in that way. An example I can think of is: If a person from a minority group wears clothes from their culture, they may be seen as not assimilating enough, but then someone else takes that and makes it a trend or fashion or whatever.)

    Something else I often think about this topic is this: Even people who are from the culture in which something originated may not even know the history/significance behind it, and are just doing it. How many people wear certain clothes or follow certain traditions after learning the whole history behind it, and how many just do it because that’s what their parents, community etc. do?

    Generally, as long as it is not done in an offensive way, I don’t mind people participating in things from a different culture. In fact, I think it’s kind of inevitable and can be a good thing, if done the right way. After all, we learn new thing and get new ideas from each other.

  2. 2
    blondeintokyo

    I always feel weird when someone asks me if I want to wear a kimono or yukata. I’ve worn them before, and not only are they terribly hot and uncomfortable, I think they look strange with my western face and body. And though I do think they are beautiful, it never occurs to me to try wearing a salwar kameez or a sari when I am in India. It would make me feel like a fake, as though I’m copying someone instead of being myself. But that’s just me.

    As an aside, what do you think of those people who get tattoos of Indian gods on themselves? I often see backpackers with Ganesh or Shiva on an ankle or on their back. Obviously, as an atheist I doubt you’re offended by it, but I wonder what you think, and do you think it might offend some people? Or would they be glad of the interest shown in the culture?

  3. 3
    Lou Doench

    The difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can be a fine line. But there’s plenty of room on the “appreciation” side for everyone to enjoy each others cultural playthings. Back when I was heavy into Anime fandom one of the motto’s was “Peace through shared popular culture”. Emphasis on the “sharing” part.

  4. 4
    badgersdaughter

    I’m a woman of Eastern European descent who lives in Houston, where there is a massive “Indo-Pak” (their term, not mine) community. My job in IT in the oil industry means lots of my co-workers are from India and the surrounding countries. I even went to Dubai to train a new team member from Chennai. While I was there, I admired her beautiful garments and wished I could wear that style. She drew me up with a smile and a matter-of-fact, “Whyever don’t you?” Well, no reason. I love the salwar kameez outfit because it is beautiful, comfortable, professional, feminine, affordable, and very well suited to the Houston climate. I live a half mile from a handful of shops that make custom garments, but I didn’t have my outfit made there because my request offended the clerk at the first two shops I tried. I ordered one online from a seamstress who worked from my measurements. It’s flattering and I love it. Reactions from my fellow Houstonians consists about half of “I’ve never seen an American woman wear that, but it looks great on you” and half “you are trying to be somebody you’re not”.

  5. 5
    Ani J. Sharmin

    @Lou Doench:

    “Peace through shared popular culture”

    Love that.

  6. 6
    smrnda

    I agree that a lot of it comes down to the attitude of the person doing it. When some white college kids who have no Mexican friends throw a party where everybody wears gigantic foam sombreros, that’s a bit different than adopting some Indian clothes as part of your day to day fashion since it’s clearly mocking the culture.

    All said, peace through shared popular culture sounds like a great way to live; I definitely have tried to live that way and have found it’s a good way to connect to other people and to see ways that cultures borrow from each other in a healthy, vibrant way. I mean, I’ve had lots of fun cooking with people and seeing (like the chile example) how much food has been influenced by historical events. I mean, the potato is a staple of most European cuisine, particularly Eastern Europe and it’s from S America too.

  7. 7
    badgersdaughter

    I just realized, a lot of women making insensitive comments about my Indian clothing were members of the Indian community here, and they were wearing jeans. I’m so used to them doing so that the irony completely escaped me. If I had had my new outfit while visiting Dubai, you bet I would have worn it. 50-degree temperatures, and I was in panty hose and a conservative skirt suit with the hem below my knees and the jacket sleeves to my wrist. It was nuts and I thought I was going to pass out.

  8. 8
    A. Noyd

    badgersdaughter (#7)

    I just realized, a lot of women making insensitive comments about my Indian clothing were members of the Indian community here, and they were wearing jeans.

    It’s really not ironic. Eurocentric clothing standards are imposed on most of the world and enforced by withholding respect for those wearing other types of dress. Even if the women happen to like jeans, their preferences are situated in a different context thanks to how cultural imperialism works (and preferences aren’t shaped in a vacuum). Maybe the women were upset because if they tried to wear salwar kameez, they’d get harassed and fetishized for it, and face a larger degree of other types of racism, such as white people patronizingly assuming they don’t speak a word of English or that they’re uneducated. They probably resent how white people in the West are more free to publicly indulge in S. Asian culture than those of S. Asian heritage are.

  9. 9
    jose

    Most people in Andalucía don’t have a problem with foreigners learning flamenco, in fact people go abroad and teach it. Been doing that for almost a century now. Japan is crazy about it. Thing is everybody acknowledges where it all comes from because anybody who doesn’t do that looks like an asshat.

  10. 10
    Egg Chen

    Of course the Chinese mix everything up. Look at what they have to work with; There’s Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar!

  11. 11
    oursally

    Eurocentric clothing standards; when I first came to Germany my (now) mother-in-law wore a dirndl (German national dress) on Sundays. She had never owned any trousers. When I was a kid my Northern English mum would wear a headscarf to go shopping, and had never worn trousers. The first time my sister and I wore trousers to primary school (sometime in the 60s) we were sent home with a letter about acceptable clothing. Our secondary school uniform did not include trousers until 1975.

    The acceptance of jeans, which were working clothes originally, is recent. It’s new to Europeans too. Mum-in-law got her first jeans 10 years ago and wears them at home.

    On the other hand, in Germany the wearing of traditional clothing – dirndl, lederhose – is wildly popular at the moment. Yes, I have one as well. I asked mum-in-law what she thought about that, she said, well, northerners wear them these days, why not foreigners as well. I must say, a properly fitting dirndl is a joy to wear, it looks very fine and is extremely comfortable.

  12. 12
    American Punjaban PI

    “Chillies. They are after all from South America. Indian farmers just ran with chillies as if Scoville units were points and points mean prizes.”

    Score!! Let me now award 1.4million Scoville points to anyone who can successfully eat or use 1 whole bhut jolokia in their meal and an additional 500K to anyone who takes a habanero instead! Still an honorable feat. :P

    I agree though that no one should blindly wear/do/act out things from another culture to intentionally upset that culture in most circumstances. About the only people I would give a pass to are comedians who are doing it in general good fun without any ill-will or bad intentions. Of course, I only find things funny if no one gets hurt.

    As a white woman I will wear salwar kameez quite often. I love the feel and look of them and especially the comfort. I always take my MIL’s guidance in picking them though because when it comes to Indian fashion I almost completely clueless. One day I will likely wear a sari again as well but then it will also be at the appropriate time and place as per our own family norms. I won’t be posting a bazillion pictures on Facebook about it or looking for justification of how amazing it is I’ve adopted Indian culture. That’s just absurd. Anything done for attention or personal gain also isn’t good for many reasons. We truly need to be respectful and careful when we decide to adopt aspects of another culture, regardless of our ties to that culture.

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