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Madonna, Mount Everest, & Mehndi: On Cultural Appropriation

Note: Mehndi is another term for henna. I use the words interchangeably here.

“i love indian food!”
THAT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAID IN 4TH GRADE WHEN YOU MADE FUN OF ME FOR BRINGING DAL CHAWAL FOR LUNCH
via

Who was the first person to climb Mount Everest? No Googling — what’s the name that comes to mind? Hold onto your answer for later. For now, let’s move from mountains to music. My love/hate relationship with Madonna can adequately explain exactly how and why I came to feel the way I feel about cultural appropriation.

In my family, it was very common to decorate one’s hands for a wedding or for Eid. During my early childhood, in the days following any given celebration, I was mocked, berated, and othered by white people, young and old, for having “gross things” on my hands. I would try to educate them but was mostly dismissed out of hand. The deep brown stains would fade to orange, leaving me with an odd sense of embarrassment for choosing to other my limbs in such fashion.

All of this changed in 1998, when this happened.

Madonna, acting as a trend-amplifier, wore henna on her hands and waved them around rather extravagantly for her gothy-pagan-meets-Desi Frozen video. Other celebrities followed suit, wearing bindis as well as mehndi body art. Suddenly, henna went from something no one knew about to something that was interpreted as “trendy” on white girls. Prepacked “tattoos” could be bought at the store or fresh designs obtained from a decorator working at mall kiosks. Thanks to its popularity, I no longer was asked what those “gross things” on my hands were. I was hardly spared from othering, however; people assumed I was getting a very young arranged, forced marriage when I wore it on my hands.

Henna is no longer officially A Thing in American culture, except for the occasional mention of it as used by cancer and alopecia patients as a beautifying procedure. It is remembered as part of Madonna’s “phases”: something she tried out, popularized, then left behind, as discardable as the infamous cone bra. It is seen as passe, as a fad that died out, as a trend that’s so 1990’s.

Except that henna is not a trend, it’s an art form that spans continents and has a deep heritage that goes back thousands of years.

Many other art forms that originated with people of color follow the same trajectory: it’s unknown at best and mocked at worst, then it’s trendy for white people and an indicator of “backwardness”* for people of color, then the Western world moves on from the “trend”. Art forms created by people of color are used by white culture, then used up by it, then discarded entirely.

This cycle of consumption could be argued to mirror what happens to everything else in capitalistic cultures, including Madonna. What makes appropriation different takes us back to the query regarding Mount Everest.

Sir Edmund Hillary was the first white man recorded to have climbed Everest and the name that many remember. Meanwhile, his guide, the multilingual Tenzing Norgay, was recorded to have technically ascended first. Furthermore, it’s not exactly impossible that another Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer climbed it before Hillary even thought to do so.

White privilege is being hailed as an exciting innovator for doing things that non-white people have been doing for centuries, if not millennia, largely unnoticed by white people until a white person did it. White privilege is being given a platform from which to broadcast your voice for doing things people of color have always done, or things people of color cannot do due to lack of privilege.

It’s no wonder many non-white children grow up believing that their ancestors did nothing but serve white people: when the accomplishments of people of color aren’t completely ignored by the discourse of mainstream culture, they are attributed to the first white person to have mentioned them.

That is the problem with cultural appropriation: the cycle of consumption and inevitable excretion, along with the inability to properly recognize who originated the idea.

* This is the reason why I avoid Indian-looking embroidery, clothing, and jewelry, even if it comes from a Western department store rather than Little India. When I wear such Subcontinental accoutrement, I am treated as if I were fresh off the boat rather than trendy or stylish.

Comments

  1. smhll says

    White privilege is being hailed as an exciting innovator for doing things that non-white people have been doing for centuries, if not millennia, largely unnoticed by white people until a white person did it. White privilege is being given a platform from which to broadcast your voice for doing things people of color have always done, or things people of color cannot do due to lack of privilege.

    It’s an issue that I don’t fully grasp yet, so I appreciate you talking about it.

    I like to see people who worked as sherpas get more credit. (And I almost referred to them as “sherpas” instead of as people. Had to rephrase the sentence.)

    There’s a story about the “discovery” of Chichen Itza which is so cute it might be apocryphal. The story goes that a white man went to a nearby area, went into a bar, asked for directions and a boy in the bar led him there. That’s how the visiting dude became the guy who (re) discovered Chichen Itza.

    I understand that Elvis Presley profited from innovative black singers. He imitated their style and got his records on the air on stations that discriminated and wouldn’t play “race records”. This kind of rip off is clearly wrong. If the radio stations had not discriminated, I’m not sure how much imitation is acceptable without being a complete copy.

    I also think it stinks when people collect folk songs and folk tales and publish them and collect royalties, although the financial harm may be more indirect or diffuse than in the case of Elvis P.

    Profitting from the cells of the ‘immortal’ Henrietta Lacks is also an interesting case. Many people have benefitted, but some have benefitted financially.

    I just don’t know where the line is on things like borrowing inspiration from traditional dress, food or dance. Does intention make a difference in Halloween costumes? Is being a kid a reasonable excuse? (I wore a toga one year and a peasant blouse with beads and a swirly skirt one year.)

    I did read a piece about cultural appropriation that was specifically about belly dancing. The author talked about doing it with her mother and aunts and feeling sad seeing white woman (who were beginners and bad dancers) doing it.

    There are people in my family who quilt obsessively and people who waltz obsessively. (OK, several cultures have some quilting in their history.) I would look like a big jerk if I told people not to make quilted jackets or not to waltz if they weren’t dressed in the style I think is appropriate.

    (Huh. Actually it was a big deal in the quilting community when the Smithsonian licensed some historic quilt patterns from museum items to be reproduced in sweatshops in China and sold as a piece of American history under the Smithsonian brand name.) (And I almost think cutting up antique quilts to make teddy bears is sacrilege.)

    Is it disrespectful to religion if some people turn off their cell phones one day a week and call it a “sabbath”? (Weirdly, I understand not ripping off someone’s “holy” music more than not ripping off someone’s culturally meaningful music.)

  2. yazikus says

    I was twelve when I boarded the flight out of New Delhi to move back to the states. That was after living in India for three years. I didn’t want to leave. I was wearing these bright orange flowing cotton pants, by blue rubber sandals (everyone wore them), a white t-shirt and mehndi on my hands and arms. I had my walk-man with my Daler Mehndi tape to listen to on the long flight that would first land in Hong Kong, and then on to LA. The henna stayed on my hands and arms for a couple of weeks as I tried to adjust to normal american life. I remember selling lemonade with a cousin, and people would see it and ask, and then I’d be able to start to tell them about the India I missed so much.

    Now looking back, I see so many problematic things about my time and experiences there. My white privilege that I didn’t know existed. What a snotty little kid I had been at times. The fact that I didn’t blink when we referred to our ‘servants’. We had walls around our house, and a gate-guard, and a laundry man. And they lived in the ‘servant’s quarters’ right behind our house. The fact that the India I experienced was very, very different than the India experienced by Indians who lived there.

    I don’t think I’ve had mehndi since. I haven’t been back. But I still dream of it occasionally. Appropriation is such and interesting and important topic. Sorry for the long comment. I really enjoyed this post.

    • says

      No need to apologize! There’s class tied up in there, too. I have rich Pakistani relatives who miss their lives in Pakistan due to a haze of nostalgia and wealth, and claim I’m “spoiled” by American life if I say anything about it.

  3. Gwen says

    If I may make one correction and a suggestion, and then apparently a long and rambling comment/question. ‘Ethnonym’ (not ethonym) is the term meaning the name associated with an ethnicity or ethnic group, it is indeed a very handy term. And you’re right Sherpa is the name of the group, as well as the name of their language.

    Second, I suggest this book, Life and Death on Mount Everest, which tells the story/history/anthropology of the interactions between white climbers and the Sherpas, as well as the impacts of the climbers, on Sherpa society. Having read about the history of the Sherpas and Everest, in response to your question in the post, my first thought was Tenzing Norgay. But even so, the Sherpas were not “into” climbing as a hobby or pursuit, until European and American mountaineers began to show up. The book, though it says it is for a non-academic audience is still pretty academic, and doesn’t deal much with other aspects of Sherpa life and culture. For that I would recommend High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism or Ortner’s older Sherpas Through Their Rituals. These are also academic texts, but I think fairly readable even for the non-specialist, or non-anthropologist.

    If I may also ask a question I’ve struggled with recently: How is it that certain cultural appropriations, and the hybrid ideas/musics/arts/dances/literatures that have resulted from the importation/borrowing of “western” ideas/arts/musics/etc. into “non-western” contexts is either not value-laden, or the values attached to it are either “hey that’s interesting/cool”, or “look at how western ideas spoil/ruin/destroy ‘authentic’ culture” – I’m thinking of tons of examples, Tamil Malaysians making rap and hip-hop, Cambodians making psychedelic rock, the borrowing and adaptation of the classical Violin into South Indian Carnatic Music, or heck, even the widespread popularity, though with diverse and variable social/cultural meanings of a product like coca cola? But the reverse, when “western” (or white?) culture borrows/appropriates ideas/musics/arts/dances/literatures/etc., the issue is white privilege, or somehow that “cultural appropriation” takes on this deeply negative connotation, when mehndi, and bangles, become stylish, and obviously hybridized into American culture? What about when the Beatles borrowed elements of Hindustani music, using sitar and tabla? I’m not saying that there’s no such thing a white privilege or that the Beatles and Madonna don’t/didn’t have it. But I think it’s problematic both to attach such negative connotations to “cultural appropriation” both because it’s not always such a bad thing, and because it goes both/all ways, and to focus entirely on white/western appropriations of brown/non-western culture is also to do a disservice to the fun/fascinating/creative/valuable/important ways in which similar appropriations have been borrowed from white/western (and also not forget or ignore black/western – especially music) culture into many other non-western/non-white cultural contexts. Obvious disparities exist in terms of wealth/power/privilege, and we shouldn’t discount them, but still do such disparities mean that the borrowing of South Asian culture in American contexts is fundamentally different a different thing than South Asian borrowings of American culture?

    • says

      There’s a lot to unpack here. I’d recommend using paragraphs/spacing in future with such long comments.

      How is it that certain cultural appropriations, and the hybrid ideas/musics/arts/dances/literatures that have resulted from the importation/borrowing of “western” ideas/arts/musics/etc. into “non-western” contexts is either not value-laden, or the values attached to it are either “hey that’s interesting/cool”, or “look at how western ideas spoil/ruin/destroy ‘authentic’ culture”

      Because, for better or for worse, American culture is aggressively exported and marketed to non-Americans. It makes sense for people to be influenced by it and to use elements of it.

      But the reverse, when “western” (or white?) culture borrows/appropriates ideas/musics/arts/dances/literatures/etc., the issue is white privilege, or somehow that “cultural appropriation” takes on this deeply negative connotation, when mehndi, and bangles, become stylish, and obviously hybridized into American culture?

      When a dominant culture takes something from another culture, takes credit for it, and makes it a “trend”, that’s not “borrowing”. That is theft, use, and discarding. Mehndi and bangles are not stylish anymore; they were not “hybridized” into American culture. They were used for a finite period of time to mark certain white American women and girls as “trendy” and then the trend was over.

      What about when the Beatles borrowed elements of Hindustani music, using sitar and tabla?

      They did the whole “India is just so spiritual, maaaan” thing and promoted a ridiculous, Orientalist view of an entire subcontinent that I have to fight to this day when I choose to disclose my heritage. No love lost, there.

      But I think it’s problematic both to attach such negative connotations to “cultural appropriation” both because it’s not always such a bad thing

      The word “appropriate” is negative. That is precisely why we use to to describe this phenomenon of taking, using, and discarding.

      it goes both/all ways

      That’s false equivalency. Unless it’s a privileged culture using, consuming, then discarding a less-privileged one and/or taking the credit for the “trend”, it’s not appropriation.

      and to focus entirely on white/western appropriations of brown/non-western culture is also to do a disservice to the fun/fascinating/creative/valuable/important ways in which similar appropriations have been borrowed from white/western (and also not forget or ignore black/western – especially music) culture into many other non-western/non-white cultural contexts.

      Obvious disparities exist in terms of wealth/power/privilege, and we shouldn’t discount them, but still do such disparities mean that the borrowing of South Asian culture in American contexts is fundamentally different a different thing than South Asian borrowings of American culture?

      The disparities are what make it appropriation rather than something positive or value-neutral. Otherwise, it’s cultural cross-pollination, influence, etc. That’s why I only talked about white people appropriating non-white cultures. There are examples from other cultures of which I’m aware, but I’m most qualified to speak of appropriation in the United States, since I am an American person of color.

  4. Margie Hearron says

    Thank you for writing this piece. You taught me something about your culture and traditions that I didn’t know. :-)

  5. Anne Fenwick says

    When I lived in France, it seemed like the whole of French womanhood had adopted a slightly Islamified clothing style: a dress, often a western-style one, worn like a tunic over trousers. Nobody wanted to wear dresses on their own any more, but they still kind of liked them. I don’t know if that’s parallel evolution in culture, or a cultural transfer or what…

    But anyway, you should have seen the looks I got from our visiting American guest as we were setting off for a party. That is, until we arrived, and every other woman was dressed like me! Since I moved countries, I don’t dress like this any more, people would stare. I’ve been forced to ‘appropriate’ jeans and tee-shirts. Or maybe I should call that ‘coerced assimilation’?

  6. Siobhan says

    This is mostly me rambling at this point. I’m hoping that I come up with an observation or suggestion but probably I’m just rambling from my own experiences:

    I’m a fat woman, and have always been so. I have always hated nearly all of the western style clothes that were available to me as a fat woman. Western designers seem to think that fat women just want to wear black, or hideous floral prints. Then I discovered dashiki and salwar kameez, and caftans. The wonderfully brilliant, intense colors, the incredibly comfortable styles, the fact that I could easily find them in my size (if I ordered online), or get things =custom made= for my size! All of it was a revelation to me. This was well before I ever really heard much about the concept of cultural appropriation.

    I wore the brilliant colors and unusual fabrics/styles to work. I like standing out. I’m not interested in hiding my fatness. I’m bold and in your face with my fatness, and these clothes were perfect. They fit, I looked good, they were colorful, I stood out.

    When I had a vow renewal for my 20th wedding anniversary, I found a lovely used sari and ordered a choli and lengha to wear with it. I got a custom made sherwani suit with pygama pants, sandals, and turban for my husband to wear. Because I thought they were beautiful and comfortable and that I looked good in them. This was still well before I started becoming more familiar with cultural appropriation. I had a coworker from India and I’d invited her and her mother to come. I remember checking in with them, wondering if they found my wearing these things inappropriate, and they were very warm and seemed comfortable with assuring me that it was fine. Her mother helped make sure my sari was on correctly.

    I’ve spoken with that coworker since finding out more about cultural appropriation (she no longer works here, she moved on to better things) and she reassured me that neither she nor her mother were upset about the clothes in any way. I buy food at an Indian grocery a few times a year (we only get up to that part of the state once a month, and I buy a lot of supplies when I’m up there). I asked the owner about bindis and what sort of significance the held, and she told me they’re primarily decorative (the sparkly ones, at any rate). She seemed more amused than irritated when I was wearing my salwar kameez and shopping there.

    My husband has a coworker at his new job who is Indian, and she saw our vow renewal photos and observed how good we looked and didn’t seem upset (he said) but pleased. She mostly wears western style clothes, but has some shorter kurtis she wears sometimes, over jeans or trousers.

    Yet, this still nags at me. I live in rural New England. There just aren’t many folks of color, let alone folks from outside the US here. There are some, we’ve had refugees from other countries settle in the largest city in the state, some of settled in other locations. I see many of them wearing the clothing they’re comfortable in and I admire the clothes and how well they look. I have never heard anyone harassing them on the streets or in the stores, but I know it must happen. I know there are race problems here, too. We’re hardly immune. I want to believe that I’d say something, stand up for someone, if I saw such a thing happening in my vicinity (I stand up for myself as a fat woman). It still just shocks and infuriates me that anyone has the temerity to tell someone to “go home” or “wear American clothes, you’re in America now!” or worse. I know from what I’ve been reading that many folks end up wearing American clothes because it seems the safest. Because they can’t wear their other clothes without getting harassed.

    I feel like I can’t fix it, that there’s just nothing I can do about it. And I feel like I can’t wear my beautiful foreign clothes any more. How can I wear them when folks who were born to them as part of their culture aren’t allowed to wear them without fear of harassment? I am so sick of how broken this country is. *sigh*

    • says

      There are no easy answers on this. That’s why I avoided the “don’t do this” or “this is what you can and can’t do” style that I find in many other writings about cultural appropriation.

      I do remember my mother and yes, even myself, getting excited when we saw familiar cultural elements come into style. We thought it showed how awesome our culture was. Little did we know that the trend would end, and harshly, too. I think that plays into how the Indian people you know react to you: they see you as someone who values their culture enough to wear clothes from it. A white person doing something validates it in a society with white privilege, and who doesn’t want to be validated?

      Personally, it doesn’t rankle me too much when I see a white woman in salwar kameez or a sari, especially if it’s clear that it’s from the Indian store and not a costume shop. And hey, as a fellow fat woman, I almost want to ask you where you get your Desi clothes, since in the Little India I frequent, all the pretty clothes don’t fit my size 14 self and all the stuff that’s in my size is fairly matronly stuff.

      • Siobhan says

        Oh no, I’d never buy from a costume shop. These were daily clothes for me!

        I tried very hard to make sure I was buying from legitimate businesses overseas that weren’t sweatshops. I don’t know if I was always successful, but I think I was.

        Several years ago while on a business trip, I went to a shop in Chicago in an area where many Indians had settled and bought fabric sets for three salwar kameez suits. I hired a local woman who had a card up in the Indian grocery board to sew them up to measure for me, and I love them.

        Though I don’t know if the things I’ve bought would count as too “matronly” for you. :)

        So does the fact that I wear the clothes because they’re beautiful and comfortable as daily wear, not as a costume I wear to a party make it not cultural appropriation? Or less so? Does it sound like I’m asking permission to wear the clothes again? *ponder*

        • says

          Wearing a culture as if it were a costume generally promotes stereotyping and marginalization. Wearing everyday clothing from another culture as daily wear (i.e. appropriately) is not necessarily appropriative, though it is privileged in the sense that you will not be treated as “fresh off the boat” when you do so.

          My standards for “matronly” are informed by being within the culture. A lot of the more couture, form-fitting, cutting edge, and/or fancy Indian-style outfits that I find locally are not made to fit anyone on this side of size 10. I get custom-made outfits but they never have quite the polish, on-trend nature, or glamour of the nicer things at the boutiques. I don’t wear Desi clothes outside of family weddings, so I have little interest in daily wear-type things. Those are not too hard to find in many sizes, up to a point.

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