Cultural Appropriation: Its Validity and Problems it Presents

Cultural Appropriation: Its Validity and Problems it Presents

(Please note, this post is over 1,000 words long. If you’re ready for that, please buckle your seatbelt. This is the first of many articles in this series. It’s going to be a long ride!)

When I first stumbled upon this topic, I found it rather annoying. Some people were outraged at Selena Gomez for wearing a bindi. I thought nothing of it, and time quickly moved on.

Years later, I was reintroduced to the topic when a young friend of mine was harassed on her instagram account by a hateful user (known as @desigirlsrockbindis at the time) who spewed hatred and told her she couldn’t wear a bindi because she was not Indian or South Asian. This troll was hating under the “#ReclaimTheBindi” campaign.
I was enraged, feeling very protective of my young friend, and confused at how such a stupid topic could have formed such a cult following.

So I did my research. If people were thinking that expressing another culture is wrong, that this is a big deal, I wanted to know why. After a debate among other ladies with Indian partners, and researching independently, I learned a few things. I took over a month to absorb all I had learned, before writing about it.

Voices of the People Who Stand Against Cultural Appropriation

After debating with other ladies on the subject, many who identify as a minority – all partnered with an Indian man, they had quite a bit to say on why they think it’s not okay to use elements of another culture.

People claiming that cultural appropriation is wrong, often say the only times you are allowed to adorn something from another culture, is when you are invited to by a member of that culture. For example, if your Indian friend gives you some jeweled bindis – or if you are invited to an Indian wedding and asked to wear a saree. Other ladies who were partnered with an Indian, said they felt the only right they had to wear Indian clothes and bindis, was because their partner is Indian.

“I wouldn’t wear a kimono, unless my partner was Japanese and taught me when and how to wear one.”
This was one example used.

When I expressed that people are free to explore and express culture, just as they are to explore and express the world’s languages, and whatever religion they believed in, one woman was quick to reply. She said that she believed language, culture, and religion were not things that people have the right to learn because they want to.

She believed that communities don’t have to let us use their culture because we want to, and that adorning aspects of another culture is essentially stealing from that culture. Regardless of if a person has good intentions, that does not free them from the fact that they are stealing from a minority culture.

“Notice how mostly white people do that?”
This person, and many others out there, believe that cultural appropriation, goes hand in hand with racism. The power and control flows from the most “dominant” culture, to the “dominated” culture. The dominant culture in question, being “white” culture.
Cultural appropriation, according to many, does not apply if a “dominated” culture is borrowing from a “dominant” culture, because it can be seen as forced or necessary for survival – even if it’s not.

Further debates led to frustration, and being told that those who don’t agree, can’t see their own “white privilege”.

Some people ask “Then why do ___ people wear jeans? That’s western!” or “Then why do ___ people speak English, that’s Western!”
The answer to both? “Because of colonization.” and “Because it’s mandatory for people in other countries to learn English, if they expect to get a job.”

The message being, regardless of how much we don’t mind others borrowing from our culture, it’s still wrong to borrow from other people’s cultures – if you are from a dominant culture.

Another valuable opinion is that we need to respect and hear the voices of these minorities. That, at the end of the day, we can take off all of these cultural accessories and blend in, but someone with different skin will never have the luxury of blending in. They can’t just slip out of their skin, after all, and will inevitably be asked “Where are you really from?”

The end message being, “I’m not saying we can’t wear any of those things, we just have to be aware of why we wear it.”

The Real Dangers of Cultural Appropriation

Firstly, it’s oppressive to minorities that people will take aspects of their culture and adorn them, meanwhile, they are being judged for it, and discriminated against by the majority of society for adorning the same aspects of their own culture.

Another harmful occurrence is when people adorn elements of another culture and it leads to discriminatory generalizations of that culture.

While the topic of cultural appropriation is quite controversial, there are some real problems that arise because of it.

Like Mexican restaurants, owned by Mexican Americans, being forced to close because a Mexican restaurant (owned by “white” people) is in a better, “less sketchy” neighborhood – and taking all the business.

Or the “white” girl who looks so beautiful and unique in her braids, while the “black” girl is teased for it, and being called “ghetto”.

These are just a few examples I have read, during my research. There is so much more to it.
Much of my enlightenment came from this article: What’s Wrong With Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm.

In The End

The topic of cultural appropriation, and whether or not it’s acceptable, has brought some serious points to everyone’s attention regarding the oppression, discrimination, and neglect of minorities. These are valid points, and we not only need to be more mindful of the struggles these minorities are facing, we need to help empower them.

But, as a minority in India, I also believe this can apply to minorities of any color, race, and ethnicity, in any country. This is not just about “white culture” V.S. every other culture.

I also think the division of people based on colors, “white” vs “black” vs “brown” (and any other color) is the ultimate form of racism here. Not to mention the clear discrimination against “white” people’s opinions on this subject is ultimately proof of the entire topic perpetuating racism and division.

I think the valid points of this topic has inspired hatred, racism, discrimination, and ultimately segregation.

My friends have been attacked by people saying their blogs “scream cultural appropriation and white privilege” without ever understanding whether or not they identify as a minority, or reasons why they chose to express that specific culture. Read Buddhaful Brit’s post, to find out more: Attack Culture.

If you are seen as white (because people judge quickly, don’t they) you have no business disagreeing with the Cultural Appropriation Cult. Even people who genuinely care and love culture have been slapped with racist labels, asking them to stop “white-‘splaining”. And when they lose an argument or get upset, are bullied by racist comments such as “white tears”.

While cultural appropriation brings very valid points to light, the hatred and segregation is unnecessary and evil.

In my next post, I will cover what the other ladies had to say (the ones who stand for cultural appreciation), why I think it’s definitely okay for people to express their love for cultures, and other opinions I have about it all.

Featured image is by protoflux via Flickr.com, who definitely was invited by her Indian friend to wear that bindi!

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16 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation: Its Validity and Problems it Presents

  1. What a powerful post! I am going to take a bit to digest that information and decide how I truly feel about it. I love educated discussion.

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  2. most Indians would feel happy if a foreigner adopts their culture. However, if it is done just to appear exotic then there may be problem for eg. heidi klum dressing up as goddess kali at haloween. kali is not a exotic being but she did not know better.

    I agree with your observations on dominant and dominated culture. There was a time when yoga was about people in white robes doing strange exercises. It was strange for us. One fine morning we realised that it is a rage in the west. If the west has seen something in it, it must be good. Now the new age spiritual gurus speak fantastic English and are more acceptable. many Indian things came back to us after repackaging. so I guess cultural appropriation has been beneficial to us.

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      1. one of the most pleasant effects of this is the rediscovery of our culture through these blogs.

        One of the deity rediscovered was goddess durga. It is interesting how each of the women blogger interpreted durga as per her understanding. It was refreshing to read these different interpretations.

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      2. Yes, I guess it would be something of a rediscovery. A refreshing perspective. An acquaintance of mine is Indian, married to an American man. It’s so interesting to hear her perspective as well. Ahh Maa Durga…

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  3. Great article, Crystal. I have noticed the cultural appropriation debate coming up in the last few years, as many Firangi Bahu’s (a rare minority) are trapped on the sidelines and evaluate their feelings. In this instance, we are sort of stuck because we will have our Indian family pressuring us to wear Indian attire and accept/adapt their culture, and applauded for doing so; while both NRI’s and some white people with no connection to India berate us for “cultural appropriation”. At first glance, we are all white girls wearing bindi’s, but if people would look a bit closer, we are actually married to Indians, lived in India, giving birth to Indian children, and essentially married to the culture. I wish the same people who vent about cultural appropriation would look a little deeper and ask why we are doing this. People judging each other for cultural appropriation does not go beneath the surface. It’s like judging someone for being a bad mother if the woman is working. Doesn’t go beneath the surface.
    *Also would like to note that the cultural appropriation debate seems to involve women bashing women. Where are the men in this conversation?*

    I have seen some Firangi Bahu’s against cultural appropriation and then they are the first ones to wear a saree and bindi. I think it is very hypocritical of them honestly. They need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. They seem fine to judge other Firangi Bahu’s but then they wear all the same things we do.

    And also, Firangi Bahu’s are not totally immune to racism from white people. There have been many instances in which my last name has been questioned, I have been searched at airports because of my dressing, I have had to explain our Indian customs and culture to people who mock it and/or are very ignorant. And of course racism against us as an intercultural couple. People exoticising us, etc. Of course it is no where near what my hubby faces sometimes, but still, it is enough to be aware.

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  4. Over the years the main thing that still irk me to no end about this whole Cultural Appropriation debate is how polarized and racist it is a notion to begin with. I find the term “White” as stupid, idiotic and plain old racist as any other term meant to divide people into races. White privilege is as much a racist thing as any other. I am also totally 100% outraged at this idea that there are “dominants” and “dominated” because once again, that segregates different people into different groups based on their appearance, and cultural affinities.

    Where India and Indians are concerned, I also find it maddening to hear the term “Indian race”. Indian, is a nationality, not a race. If you go to India, you will see many different ethnicities, how can that be grouped under one race specific to a country? Indian is a nationality, to be Indian you need to be holding a passport from the Republic of India, if you don’t you may be a person of Indian origin, or Indian descent. But if you look a specific way and hold let’s say an American passport, the way you look doesn’t dictate who you are, and certainly not mean you are Indian. But then India is very good at doing that kind of discrimination thing. I am myself eligible for Indian citizenship in any of the requirements established by the government to be so, but I know that if I ever did that, I would spend my entire life having to prove that I am Indian.

    All in all, we are a world going global, and I find it energising to see people showing an interest in other cultures and trying new things. This cultural appropriation outrage thing is something that has to die, along with the notion of race, and what constitute a minority group. Often, other showing an interest in our own cultural heritage forces us to appreciate better and rediscover it. I find this kind of exchange really beautiful.

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  5. Love this article!!

    My personal opinion on the topic is that it depends on intention. How can we understand each other and ultimately live in peace if we do not explore other cultures? I like to learn about different cultures through dancing. I took a belly dancing course and I was told that this was cultural appropriation. I was not doing anything wrong. I was not making money by dancing, and it was merely for personal interest. I learned so much about the different cultures in India through my dance classes, and now I have a whole new respect for the country. When someone says racist comments about India, I can now use what I learned through my classes to talk with them. Such people are more likely to listen to another “white girl” than to someone of the culture they are discriminating against. Now that brings up a whole new issue, because people SHOULD listen to them, and minorities SHOULD have their own voice, but the reality of it is that there are stupid, closed minded people everywhere.

    So in short, I think exploring different cultures with good intentions makes people more understanding of one another.

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  6. wow. you worded this really well and i love how you actually tried to understand both sides instead of rant. i loved where you said “Not to mention the clear discrimination against “white” people’s opinions on this subject is ultimately proof of the entire topic perpetuating racism and division.”. that’s something i’ve felt for so long and you put it so clearly in words. so often my opinions in my friend group don’t count because “i only think that because i’m “white””. and i completely agree with your statement about appropriation by color, i think it’s strange that we view different races when, scientifically, they don’t exist. you get counted a certain way and can only do certain things based on the melanin levels of your skin. i could have nearly the same experiences and grow up as a neighbor to someone, but because their a shade darker or lighter than me we’re viewed as from different communities.

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    1. There are definitely so many flaws here. I wanted to respect the opinions of both sides, because the thing is, there are some valid problems regarding minorities. However, that does not exclude “white” people. Thanks so much for stopping by.

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  7. Well, there’s no doubt this is a complicated issue and I am not yet ready to make a comment on it, but I wanted to point something out that I find interesting. In almost every conversation I see about cultural appropriation and the physical adornments that may come with it, the first example people use is the kimono and Japan. I wonder why that is. Especially because the kimono is NOT an every day dress for the Japanese and while it does mean something to them, I think you’ll find it interesting to hear how at least one Japanese person feels about the foreigner-wearing-kimono issue with this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwoSYWIgV9Y&index=14&list=PLNB5_GMK6YzFxyiACEa_e9aFDdGB9Idic

    Kudos for trying to take this on – you summed up well much of what I’ve read on this issue.
    (From another American gal living in India *^_^*)

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    1. Thanks, I’m loving your reply. I can’t wait to watch that video. I’ve become quite attached to this topic.
      It’s interesting when people claim that Katy Perry was dressing up like a “geisha” at her musical performance. At best, that was a maiko, and hardly. She clearly wasn’t pulling off a geisha. And furthermore, dressing similar to a geisha is popular in Japanese pop culture and fashion. Lolita, and all the varieties for example. If you are familiar with that, look into it. 🙂

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