If there is anything to know about me, it is that I love my weird mix of cultures. I unapologetically embrace it, the good and bad, and love to explore my heritage through fashion. It makes me who I am.
This outfit in particular felt appropriate for the discussion because it captured how I navigate cultures. It is old news in fashion to see eastern influences mixed into primary western looks, but this flipped the status quo by transposing western pieces on an eastern template. The difference? Minimal.
We are going to segway into a bit of dialogue about diasporic cultures and the fine line people walk in today’s hypersensitive climate. When everything is a race issue, a cultural issue, or a religious issue, or an issue in general, it’s hard to find a comfortable space to express what one needs to in a way that would be received without recourse. I’m going to say what I need to say because poignant discussion is not suppose to be comfortable. Quite the opposite.
From my understanding, cultural appropriation is when one cultural group adopts aspects from another group. However, it is different from cultural exchange because of the unequal distribution of power. The overwhelmingly common example is when white girls wear bindis to Coachella. The thinking is that white people, the generally dominant race majority, pick and choose what they like about other cultures, without any knowledge of the struggle and context of those communities, and somehow make it cool. On the other hand, if Indian people walk around with bindis, they are considered fobby and uncouth.
I am no scholar, no great commentator of our time, but I have some qualms with this ideal and the way people from diverse cultures perceive their influences among other cultures. My issue is with telling people to conform to their cultural identities–forcing our expectations on others. My issue is with criticism over what people wear (and more often than not, it becomes a policing of how women dress). My issue is with the percieved dominant/submissive adopted cultural mentality. My issue is with using fashion as a means to draw inequalities–inequalities that do not exist in a natural world, but were created and perpetuated by man.
Let’s think about this for a second.
In a land of hyphenated identities, when people are so many things, we somehow feel the need to categorize people into arbitrary groups, resulting in outliers. It is human nature to rely on schemas, cognitively we do this daily, but when those schemas become relentless, we have a problem. I am an Indian American Muslim living in Texas. Am I expected to wear a sari, a hijab, or jeans? As part of my rich blended cultural heritage, those expectations exist as much as they don’t, which brings me to my second issue. My sense of self and autonomy is inherently challenged when someone tells me how to dress. I have the freedom to dress to express. My third issue is with adopted percieved inequalities because I do not feel like a disadvantaged child of immigrants. Nor have I felt like white people stop me from actualizing my potential. Maybe my privilege is showing, and I own that, but the point is when are we going to move the discussion away from differences and celebrate similarities? And I don’t mean reclaim identity, because mine was never stolen from me.
My point is…so what if the bindi-wearing Coachella white girl doesn’t know the meaning of the bindi? So what if Kendall Jenner wore a dress over pants and made it look chic? So what if Selena Gomez used a Bollywood vibe for her single “Come & Get It”? Isn’t that an opportunity for them to be more culturally aware? Do we hold ourselves to that same level of cultural awareness? If I, as a Texan, decide to wear cowboy boots, am I expected to know the struggles cultural context of the west? Many on the interwebs proclaim that “my heritage is not your fashion accessory”. Isn’t fashion a means to express heritage, so where do you draw that line?
The line is conveniently blurred.
Why do we, as the “appropriated” culture, bash them for it, ridicule them for the ignorance, instead of educating? As a culture, what do we want? To preserve our identity? Or spread awareness?
Both. We want both. We want everyone to love us as much as we love us–but not to where they become us–because that’s not okay either. We want to be Desi enough to keep the shit-talking aunties at bay, but not too Desi to where white people consider us too foreign. We want to crucify the white girls at Coachella, but show them off in their saris at our big fat Indian weddings. The double-standard is obvious. We want to cry about how white girls can do this and we can’t, well we can, we always could, but we didn’t. We chose. Because we were afraid of judgement–even just the illusion of judgement was enough. We pick and choose what we like about our own culture all the time, and we pick and choose what things we like about white culture all the time. The reality is, coming from an Indian background, I’ve found my own community to be so much more judgemental and close-minded than anything I have encountered outside of it. We criticize so harshly when it comes to exterior aesthetics. And no. It’s not just the aunties. It is all of us.
Still, cultural appropriation is an issue, as are race and religion even today, but it goes both ways. Within a fashion context, I choose to see cultural appropriation more as cultural exchange. When it comes to fashion, I do not see an imbalance of power. I’m not looking at it as us vs. them, because inequalities will exist as long as I perpetuate them. I see it as all of us exchanging our ideas and influences, expressing ourselves through clothes and wearing what we want, when we want.
So no bindi-wearing Coachella girl, you do not offend me. Nor do you for wearing an abaya in Abu Dhabi, Rihanna. Because it’s not my job to judge and smack you down with the irrelevant burdens of my ancestors, burdens that I myself choose to feel when convenient, it does not concern you. And if I have the liberty to pick and choose from my own culture and blend as I please, you do too.
Thank you to everyone who inspired this post with stimulating discussion, counter arguments, and insight. I do not wish to offend as I know cultural topics are often uncomfortable, but I want to share my opinion in an informed manner. That being said, if you have a correction or criticism, please keep an open mind and proceed with respect. That is all I ask, thanks!