(originally published in Print May 2018)
I want to first acknowledge that I know that this is a contentious debate. Normally, I can’t even say the words “cultural appropriation” without being shut down, accused of being a “social justice warrior perpetrating call-out culture”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. A calm, intellectual discussion about this “non-issue” is as rare as a four-leaf clover, so I’m grateful for this opportunity to elaborate on my thoughts on the matter.
This article will be presented from the perspective that cultural appropriation is an important issue, and that it’s ignorant to describe it as a form of “cultural appreciation”. I am a Hindu Indian and I see cultural appropriation as pure ignorance, and seriously disrespectful to minority cultures. I’d advise you to stop reading if you think this is all “political correctness gone mad”, or perhaps I’m “making a big deal about nothing.” They said the same about the suffragettes when they fought for women’s right to vote.
I also recognise that this isn’t a crime solely committed by white people, and that my minority culture is not the only one that gets appropriated. The restaurant chains Turtle Bay (Caribbean) and Las Iguanas (Latin-American) are owned and founded by Sri Lankan Ajith Jayawickrema, for example. I’ll write mainly about the appropriation of Indian culture as it’s not my place to narrate the experience of other marginalised ethnic groups.
The focus of this article will discuss two things: the Met Gala, themed as “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, where celebrities including Rihanna came under fire for “religious appropriation”, as well as the University of Bristol scandal where a student held a party with the theme of “Night of the Raj”, a blatant celebration of colonial history.
Members of the Catholic Church have been oppressed in the past, yes, but they have also been the oppressors in many moments of history.
Remember indulgences, anyone? And the fact that priests conducted sermons in Latin in small villages despite most of the audience being illiterate peasants? And in this century, the nine-year-old girl in Brazil who was raped by her stepfather, impregnated with twins, and then excommunicated for having an abortion? The Catholic Church’s attitudes towards safe sex and the LGBTQIA+ community cannot be forgotten either. It has consistently oppressed other religions with crusades and evangelism, forcing conversions in communities all over the world, in the name of a God that might not even exist.
Yes, followers of Catholicism come from various ethnic backgrounds, but the leadership is largely white and male – it’s not a marginalised, minority culture. There is no reverse racism; there is no reverse cultural appropriation. Before any white person cries “#AllLivesMatter! We all belong to a race and can be attacked because of it!”, but how many of you have had your lives threatened based on the clothes of your culture? How many of you have had your humanity stripped away and been reduced to your skin colour? This is not a once every now and then occurrence. For me, this happens regularly. I can’t even own my own existence. But I will reserve the right to own my culture. Also, religion is about God and faith.
Culture has links to religion, sure, but it primarily deals with people, real people, who see your ignorance, and feel real pain.
As a side note, the Vatican and Catholic Church approved, endorsed, sponsored and even attended the Met Gala this year. They literally “blessed” it, so it’s the opposite of blasphemy. Cultural appropriation attacks minorities, diluting our authentic heritage to a superficial fashion statement.
For a real example of cultural appropriation, look no further than that Bristol student’s 21st birthday party, or “A Night at the Maharajah’s Palace”. A student in need of some real education, evidently. Now this theme is more than problematic. On Facebook, the party was described by his father as “Indian glamour meets Colonial chic” (seriously?) and “a luxurious yet debauched throwback to the glory days of the early 20th century, where Britain and India lived side by side” (okay, that’s actually horrifying). These two sentences were removed from the event, even though the event itself wasn’t removed from existence, and apparently “he didn’t intend any colonial connotations”, according to The Tab Bristol. Well… why did you use the word colonial then?
I mean, I really don’t know what to say. Was this just typical white ignorance? I really hope so, because that’s the best case scenario. Maybe colonisation was a “glorious” time for the culprits of the British Raj. I’m sure it really helped the British nation prosper, draining India’s wealth and leaving the economy in shambles, causing the man-made Bengal famine that took the lives of four million Indians, imposing the English language as a tool of oppression, and forcing the Indian taxpayers to pay for, build and die during the construction of a railroad on which “Dogs and Indians [were] not allowed”. Millions of innocent Indian people died because of the British Raj. Millions. It goes without saying that it’s extremely inappropriate to celebrate this.
After the numerous instances of cultural appropriation that I witnessed last weekend at Warm Up festival in Murcia, I have to say to festival-goers that you are NOT “celebrating my culture” by wearing bindis. You’re exploiting it for your own vanity and ruining my experience. It’s pretty ironic that the bindi corresponds with the seat of the sixth chakra, representing concealed wisdom, when I saw so much ignorance last weekend, (and have seen more in my life).
I understand that sometimes there’s a lack of awareness of other cultures; the system failed you, it’s not your fault. I applaud the people who unknowingly appropriate cultures, and when discovering their error, apologise and promise it won’t happen again. However, there are some people who really should know better. Maybe I should explain myself so you understand: if I decided to start exclusively wearing bindis and sarees, and the other traditional garments of my culture, I’d be taking a massive risk. I’m not being dramatic. Even just a bindi would be like a bright red target on my forehead that screams “Attack me! I reject your culture! I am different!”. Instead of being my birth right, it would become an anti-conformist statement attracting racist comments and discrimination, like moths to a flame. It’s not fair.
There are quite a few rhetorical questions in this article, more than I’d normally use, but I just don’t understand why people react so badly when I say that cultural appropriation is a serious issue in our society. You can’t just cherry-pick the most attractive elements of a culture for the sake of your own narcissism.
Wake up. Stop exploiting my culture, don’t oppress me by reducing it to a costume, and I won’t reduce you to your ignorance.