Let’s talk about something controversial: cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect its origins.
First off, I would like to say that I love sharing my culture with people. It is an important aspect of me and it brings me joy when people partake in it. Growing up as a second generation immigrant in America is difficult. You don’t have a sense of place because you feel indebted to the culture that you came from, but you still need to assimilate into the new culture in order to succeed.
My mother always joked about me being an ABCD: an American Born Confused Desi. I didn’t mean to become that way but when casual racism is thrown at you, it just happens.
I don’t know about every second generation immigrant, but I grew up wanting to be white. It’s weird right? Someone who is on the executive board of the Indian Cultural Exchange wanted to be white? I feel guilty about admitting it now, but today it makes me so much more grateful for my culture.
When I was in elementary school, I would refuse to take the food my mother made for lunch. Why? Because kids are innocent and although they don’t mean to, they are cruel. I would always get comments like “what’s that smell?” or “why is it that color?” and that just made me want to eat food in the cafeteria and be “normal”. Ever hear jokes about bindis being scratch offs or recording devices? What about the time I wore mehendi (henna) for the first time? No one admired the beauty that I saw, but they did ask me why I had red markings all over my arms and told me that it looked weird. To this day, I still can’t wear my cultural clothing in public without feeling self-conscious because of all the confused stares I will get.
Although we mature as we get older, that racism has been carried with me all throughout my life. When you are repeatedly shown that your culture is weird or undeserving of positive attention, it is difficult to love it. This is what happened to me and it took me a long time to realize how beautiful my culture is.
So yes, I will continue to get offended when I see festival makeup that incorporates “facial jewelry” and mehendi on people, who probably don’t even know where it originated from. They did not have to go through what I went through in order to appreciate it.
It is not trendy for more privileged groups to be praised while wearing items of cultural significance when people of that culture still face stigma for wearing those items. Cultural appropriation strips cultural items of their significance in order to commercialize them. Also, a disclaimer, anyone can appropriate culture, not just white people.
With that being said, I invite you to experience my culture and (hopefully) others through being educated and appreciating them for what they are.
Photo courtesy of Darshini Narendran