I had promised myself nearly three years ago that I would not engage in inane Facebook arguments. But like an idiot, I found myself in the middle of one just this evening. The topic of the debate- Cultural Appropriation.
I am a brown-skinned woman living in Trump’s America. I have experienced casual racism of varying degrees in the last few months itself. As a liberal, atheist woman, I was often targeted even in my home country, by people who thought I was too much of an anarchist.
Having always been on the side of the revolution, I was rather shaken today when a supposed anti-caste activist (let us call her Neha for the sake of convenience) accused me of being “nonsensical”, “having a poor understanding of race in the colonial context”, “being uninformed”, “being in denial due to my upper caste privilege” and a bunch of other things.
My crime? That I appreciated a white woman for acknowledging the beauty in handlooms woven by a certain community of women in India. She was accused of cultural misappropriation for buying and wearing handwoven saris. She was accused of doing “white people things” for comparing her struggle against Trump with the struggle of the Dongria Kondh community of weavers against British imperialism.
What is odd is that my accuser did not stop to think that a country like India was built on the foundations of cultural appropriation. Henna or Mehendi tattoos which are a common adornment among all Indian women was brought to India by the Mughals. Biryani, which originated in Persia, today has a number of regional Indian varieties to suit the palates of different communities. Urdu is a language that borrows heavily from both, pure Hindi and Persian. Sufi music, ghazals, khayals, thumris– styles of Indian classical singing have roots in Persian culture.
It baffles me that people like Neha are entirely blind to the centuries of cultural appropriation that have given South Asia a distinct identity. She defends her stand by saying that since this woman’s saris come from a certain socio-economically disadvantaged community of weavers, she is complicit in the economic and caste-based oppression of these people.
I could agree with that. But only if this conversation was about the economic exploitation of labor. The logic would stand if the question was of where we are getting our goods from. It is common knowledge that prized pieces of handicrafts and handlooms, common substances like chocolate and coffee, rare gems like diamonds are all potentially produced by slave labor in periphery and semi-periphery states like Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
But this was a discussion about cultural appropriation and this woman’s “whiteness” had no place in this particular conversation.
Because the global system of economic oppression is no longer about race and caste. It is about profits, cut-throat competition, and mercenary capitalism. For every western corporation that is exploiting resources in Asia, there are Asian powers like India and China who are doing the same to countries like Sudan and South Sudan.
The question is a lot more complex than most people like to think. But I digress.
You can read the original NDTV article about Stacy Jacobs and her saris here
I am saddened to see that people refuse to understand that there is a fine but clear line between cultural appropriation and cultural misappropriation. People like the above anti-caste activist refuse to appreciate outsiders who choose to embrace us. They accuse them of reaping the benefits of systemic privilege. And they hold them guilty for generations of oppression.
Systemic privilege is not a myth. And the least that privileged people can do is to acknowledge it. But here is the flipside. The privilege that comes from an accident of birth cannot be erased. And the only thing that a privileged person can do, is to actively fight against the generations of oppression and othering that their ancestors committed upon less privileged people. Sometimes, that active fight comes in the form of building bridges, seeking the beauty in something that has systematically been deemed ugly, having open and honest conversations, and finding common ground.
Let me illustrate this point with an analogy. Copying someone’s work and passing it off as one’s own is plagiarism. It is unethical. Using someone’s work to add to our own academic argument and referencing that person is theoretical research, which is ethical. The question of cultural appropriation is more complex because often the beauty of an oppressed culture is steeped in its people’s history of exploitation and their collective experience of discrimination and dehumanization.
It is true that when something deeply important to a culture is taken and made into something exotic, a new fad, the implications are great. Because such an act is disrespectful and insincere in its so-called commitment to diversity.
But for every such instance, there are those who cannot be painted with the same brush. And in order for us to not engage in the same kind of exclusion that was practiced by our oppressors, we need to take a gentle, open, and sincere approach to this question. We need to welcome people into our hearts and homes in order to undo undoing of our tragic history.
And this might sound like idealistic drivel, particularly if you are dealing with casual racism or casual casteism in your daily life. But if there is even a small amount of honest but ignorant effort from the other side, it deserves to be appreciated. Insincerity is a crime of the conscience. Ignorance is simply a gap in understanding which can be easily corrected.
Not everyone can engage in intellectual, liberal arts driven conversations. And they do not need to be punished for that. If someone finds something in a different culture that calls out to them, then that is the only thing that is important. Liking something and incorporating it into one’s own life is markedly different from cultural theft. And that fact needs to be stressed again and again and again.
Because exclusionism is dangerous, no matter who practices it– even if they have a dubiously righteous reason for it.