Advocates of cultural appropriation — including at least one writer at the New York Times — see the act as a benevolent, inspiring exploration of delicious foods, unique music and warm fuzzies. Its opponents find it problematic at best, and infuriating and insulting at worst.
But lost in these ubiquitous debates is what actually angers marginalized people: the hypocrisy inherent in the “exchange,” as it is currently practiced, rather than the appropriative act itself. Where people in the majority culture see harmless cross-pollination, many communities see outrageous double standards. Our cultures and traditions — and often our skin color, physical appearance and language — are the source of our continuing marginalization, but white majority culture will occasionally take one aspect of those traditions and decide it’s “cool” to them in a certain moment.
By randomly elevating disparate aspects of our wardrobes or cuisines but not respecting the people who created all of it in the first place, appropriators are saying they’ll choose how to engage with our culture without having to also recognize our humanity. For actual cultural exchange or cross-pollination to occur, instead of simple appropriation, we’d have to be treated with the same interest or reverence given to the objects deemed “cool” enough to steal or commodify.
Cultural appropriation, then, is any situation where my celebration of my heritage or simple practice of my culture is unseemly — but someone else doing the same thing broadly indicates that they’re open-minded and unique.
It is telling my mother to “go back” to where she came from because she wears a sari, and then inviting yourself to an Indian wedding so you can capture photos of your henna tattoos and colorful borrowed outfits for Instagram. (Yes, that’s happened.) It’s complaining that a coworker’s food stinks, then bragging months later about discovering a hot new ethnic restaurant that serves the same dish. It’s the neighbor who barged in during my family’s puja to complain about the noise, interrupting the sacred and ruining the event, but walking around in a T-shirt that says, “Namaste, Bitches!” and regularly humming “Om” at a yoga studio that preaches tolerance. (She, apparently, can mispronounce Sanskrit words while stretching but is bothered when we have a priest bless our home with those exact sounds.)
Cherrypicking aspects of South Asian culture while denying actual Desi people the right to practice their faith is one height of cultural appropriation. But these sorts of incidents prove to marginalized people, over and over again, that the act of cultural appropriation is not about forging connections between white majority culture and the cultures of marginalized people — it’s about the ego of the consumer who is greedily picking through other cultures for something to set them apart and signal they are worthy and worldly.
And while oblivious white people are often guilty of this appalling behavior because they’re the ones with the power to exclude us, some of pop culture’s multi-ethnic, problematic favorites are guilty, too. The best part of those situations is naming the appropriation and inevitably hearing their fans respond with some version of, ”You’re just jealous they’re doing your culture better than you.”
Please. No flexible white girl in $100 yoga pants or pop star in a lehenga is doing my culture better than me, a person who was born and raised in it and who can’t escape it just by changing my clothes. My traditional attire is not a costume for other people to use to alleviate ennui before discarding it as passé. Wearing a bindi to a music festival is not cute when brown women are targeted for assault because they wear them.
You get to be “different” when appropriating our culture. We get targets on our backs for practicing it in the first place, because bindis and Indian clothes aren’t “cool” unless white people are experimenting with them for Bollywood-themed parties or Coachella.
Defenders of cultural appropriation seemingly like to call us gatekeepers and criticize us for being so selfish with our turmeric and silks. But what they don’t understand is that if any of my actual non-Desi friends were interested in wearing a sari, I would be the first to tie one on them because my friends are decent people. They are sincere and kind. They would never insult my heritage, be aggressively ignorant about it or discriminate against immigrants.
Demanding an end to cultural appropriation is not — and never has been —about desiring segregation between cultures, though proponents of appropriation make that erroneous claim, too. If anything, our annoyance and anger comes precisely from the fact we are never allowed to fully participate in majority culture when we hew to our traditional clothes, food, music and cultural practices. We are always too foreign, too different, too “other.”
Why are aspects of our heritage only acceptable when white people use (or worse, misuse) them? That is the core of the critique of cultural appropriation: It’s not about “ownership” or hoarding good things from others, but about why we aren’t regarded as good enough when those things are later seen as signifiers of cool to majority culture — yet still aren’t read as “cool” on our skin, on our tables or in our temples.
We’re not petty; we’re sick of hypocritical consumption that reminds us we are still powerless and unwanted. We are ostracized for being ethnic and then forced to watch the looting of our traditions when majority culture changes its opinion about some aspect of our lives. That is why it’s called appropriation, not simply cultural engagement.