It is evening in Dubai. My Dadima’s home is lit dimly with candles. The smell of incense wafts from her bedroom, and the scent of my Dadaji’s cologne holds a heavy presence in the air. If I peek through the crack of her slightly opened bedroom door, I see her with a scarf over her head. She stands in front of a shelf which holds an array of pictures, to which her eyes are devoted. The pictures display Hindu gods (Ganesh, Krishna), Sikh gods (Guru Nanak), and her family members who have passed away. I watch her praying silently to the same Hindu god I see bedazzled and slapped on a white girl’s t-shirt in the United States.
I am biracial: half white, half Indian. I see myself as a representation of India when I am here, and a representation of America when I am there. I am a bridge of cultures and I pride myself in it. But it took me a long time to reach that mindset.
The elementary school I attended was majority white. I would go to school and see the blonde girls with blue eyes and light skin be called “pretty” and “popular.” I wouldn’t doubt those labels for a second, considering I’d come home from school that day and watch television shows in which the blonde girls with blue eyes and light skin were desirably untouchable. It became no secret to me that I was different than everyone around me. It also became no secret that my beauty was defined by my physical composition. The former is true. The latter, I’ve learned, not so much.
Flash forward to middle school. My identity is still confusing to me. I speak English, my accent is American, I wear clothes from American stores like Forever 21, yet there’s this whole half to me that I feel I have hidden. Whenever I walk into places like Forever 21, I see pairs of “genie pants” that are pitiful attempts of Indian fashion, and Indian patterns all over the clothes with phrases like “I hate Mondays” slapped on top. In seeing this, my heart breaks a little because part of me feels like I owe it to my Indian side to reject this appropriation, but part of me feels like I have to buy and wear these items to fit in with my friends. Can I appropriate my own culture?
And suddenly I am in high school. I know myself through and through—the white side and the Indian side. I know my skin does not have to be light for it to be beautiful. I love my brown eyes, and the hair on my arms, and my thick eyebrows.
It’s when I am walking down my school’s hallway and I see a pair of drawn on eyebrows, or a white girl wearing a bindi, or sporting a spray tan, that I feel sad. It hurts me to see that after the years it took to finally accept myself as a brown girl, it’s suddenly trendy to be brown. It hurts me to see that henna from ArtsFest is just thrown around and used to write names and infinity signs all over my peers’ bodies as if it is merely a washable marker and not a traditional and beautiful artform in my culture. It’s suddenly a fashion statement to wear a bindi and big, bushy brows are a makeup phenomenon.
How do I define cultural appropriation, though? It has always been a grey area for me and hard to decipher where I, personally, would draw the line between what’s offensive and what’s innocent appreciation. But in my opinion, cultural appropriation is the act of taking something from a non-oppressive culture for the sake of trendiness without having educated or immersed oneself in said culture to therefore have a full understanding of the importance of that thing to that culture. I know that definition is confusing, but this whole discussion is confusing, and I wanted to put my perceived definition out there. The only way to have a full understanding of it is to hear what people have to say. Listen to people of color, listen to people of these cultures which you are adopting. And if you are a person of an appropriated culture, listen to the appropriators. Discuss it with an open mind, because many people don’t even realize they might be offending you.
Next time you (yes I’m talking to you) walk into Urban Outfitters or Forever 21 or whatever store, don’t buy that “Indian” tapestry on the wall. Don’t buy that “Japanese” kimono. Don’t buy it, because while these stores are charging American customers 20, 40, 60 dollars for these items, they are grossly underpaying laborers in that country to produce them. They are exploiting that culture, stripping it of its uniqueness, and by buying those items, you are encouraging it.
I am not shutting you out of every culture. I don’t mean to further divide a world that is already divided, or prevent the sharing of ideas and religion and food and fashion—without the intertwining of cultures, this world would have nothing to grow into. The point of this is to tell you to educate yourself before borrowing from other cultures. I invite you to research the history and importance of henna, or cornrows, or kimonos, and the like. There are ways to cross divides and build bridges between your culture and others without blindly taking for your own benefit.
ILLUSTRATION BY JULIA ARNSBERGER