When I was a child, I used to beg my mother to paint my hands with henna. I loved to run my hands across the coarse beading on my salwar kameezes and to dot my forehead with bindis.
As an immigrant, clothing was one of the ways I tied myself to my community. I’d get excited to bring back clothes from India to hang in my closet. But growing up in America, I learnt to hide my culture for the most part. Sometimes I’d come to school with henna on my palms and would be mocked for the way it looked. The same thing happened if I wore Indian clothing in public.
In my heart, I knew the beauty of my culture, but sometimes I felt alone in that idea.
Soon however, something shifted and my childhood mockers were now asking me how to use henna and where to buy bindings.
The appropriation of South Asian culture is no new phenomenon. Bindis have become a common accessory for people who attend music festivals. Several musicians including Selena Gomez, Beyonce, and Iggy Azalea have used South Asian clothing in their videos, gaining much criticism from the community.
But despite how widespread and well-known the idea is, I think that many people struggle to understand just how painful and harmful cultural appropriation is. More specifically, people don’t understand why it’s wrong.
Often times, when I argue that people who wear South Asian clothes are appropriating the culture, I’m hit with this argument. “What about non-white people who wear jeans or other Western clothes?”
It’s an argument that anyone who’s discussed cultural appropriation knows too well, and it’s absolutely ridiculous. Cultural appropriation, like all structures of oppression, is rooted in an uneven power dynamic.
Westerners have never been mocked for their clothing.
Cultural appropriation, like all structures of oppression, is rooted in an uneven power dynamic.
They’ve never been stereotyped or otherized for wearing jeans. And importantly, so many people, especially immigrants like myself, feel forced to assimilate to Western culture. After all, when I was mocked as a child for my culture’s clothes, why wouldn’t I want to fit in?
Cultural appropriation is not a two-way street.
That being said, I’m hesitant to say that non-South Asians can never wear South Asian clothing. In fact, I’d argue that certain occasions call for it.
If I invited a non-South Asian friend to a cultural event, I’d encourage them to wear South Asian clothes. I’ve even loaned outfits to non-South Asian friends of mine who attended cultural events with me. It’s my opinion, but I know it differs from a lot of other people.
When we discuss cultural appropriation, the idea of appropriation versus appreciation always comes up. But whenever this discussion comes up, it’s always centered on what part of a culture people can and can’t wear. That’s a misguided line of thinking because you can appreciate a culture without using it too. As I said, there are some events where you may be justified in wearing a different culture’s clothing, but that idea varies from person to person.
Appreciation of a culture doesn’t necessitate wearing or using clothing and accessories of that culture. It includes supporting artists and entrepreneurs of that culture. It means ensuring that people of a certain culture aren’t uncomfortable because they embrace their culture and choose to wear their traditional clothes.
Sometimes, we like to believe that the clothes and accessories we wear don’t have any meaning, but it’s so important to remember that fashion constitutes a huge part of every culture. Each and every garment carries so much significance. That significance is erased when our clothing is transformed into boho-chic fashion.
You can’t steal our culture while also dehumanizing us at the same time. Our cultures do not exist for your entertainment, no matter what you may think.