Again and again, through various media available to us in the digital age, we hear about ‘cultural appropriation’. We notice how some people get really hot and bothered about it, sitting on the exact opposite bench to those who are less bothered, and more open to these ideas. So what exactly is ‘cultural appropriation’ and what constitutes the parameters of offence that people are apt to take?
So, say you are a white person, and you are going to your friend’s party. Because you love Indian culture, you show up wearing a salwar-khameez, or a saree. You jazz it up by adding a pair of dangly earrings, a bindi (dot on your forehead), and bangles with glittering stones. You think you look pretty darn good.
An Indian lady comes up to you and says she finds it pretty offensive that you have chosen to wear Indian dress. She calls it cultural appropriation. Suddenly, you are floundering to explain that you meant no disrespect; indeed you love everything Indian (food, clothes, music etc). But she’s not convinced and there is now a heated debate, with people taking sides and endless dark growls about soft political taking-over by the Right.
What a nightmare! But this scenario is becoming increasingly familiar. In open-air festivals, for example, people show up with Native Indian head dress, or sport an African look with braids. Purists get extremely nasty at this point, and cry foul. Sharply divided opinions abound and suddenly, you can be labelled as a cultural appropriator, or a wuss at the least.
Do clothes make the woman?
Personally, I see nothing wrong in dressing in a North African Djellaba, or a woolen loose-fitting tunic that Moroccan women wear. If you are interested in braiding your hair into dreadlocks, go for it. So does that make me a cultural appropriator? Am I not being respectful towards a culture not my own?
Just as with so many other weighty issues, this one too has many nuances and refuses to be straightjacketed into black and white. Just imagine if all of us only stuck to our own cultural mores, or did not wander beyond the culture we were born into. What a boring world it would be! And here, I’m only mentioning dress. There are other aspects to culture, of course, food being a really important one. So, if those punishing purveyors of our behaviours were to lay down the law and decree that we should stay within the circumscribed boundaries of the culture we were born into – what happens then? I’ll tell you one thing that would happen. No more feasting on tagine, sushi, butter chicken, naan, and all those delicious foods that make you drool.
A way out of the fracas
But to be fair, these people do have a point. Stupidly emulating something should not be encouraged. There is a middle way, just as Aristotle pointed out hundreds of years ago. His theory of the Golden Mean applies to almost everything.
What I would suggest is that before donning your Native American head gear, take the time to learn about the tribe, their ways, and their traditions. What does the head gear signify? How you are supremely grateful to wear it, and that it is your way to show your respect and fascination for that culture. That’s it. No need to academize everything.