Editor’s Note: Although the UW is a notably diverse school, many times it does alienate people of color. This column is dedicated to exploring issues that ethnic individuals face in and outside the campus, in hopes to serve this community.
Ten was a defining age for me. On the brink of elementary seniority, something transpired that became a pivotal moment in my life. I rid myself of my two braids — the tightly-wound remnants of my Indian culture that I had donned for years. Growing up accustomed to epitomized white beauty standards, this was just the first incident in which I chose to shed my cultural roots.
Hairless arms, but thick eyebrows. Henna roses, but not mehndi mandala. Seasonal tans, but universal privilege. It seems that in many instances the beauty marks of people of color are temporarily desired sparks of glitz and perfection, and a disguised elevation of ‘exoticism.’
But when a white girl tans, she’s still white. When she arches her eyebrow thicker, her skin still glistens with entitlement. And when she wears a bindi as a fashion statement, social media explodes and copies, rejoicing as jeweled faces multiply and rewarding a world where appropriation continues to echo in a chamber of silent ignorance.
Every year as Coachella season rolls around, I become increasingly aware that cultural appropriation resurfaces in the form of costume-like apparel, blatantly wrong terminology, and fashion that degrades the complexity of many cultures. Cultural appropriation is loosely defined as dominant cultures borrowing elements from a minority culture without respecting the origins of that adopted feature.
When I think of Selena Gomez and Kendall Jenner, I don’t particularly want to hear them referred to as “Bindi Babes.” Similarly, it is a definite issue when articles continue to be written about white men wearing Native headdresses as costumes at raves and concerts. Cornrows and dreadlocks mimicking black culture are not to be hairstyles displayed on white girls to seem edgy or metal.
Music festivals in the United States have become gaudy shows of reckless and lavish living. This should be the last place for cultural appropriation. If individuals are able to spend hundreds of dollars on a venue and expend the time to attend, then I would surely assume the same money and time could be spent on an outfit just as stylish and not offensive.
Appropriation doesn’t solely exist in the festival sphere; it has become integrated into mainstream culture in ways that are often overlooked. When walking into a Forever 21 or H&M, stores that sell clothing of exploited outsourced labor, tribal prints and kimonos are often on display that rip off their native cultures in a way that seems unproblematic.
Another realm of this industry exists in food businesses, namely restaurants that sell ethnic foods created by white people. In the past month alone, a new Chinese-American restaurant called Lucky Lee’s emerged in New York City. Advertised to have foods that don’t make the average consumer feel “bloated and icky” like after eating authentic Chinese cuisine, white owner Arielle Haspel encountered tremendous backlash on social media.
While the restaurant may have immense potential in its commitment to serving foods for individuals of various food sensitivities and allergy restrictions, the overall execution was poorly considered. By portraying highly Americanized Asian food as superior, Lucky Lee’s is inadvertently criticizing traditional food and chefs.
The problem with cultural appropriation is that it is difficult to perceive what is warranted and what is not. There is a difference between appreciating another culture, perhaps by wearing a sari to an Indian function or just enjoying ethnic food at an ethnic restaurant, in contrast to blindly taking from another culture in times when it is convenient.
When I took apart my braids almost ten years ago, I did so in a haste to meld with the other girls and forgo my own culture. If I had shown up to school wearing a bindi, or if a Japanese girl decided to sport a kimono, we would have received stares of blatant intolerance and mockery.
But now our cultures have commercial status during some weekends of naive fun, as certain elements are decidedly stripped for white people to break the crowd and look different. People of color don’t have the ability to wear something and look the same as white people, or release their hair and suddenly assume privilege like the people who are appropriating culture.
The appropriation that is hurtful to other cultures is the kind that happens in self-benefit. Having a sticker that says “namaste” or “black lives matter” or saying that you “spiritually found yourself in India” (which is a whole subcontinent might I add, and rarely do people just find their inner truths in America) does not support any culture or people in any genuinely beneficial way.
Cultural appropriation exists all around, and goes to show that as individuals we must consider the consequences of our actions and look to properly recognize other cultures rather than continuously using them as stencils, occasionally filled but otherwise forgotten.
Reach columnist Suhani Dalal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DalalSuhani
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