Note: This is the third in a series of four short posts in which the author explores the experience of being a Person of Colour in America from her perspective as someone new to the country. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Keep an eye out in the coming weeks for the next instalment in the series!
“Cultural appropriation” was a phrase I first encountered during Halloween freshman year, thrown around in impassioned debates about the propriety of costumes, and initially, I struggled to comprehend what was so egregious about it. Not that I didn’t understand, from an intellectual and theoretical point-of-view, the problematic nature of white people “Columbusing” elements of other cultures or the power dynamic implicit in the accessorising of the accoutrements of people of colour. But the reality of cultural appropriation felt like a distant, and somewhat academic concept: something that didn’t seem to tangibly affect my life or culture.
But as I grew more and more into my new identity as a Person of Color in America, and my culture changed from something I simply lived everyday to something whose existence I struggled to validate everyday, I found my response to cultural appropriation changing, too. Watching white pop-stars in bastardised saris gyrating to “Bollywood” beats with brown women as scenery, or running into white people with the Sanksrit word “satyam” tattooed onto their necks, I began to experience not just an intellectual uneasiness, but also an affective reaction: I started to feel oddly suppressed and limited in the ways in which I could express my culture.
For when white, mainstream culture simultaneously fetishises certain aspects of my culture as desirable while denigrating others, it polices my identity. It allows white people to dictate the extent to which my Indianness is worthy of assimilation and acceptance; it tells me that I can’t truly be an Other to fit in, but being a specific kind of exotic Other appealing to the American imagination helps. Bollywood dancing is “ridiculous” until the pop-stars start doing it; then, it’s “exotic.” It’s very “cool” that I was raised a vegetarian, but weird that I don’t know how to properly use forks and knives. “Curry” is so wonderfully flavourful, but “man, that shit smells”, as one of my roommates in L.A. eloquently put it.
To be continued…