*DISCLAIMER* I do not claim to be an expert on what Desi Americans appreciate. I also do not claim to represent the opinion of all Desi Americans. We are a bunch as diverse as the consonant juxtapositions of our surnames. There will always exist a context where some of us enjoy the mutual admiration of desi culture with non-NRIs. Just understand I am usually not one of them.
You know what grinds my gears? Thievery. No, not like the plethora of stolen Bollywood plotlines– no one cares about those. Unless you’re talking about Chachi 420. I cannot definitively tell you how many times we watched that movie or the original it’s inspired by. I’m talking about cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the usage of a cultural or religious tradition by non-participants of that culture or religious tradition without the acknowledgement of where that cultural or religious tradition came from. Let me also specify that cultural appropriation happens only to a marginalized culture or religion. Do not come at me with your exclamation, “But crosses are emblazoned on toilet seats cushions!” You sound like an MRA because I will not allow you to utilize this space to 1) defend a custom that benefits you and 2) decry appropriation against your dominant culture. If it could be considered subversion then it’s probably not appropriation.
It helps to understand what appropriation is by understanding what it is not. This is because appropriation is context dependent. For example, appropriation is not a situation where your Indian American friend offers to dress you in a sari to wear to her Indian function. In this situation you, the non desi, are borrowing clothing with the clear understanding where this tradition originates. If you are lucky, your desi friend may be able to drop some knowledge on how to keep your runaway bra straps from creeping past your blouse or explain that sindoor is not actually blood. I know. Common misconception. It’s important to remember that when we invite you into a safe space for us to share our culture with you, you will be hyper-aware of our differences and in that minor discomfort will come learning. It may be in this space that you are able to ask questions freely. Do so with thoughtfulness and respect so that when possible, answers can be provided without shame or embarrassment. You will know if you did well based solely on the number of desi friends you are able to retain.
Let’s break down some linguistics. Appropriation is a word used in terms of re-use and proliferation. Seeing the bindi appear more in pop culture costume should come to mind. Economically, appropriation describes an origination of human ownership. Sociologically, appropriation is used to describe the spread of thought. Trending among the definitions here is the spreading of an uprooted ideology in attempts of rebranding. To appropriate a tradition or custom would mean to remove its human origin with the intention of self-ownership.
Back to the fury of why I came here. Have you pulled up your newsfeed lately? There was a ‘color throw’ in Philadelphia this weekend at a marathon called Color Me Rad. It happened again today at the Salem County Fairgrounds during the Free Form Art Festival. How a ‘color throw’ celebrates an art festival is beyond me. Though you’re probably most familiar with its spotlight at The Color Run.
The ‘color throw’ comes from a Hindu festival called Holi celebrated in March-ish, depending on the lunar calendar. Using my definitions, we can see the free usage of ‘color throw’ has been clearly appropriated. For example all photos lack brown or desi participants from event websites or social media friend’s photos. Secondly, the race and festival websites lack reference to the inception of the ‘color throw,’ therefore disposing its human origin. And finally, these race and festival events lack an inherent connection to Hinduism or the tradition of ‘color throw’ during Holi.
Cultural appropriation is contributing to cultural erosion. Do not let that feel alarmist. From these examples you should see a positive relationship between appropriation of religious/cultural traditions and the watering-down of those religious/cultural traditions. When social forces like colonialism and westernization claim ‘color throw’ as their own, Hinduism relinquishes a fraction of its ownership. Be clear this is not by invitation, but by imposition. I do not see any Hindus board members leading the ‘color throw’ as a means of sharing a culture. I see for-profit organizations rebranding ‘color throw’ as something original, creative, and even artsy. None of these events allow for an environment where the marginalized group is acting as an agent for social change by sharing their culture. So it should not be a leap for us to imagine a conclusion where we agree that ‘color throw’ outside of Holi is an act of cultural appropriation and must be discouraged. Instead we should encourage the appreciation of our cultural differences and wait to experience those cultural differences with those who claim agency within those cultures.
TL;DR: Yes. And a wise friend once told me this. “It’s okay to feel hurt and it’s okay to voice that you were hurt; there is never anything oversensitive or weak about speaking up against harm. It’s also okay to like problematic things, but please be aware of why they are problematic. Whenever you hear someone talking about something messed up in their life that you did or did not experience, please consider how different circumstances can lead people to have different reactions and outcomes in their lives. Also, be comfortable with people criticizing things you like for being problematic. You are not the things you like; they do not need you to defend them.”