by Fatimah Asghar
Lets face it, cultural appropriation sucks. We’ve all seen white people with dreads stomping around like they own the place, or drunk hipsters at music festivals with headdresses and bindis. As people of color it can be incredibly frustrating to see things like this. It reminds us that we live in a world in which whiteness continues to steal cultures without regard to the actual people who’ve invented or maintained those cultures.
Cultural appropriation occurs when members of a dominant group take elements and symbols of another culture for their own economic or social gain while simultaneously devaluing and silencing the bodies, opinions and voices of the oppressed culture.
This is problematic for a lot of reasons, and triggering for people of color because it reinforces the way imperialism and racism have allowed the white Western world to steal and exploit people of color while simultaneously denying us representation and rights.
Since most things regarding race in the US are thought of in terms of their relationship to whiteness, it’s easy for people of color to spot when white people are appropriating our cultures. It’s harder to examine the ways that we borrow from, steal from, and erase each other.
So, can people of color appropriate from each other?
1. Yes, we can. But:
2. Sometimes people call things appropriation without understanding that multiple cultures engage in the same practices and have shared practices for centuries.
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While all groups of color face our own unique problems that grow with intersecting identities (gender, sexuality, class, etc) we all face a lack of representation and the repercussions of negative stereotypes in America. This is reinforced and evidenced in many ways, such as the creation of the model-minority myth of Asians in America, colorism (discrimination based on the pigmentation of your skin and the belief that lighter skin is better), or hierarchy among immigrant generations and who is considered ‘more American’.
When we take from each other, we might be assimilating into our neighborhoods or schools or community in order to be accepted by them.
Because many communities of color are set next to each other in the U.S., we often end up in a series of cultural exchanges that can be mutually respectful and important to our survival or negotiating of America. My friends of color would often hang out with me for Eid and dress up in our traditional clothes. We constantly exchanged food and recipes. I would go to their houses for Easter, Christmas, and Kwanza and participate in all of the rituals that came along with those holidays. The key here was that we were active participants in celebrating each other, not erasing each other. We were invited by each other to participate in customs, not just donning them because we thought they looked or sounded cool. We also weren’t gaining social or economic capital from partaking in each other’s cultures.
As people of color, many of us come from painful legacies of immigration, slavery, and exploitation. There is a violent erasure and orphaning that we have to deal with as we negotiate America. My experience has taught me that I am not considered American even though I was born here. I don’t speak Urdu fluently, am not well versed on the current politics of Pakistan, but cling to elements of my Pakistani and Kashmiri culture and sometimes romanticize them. I rock saris anytime I can and wear kameezes as dresses. I do my research before I wear something, but a lot of time that comes from the Internet and not from some deep cultural exchange in my family. That might be considered by some to be appropriative, but for me and other individuals of diasporic identity, it is a necessary part of survival and sanity in America.
My South Asian friends have complained about seeing other people of color rocking bindis or shalwaar kameez and called them appropriative. Yes, it hurts us to see our culture trivialized or worn as an easily dispensable fashion accessory, especially when it wasn’t seen as cool to wear those things growing up. However, it ignores the incredibly complex and rich history of exchange between East and North Africa and South Asia. Though bindis have an important place in Hinduism, they are not only a symbol of Hindu spirituality, but also have important symbolic value and origin in Africa. Therefore, people of the African diaspora have the cultural right to wear bindis in the same way people of the South Asian diaspora have that right.
So next time you are quick to call out someone for culturally appropriating, ask yourself:
- Do I know the full history of this symbol? Is it used in other cultures as well?
- Do I know the identity of the person who I am accusing of being problematic, or am I assuming their identity?
- By using or doing this symbol, is this person benefiting from it socially or economically while erasing the people who made it?
This isn’t to say that people of color can’t be problematic or appropriative. Cultural exchange is important to know, but sometimes people can just fuck up and are appropriative.
We can do this by exoticizing other cultures, and like whiteness, taking while erasing the bodies of others. For example, wearing Indigenous American headdresses because its ‘cool’ or ‘pretty’ when we are not Indigenous American (such as Pharrell Williams wearing a headdress). The erasure of Indigenous American bodies and culture is not figurative, but very literally enacted by the systematic genocide of indigenous people. Even if we (or our people) were not the ones to have orchestrated this systematic genocide, we live on stolen land and might be complicit in their erasure.
This is also true for the pervasive anti-blackness in Asian, Latino, and Indigenous cultures—the way that we can appropriate slang, dress, and black cultures while simultaneously erasing black people. Or the ways that we can benefit off of black civil rights struggle without contributing to it or fighting against anti-blackness.
Here are some guiding questions to ask yourself when you wonder if you are appropriating:
- Why do I want to do this? Is it to be cool? Because it looks pretty? (Heads up: if it’s just to be cool or look pretty, it’s probably problematic)
- Is this a symbol of a political statement? If so, do I align with the politics not in just dress and appearance, but in actual struggle and resistance?
- Do I know the history of this symbol or where it comes from?
- Have I been invited by a member of this community to participate in this this culture, word, or symbol?
- What role has this symbol played in my own life?
- Why do I feel entitled to this symbol?
When we approach each other with respect for cultures and struggles as well as the awareness that communities of color have historically been reliant on each other for survival in America, we are much more likely to be able to define the line of respect and appropriation. We can question and examine our own choices rather than assuming that we should have access to everything.
Fatimah Asghar is a nationally touring poet, photographer and performer. She created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first bilingual Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS, while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-violent contexts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY Magazine, The Margins, and Gulf Coast. She is a Kundiman Fellow and a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her chapbook “After” is forthcoming on Yes Yes Books fall of 2015.
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