Nonfiction

The Feminine Critique: Cultural (In)appropriation

21 March 2016

Debates of cultural appropriation have once again graced our presence in pop culture. Coldplay’s latest single, ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ features Beyoncé in a video depicting the Holi Festival, traditional Indian jewellery and the streets of Mumbai. This video premiered a week after my visit to India where I was confronted with my own struggles of cultural appropriation. As a Western, White, liberal feminist, I was experiencing culture shock.

Adishi Gupta, an editor from the organisation Feminism in India, explains the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

“If one is borrowing something from a culture which has a long history of oppression for the sake of a fad, they are nothing but appropriating a culture. However, a conscious choice made in consideration to the historical climate of the respective culture, would be a more responsible way to convey appreciation.”

Feminism in India is an intersectional feminist organisation based in New Delhi. Their community aims to spread awareness and sensitisation around gender, sexuality and intersectionality. Gupta explains that although her organisation promotes gender equality, they are also concerned with cultural appropriation and its effects not only between cultures around the world, but within India itself.

“It is interesting to note here that cultural appropriation isn’t solely across nations but it can happen within the same nation too… Some cultures are more marginalised than others and thus are likely to be appropriated by the latter.”

Gupta’s comments suggest that power and agency are highly ingrained in every culture, not only in the ability for a culture to create social norms but for other cultures to appropriate them.

The exoticisation of Indian tradition depicted in Coldplay’s latest single is accompanied by the regrettably long history of Western superiority and cultural insensitivity. I was highly conscious of my White privilege as a Western tourist in India, causing my attempts at cultural appreciation to be challenged by the gender inequality ingrained in that culture. There were public signs refusing temple entry to women menstruating and social expectations to wear loose, covered clothing in public. When I was constantly overlooked in favour of my male counterpart when it came to haggling and buying goods, my patience for the sake of being culturally respectful was tested.

Gupta expanded on my experience in consideration of feminism.

“Across cultures and nations, the way women are pressured to live up to the expectations of the people around them, lacking any sort of agency over their lives is just why we need feminism. The rigid patriarchal framework existing in a lot of cultures, even today, is what imposes women with this sense of [male]entitlement in all areas of their lives.”

Understanding the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation has presented a new concern: Is culture a justified defence for sexism or is it an excuse?

Gupta explains this in relation to her perspective of gender inequality in India.

“It is a rather shoddy excuse. Taking culture as the premise of giving privilege to some people on the basis of their gender is an argument that falls flat… Culture is not a monolithic entity.”

Culture isn’t defined in black and white, and the complexity of its definition is likely to attribute to the constant debate surrounding the difference between appropriation and appreciation.

Sikh slam poet, Sukhjit Khalsa, also acknowledges the complexity in this debate amongst India and Australia.

“It’s tricky because it’s about permission and respect. It’s beautiful that people want to embrace and be a part of another culture but people should be aware of what they are participating in.”

Khalsa, a recent contestant on Australia’s Got Talent, uses spoken-word to creatively express the social issues of our time. Her opinion on cultural appropriation and feminism is one that refers back to power, privilege, agency and choice.

“When I was younger, my dad never allowed me to wear jewellery. I asked my dad when I was older why we weren’t allowed to wear jewellery and he explained that women originally wore jewellery in India as a sign of being a slave to your husband. I know that jewellery is a fashion and I love to wear [it], but I needed to know where that originates from.”

Khalsa’s perspective on cultural appropriation and feminism acknowledges the diversity and multifaceted nature of culture while also reinforcing that individuals must attempt to understand the significance of cultural traditions before they are reduced to a trend.

“With cultural appropriation, some people ask me ‘Does that mean I can’t eat curry anymore?’ That’s not what I’m saying. Just understand how to respect culture and ask about their traditions.”

The line between appropriation and appreciation lies in understanding and acknowledging privilege. I related this to my own experiences in India as a Western tourist constantly being asked to buy saris, wear henna and purchase bindis. Yet, I made a conscious decision not to take part in these cultural traditions so as not to reappropriate their traditional meaning.

Like Gupta, Khalsa explains that cultural appreciation requires the ability to appreciate the origins of a trend or behaviour without resorting to tokenism or ignoring its significance completely.

Western exoticisation of culture remains an issue when it comes to understanding the difference between appropriation and appreciation. Although cultures assume their own gender norms, fashion and behaviour, there is a difference between respecting their symbolic traditions and customs, and acknowledging the systemic inequalities among their society.

Amongst the fine lines of appropriation and appreciation is the realisation that an individual has the capacity to recognise their privilege and acknowledge the significance of a cultural tradition

Adishi Gupta is a Literature Student at the University of Delhi and is a content editor at Feminism in India.

Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa is a Political Science and International Relations Graduate from the University of WA.

 


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