Cultural Appropriation and the Constant Balancing Act of Doing/Saying the Correct Thing

Thank you for asking for this post! It’s a reality I live everyday in many ways, and I am excited to hear your diverse perspectives on this issue. Also, this post took me like 5 drafts to write and got worser with each one. Gah, work-life was INSANE this week and I just wanted to sit down and focus on my nice thinky post! Stupid co-worker medical emergencies and burst sewage lines and blah blah blah.

Here’s a hard reality I’ve had to learn to accept: sometimes I know more about Indian cultural artifacts than people of Indian heritage who are talking to me. It’s a hard reality for me because I was raised to constantly question myself as a member of a privileged minority. Any time I thought anything, I had to slowly learn to question it. And any time I was told something, I had to learn to consider it seriously no matter how wrong it sounded to me. That was a lifetime of learning to consciously question my unconscious assumptions. And now I have to do the opposite sometimes, to consciously affirm my unconscious assumptions.

Every time, for example, someone corrects me to say “Mumbai” instead of “Bombay”, I have to struggle to hold firm in my own opinions, while still respecting theirs. It’s HARD!!!! It’s a lot easier to either blindly assume I am right in all ways, or to obediently agree to correct myself depending on whatever I am told. Being open minded and making decisions and sticking with them, that’s way way trickier.

I had to really sit down and think about what I strive for, and I came up with a whole series of rules I try to keep for myself. There are “internal” rules, while I police my own thoughts, and also “external” rules, where I decide how to act in a particular situation. You are welcome to borrow them, add to them, or suggest an edit for them:

Internal

  • Do I sincerely like this particular cultural object just for itself not for it’s cultural meaning (a song, a movie, a dress, a painting, food, anything)?

There is a quote I used in my Master’s Thesis on non-desi Indian film fans, it’s from an older article written in the late 90s. It’s about that first burst of underground Indian film fans in America, the ones who found funky old VHS tapes in shops or shared little clips of songs. One of the subjects being interviewed said that now, with the start of the internet and DVDs and things, that thrill of discovery and specialness is gone. You have to “really like them”. That’s what I mean. Do you like this because it is special and unique to you? Because it is different from what you are used to? Or because you really like it, outside of any other consideration, no matter how common or rare or popular or unpopular it is?

It was super cool and exotic that Ghost World used an Indian song for it’s opening credits. Now, you can watch the whole dang movie on Prime. The Indian movie, that is.
  • Am I sincerely trying to learn more about this cultural object in order to appreciate it more?

This goes hand in hand with the above question. If you are enjoying the “differentness” and the “specialness”, that goes away once you get context. And maybe that’s okay, I really enjoyed a couple of Korean TV shows I watched, but then I hit a wall where I realized I just wasn’t interested in watching more, or learning about the actors, or the culture, or anything. So I stopped watching them. The dishonest thing would have been to continue, to know I don’t really like this but I am still watching it because I think it is a “cool” “special” thing to do.

This show was cute and harmless and nice, I honestly have no memory of the other show I watched but I know it was very long and something about a corporation?
  • Am I talking about it in a way that stays within my own particular lived experience?

The common recommendation is to use “I” statements. I would expand that to also use “Name” statements. If you say, “I was told that….” or “From what I have watched….”, that helps you stay within a safe space where you aren’t speaking for others. You can also say, “The scholar Rosie Thomas argues” or “Edward Said in Orientalism says”, or of course “This blogger Margaret that I read says”. But where I find myself getting into dangerous waters is when I am tempted to say “everyone agrees that…” or “This is how it is”. This builds on the above, if you weren’t interested enough to really experience more of whatever it is for yourself, to read more and learn more, that is okay. Just speak clearly and specifically about what you DO know.

This was the movie. It was nice! And it taught me basically nothing about Korean film/culture, so I’m not even gonna try
  • Am I open to asking questions and learning about other opinions and adding them to my knowledge base without resistance?

This is a REALLY hard one!!!! But again, it builds on the previous. If I am using “I” statements and specific references, and you are using “I” statements and specific references, I have to do you the courtesy and listening and respecting what you are saying. If you say “I met Shahrukh Khan and he was a total a–“, well, I can’t just ignore that. I can ask questions and get details and then make a decision for myself on what I believe based on what I hear, but I can’t just ignore it. By the way, I was told this. Back in maybe 2004? And then the context was, this was a story from a friend of a friend who had met him at a paid private dinner party appearance after a show where he didn’t talk much. Frankly, if I was paid to have dinner with a bunch of rich folks just so they could say they had dinner with me after I had performed for 4 hours, I wouldn’t talk much either!

It was this tour

Along with the internal, there are also external questions that go into my choice of when to share my interests. And that is truly MY choice, just as it is an individual choice for all of you. No one has a right to tell me what I should and should not say or do in any situation, I get to trust my gut and do what feels right to me in that moment.

  • Do I feel like these are the kind of people who would understand why I might like this cultural object just for itself?

This is why I often don’t talk about Indian movies. It’s not that I think these are people who aren’t openminded and interested in other cultures and so on and so forth, it’s that these are people who aren’t into movies! Yes, sure, if I wanted to I could find some universal point of connection and so on and so forth, but sometimes I just don’t feel like putting in that much work. It’s okay to go with the flow of the conversation and just not bring it up.

You don’t like movies? Fine! I will talk about Albie Dog! And, like, how different cultures treat dogs and the history of pet ownership and stuff
  • Do I feel like these are the kind of people who will understand and sympathize with my desire to learn more?

This is the other, far less common, reason. Some people like movies well enough, and like people well enough, but just aren’t interested in stuff outside their own experience. I’m not saying racist or zenophobic, I’m just saying not interested. We all know people who will quite happily talk to anyone from anywhere of any color creed or culture about, say, how to fix a car. But if the conversation turns to geography or languages or religion or history, their eyes glaze over. That’s fine, I’ll just talk to you about cars and houses and other things you know.

Still Albie Dog. Honestly, I don’t know what I talked about in social settings before I had a dog. They are Small talk machine
  • Do I feel like these are the kind of people who will be able to listen and understand that I am staying within my own particular lived experience?

Ooooooo, this is tricky! And it comes up a lot among urban westernized youth. If you sit and listen to me in a calm open way, you will understand my very very particular story and experiences. But if you only hear the surface, it is easy to leap to a bad conclusion thanks to training on how to live in a multi-cultural world. And then it’s really hard to fight against it. Here’s a simple example, I was talking about the new season of Bridgerton to a friend who hadn’t seen it yet and I mentioned that the “plain” sister was darker skin toned than the “pretty” sister. She immediately assumed it was subconscious racism in casting and stuff. And then I had to wheel her back and say that no, it was CONSCIOUS racism, they were saying-without-saying that skin color is a cultural prejudice and in fact the “plain” sister is just as beautiful but people were wrong and blind to it. Luckily we were in a car together so she was trapped and had to listen to my longer explanation. And also, she is a good person who listens. But it is easy to just hear the surface, make your decision, and never consider anything else. Especially online, which is why this post is so extremely long so people have to think beyond the surface 🙂

  • Do I feel like these are the kind of people who would be able to listen and understand that they need to stay within THEIR OWN lived experience? This is what I run into a lot on this blog.

We had a discussion at one point about brothers marrying their widowed sisters-in-law. There was a South Indian commentator who said “that would NEVER happen and is completely against Indian culture” and there was a North Indian commentator who said “that happens a lot and I have seen it”. They were both right, just within their own lived experience. And I was right in my lived experience of having seen it multiple times as a plot point in Hindi films, and not knowing nearly as much about southern films/culture where it does not happen. But we have to really listen to each other in order to understand that everyone can be right at the same time, and no one is necessarily trying to overstep their knowledge.

You know who else married his brother’s widow (well, fiancee)? King George!
  • Do I feel like I have the space to make clear that I am someone with all those marks in the first 4 points?

Finally, we get to the Indian clothes question! Which is so tricky for me and others of us. Because clothes are the first thing someone sees about you, and often the ONLY thing they see about you, there’s no space for you to provide greater context. If you wear clothes in a certain way, it can look like you are wearing a “costume”. I wear Indian clothes to the degree that it doesn’t feel like a “costume” to me. Big old Indian earrings, sure! Kurta over jeans, absolutely! Salwar around the house on a hot day with a t-shirt, 100%! But I’m not going to wear Kurta and Salwar and earrings and throw on a dupatta for good measure all at the same time. That makes me feel like I am dressing up like someone else, and that feels wrong. And occasionally, I know that someone else will see me from a distance and think I am being insulting (even if I am not), and I will have no chance to tell them any differently. Clothes are tricky that way.

Kalki Koechlin must deal with this all the freakin’ time! She’s from India! She’s Indian! But you see these photos without context, you go “what a horrible white woman showing up for a movie premier in a sari like it’s a costume”
  • Do I think the group I am talking to might think/believe something that is simply wrong and I will not be able to convince them otherwise? This is the big BIG one!!!

If someone says to me, “All Hindi films are essentially Hindu”, well, that’s the end of the conversation. I am not going to say a peep about what I feel, about any of my experiences, about any of that. Ditto if someone says “Bollywood is terrible because it teaches women their only goal is marriage”. Nope! Not touching it! I am using my own personal power to just NOT SAY ANYTHING. Life is too short. The same goes, by the way, for a few comments here and there on the blog that I simply choose not to respond to.

The bottomline is, as someone who loves and spends a lot of time dealing with things from a culture not her own, I am going to have people constantly judging me for my interests. There is nothing I can do about that. The best response I can come up with is to make sure I am following my own personal standards as best I can, and to go forth with confidence.

33 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation and the Constant Balancing Act of Doing/Saying the Correct Thing

  1. Kalki would totally get yelled at in the Bay Area. I was reading all these comments on a NYTimes articles. A few people said that people are totally racist in the U.S. and they never want to see a white person wear Indian clothing ever. Some people said it was okay if it was for an Indian function or they had a connection. But you can’t see connections.

    I wrote a bunch of other stuff I deleted. It is tricky to talk about.

    Anyway I am going to eventually get a fancy pair of Shalwar pants to go with my fancy Kurta. I want the kind that are baggy and come in at the ankle. I’ll wear it for Christmas with my family. The unfortunate thing is that in the U.S. that style is called Harem pants. The fact that a global style of clothing is called Harem pants in the English is a problematic sign of appropriation.

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    • You are making me think more about that “costume” category. To me, Salwar and Kameez on Christmas feels like a costume, or at least like a dressy outfit. But, see, I like to wear special outfits on Christmas and other days like that. I wore my Grandmother’s old dress from the 1950s one year, another year I wore a floor length velvet dress. It’s a fun silly day, it’s fun to wear something special and a little odd and different. You aren’t “dressing up to pretend to be Indian”, you are dressing up in a special specific outfit because it makes you happy.

      Eva mentions in her comment that in “olden days” Indian film fan get togethers would include people wearing bindis and things. I remember that too. And it was the connections line, we weren’t dressing up like Indian people, we were dressing up like our favorite characters in our favorite movies. Like, fans at a Star Trek convention aren’t dressing up like people from the 1960s, they are dressing up like people in Star Trek. Now though, it’s too tricky to explain that connection to the greater world, it’s easier to just not bother.

      I will say, in a comment but not in the post, I think a lot of this is misdirected anger. The world is getting more racist towards brown skinned people, but rather than addressing the scary issues, it is easier for certain privilaged folks to focus on the surface problems and direct their anger towards soft targets. How many people, white or brown, who might yell at you for wearing your Salwar, would also show up for an immigrant rights rally? Or just speak out against their racist uncle at a family meal? Or do the work to investigate the exact nature and history of anti south Asian racism in the western world instead of trying to fit it onto their pre-existing assumptions?

      There’s also the assumption of guilt. Like with Kalki. Why do we assume she is pretending and being Bad, instead of assuming she is an Indian woman with white skin? There’s that weird blindness there, why assume all Indian people look like what you think “Indian” people should look like?

      On Thu, Jun 23, 2022 at 10:14 PM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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      • The idea of misdirected anger is interested. I’m going to chew on that for a while.

        My family always gets dressed up for Christmas, so is fancy wear a costume? It isn’t that I want to look Indian, it is that I want to wear something pretty. And if I’m not going out in public where I can offend people, I don’t see why I can’t wear whatever pretty I want. I see all these pretty women on screen all the time, why wouldn’t I want to dress like them? So now outside of Halloween I guess I’m unsure of what a costume is.

        I think I’m just sad. All the cultural appreciation events I went to as a child would now be forbidden. My family said my kids couldn’t dress up as Black Panther after they saw the movie and loved it, because they weren’t black and they would be offending people. So many rules make it hard to just love things. I’m only allowed to imitate art by white people, so dull. I’m mourning the loss of cross cultural joy.

        And I don’t really know they whole Bombay vs Mumbai thing. I say Mumbai because that is what the map says.

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        • Hmmm. Maybe “special event outfit” is closer to how I feel? Wearing a full top to bottom Indian outfit would make me feel aware of my clothes in a way, and if I were doing that just to walk down the street, it sort of puts me on display? Like, “look at me, look at the clothes I am wearing, I am making a statement that this outfit and clothes belong to me, I am appropriating them”. But that same outfit at a wedding, or at an at home Christmas party, or anything like that is saying “look at me, this is a special outfit I am wearing for this special occasion”. I’m still trying to articulate it, I know there are situations where I within myself don’t feel right wearing Indian clothes, and other situations where I know people would judge me even though I don’t judge myself.

          It’s terrible that your kids can’t wear Black Panther costumes for Halloween! That makes me angry. They are kids, they should be able to enjoy what they enjoy. It’s not like they have to “unlearn” something, they just are what they are.

          On Fri, Jun 24, 2022 at 10:05 PM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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      • Why do white people even get to yell at you for wearing a salwar? Unless they’re Kalki, of course. But it seems to me like it would be a very individual reaction how (un)comfortable you are with someone else using elements of your own culture.

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        • In my experience, it’s that in certain communities in America there is a training that we have to police ourselves at all times to be anti-racist, to not disrespect other non-privilaged communities. Policing yourself is unpleasant and yuchy, it is WAY more fun to police others! Come to think of it, it’s the same as in any other community. Way more fun to report one of your neighbors for working on a Sunday, or not keeping Kosher, or whatever other rule there is, than to try to make sure you are following it closely yourself. So you end up not doing things just because you know you will be “reported” to the greater community for doing something “wrong” not because you think it is wrong yourself.

          On Sat, Jun 25, 2022 at 5:17 AM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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          • Yeah, it really doesn’t sound like “awareness” to me, sorry. Only (self)policing towards the biggest common denominator of never mixing anything that might even be construed as belonging to different cultures. That’s probably a lot less work. Still, I somehow don’t hope that that’s the standard we’ll catch up to in Germany.

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  2. How do you do it, Margaret? I’ve barely had the time to read your blog lately, but I’ve recently been grappling with the concept of cultural appropriation. I’m not trained in the humanities, remember. And sometimes it feels like Germany is a long way behind in dealing with those kinds of problems. It’s basically, shamefully, only come up in my life because now I have a black daughter. Well, and because I read a book, The Henna Wars, that is basically “Cultural Appropriation – The Love Story”. Left me rather less sure about what might and might not be okay.

    So I don’t have a whole system for what I feel comfortable with. I only have observations. Like, how at fan meetings during the first few years people would be wearing saris and bindis and whatnot, and now those that are still fans are back to plain t-shirts.

    And then there’s the matter of the summer fest at Big Boy’s daycare. Their theme this year is “children around the world”, and they asked everyone to bring dishes from the family’s place of origin. Now, once Baby goes there, I want her to be able to say: No, I’m not bringing an African dish, I was born and raised here! I mean, it has to be weird, too, if you’re asked to represent a culture that you don’t fully feel a part of. But my region of Germany is pretty boring in the culinary respect. So I thought about bringing pakoras. They’re such a yummy fingerfood. And yes, if we’re talking international cuisine, Indian is where I feel at home. I have however realized how weird that choice would look to any actual Indians who would proudly bring pakoras themselves. Luckily, there aren’t any at that daycare center.

    Still, why does cultural identity have to be so difficult?

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    • What I’m getting from this is that the daycare is messing up! Which goes back to what you are saying about Germany lagging a little. Expecting people to bring food from their own cultures feels a little bit pushy to me. Because, yes, what about Baby? Or Baby-as-an-adult? What if you struggle with your cultural identity in various ways and now you are being put on the spot and asked to represent something you aren’t sure of? What would be fun would be to just straight up say “bring food from not-German”, and then you could have someone bring take-out from a local Ethiopian bakery or something cool like that, and if you are part of a non-German culture, you could bring something from your own culture if you felt like it but you don’t have to.

      I don’t know how it is in Germany, but in America there is a big cultural appropriation pushback against cross-racial adoptions, and that makes me VERY uncomfortable. I know so many families who are cross-racial, and it is A Thing (as you already know, it is part of what makes your relationship to Baby special), but they are aware it is A Thing. And they are trying their best every day to find the best way to handle it with love and understanding and support. Yes, there are systemic issues, yes in a perfect world every child could be raised by their family of origin, but this isn’t a perfect world. Why not assume these families know all of that, know it better than anyone on the outside, and are doing their best?

      On Fri, Jun 24, 2022 at 2:38 AM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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  3. I’ve been feeling a little awkward about the whole topic all along. They’re doing a kind of virtual world tour with the kids, but of course I can’t get the details out of a four-year-old. And I haven’t found the “time” (or courage, I guess) to ask about it in the daily pick-up rush. So for the time being I’m trying very hard not to assume the worst about the kind of stereotypes they *might* be teaching the kids.
    I think for the fest itself I’m just pretending it actually is “bring something non-German”. And then I hope I’ll find an opportunity to just kind of casually let them know why I chose the dish I did. I don’t want to put them on the spot, because that might just make them defensive.

    I think that in the past there have probably been families who went to Africa or Asia for an “exotic” child, and that’s obviously problematic. I know I wouldn’t have taken a kid out of their birth country. But it’s like your argument about assuming the best with Kalki: There are actually kids like our Baby, who have migrated with their family of origin and then for one reason or another can’t stay with them. Why deny them a loving family?

    When I first came across the concept of cultural appropriation, it seemed like that was something one could do objectively wrong. Now I don’t think so anymore. You can probably always step on someone’s toes accidentally. But I guess it helps if you try to keep in mind other people from other cultures and how they might react to whatever you’re doing. Especially if you’re using an element of a culture not your own.
    But you know, different people may come up with different results. Like, is wearing a bindi more offensive among fans of Hindi films who are also wearing a sari and henna, or among party-goers at some large festival who have no other connection to India at all?

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    • I wonder how long you have before you have to start giving Big Boy an easy way to understand why he and his sister don’t look the same and people won’t understand that. Or maybe it’s already happened.

      On Fri, Jun 24, 2022 at 11:17 AM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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      • Just yesterday, we once again ran into the cashier who was so perfect early on and just asked Big Boy: “Is that your sister?” Most people seem to just accept us as a family – even though they still remember us months later.

        Right now Big Boy seems more vague about where he came from than where Baby came from. I mean, he was there when we visited her at the short-term foster home, and we have just told/reminded him that Baby’s “belly mom” is black like her. He did not know which of us is his “belly mom” though, so that’s what we have to work on.

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    • Okay bindi question – in all the films I’ve seen, I basically see no spiritual significance to the bindi. Some wear it, some don’t, it seems to be a fashion choice. Now a cultural object being turned into a fad by another culture seems wrong, but at the same time, isn’t all just about being pretty? A cultural beauty ideal?

      Also, when I lived in Berlin I bought pieces of traditional German clothes at this fantastic thrift store where you bought things by the weight. And I would wear them, mixed with modern clothing, around. I would get in so much trouble for that today, but I don’t feel bad about it. I hung out at a hostel and once a young man saw me and told the owner he was thrilled to see someone who actually looked German, the owner got a chuckle when he told him I was American. I wouldn’t do it now, because it would offend people, but it was fun when it didn’t offend people!

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      • This isn’t related to the content of this comment, but I just realized there is a cultural thing we need to acknowledge about you, Genevieve! You live in the Bay Area which is one of the most extremely proper and restrictive and super super aware areas of America. So you are coming from that particular background in this discussion. Where I live, working class neighborhood within Chicago, there’s still some awareness of this sort of cultural rule but it is way WAY less. Using your example, I could totally wear a mixture of folk dress and modern dress and I wouldn’t get any comments or judgement. And the schools tend to celebrate a whole variety of holidays, not because of cultural awareness or whatever but because their students are from all over the world. But that’s because of where I particularly live.

        I think that’s part of this argument in America, right? It’s a very patchy country in terms of cultural awareness. So you’ve got super extreme liberal areas that try to purge any prejudice or stereotype or anything. And then a few states over you’ve got a town where people still dress up in American Indian headdresses for Thanksgiving. I don’t know if non-Americans are catching that most of your comments include a mention of “In the Bay Area” (woot, “I” statements and lived experiences!). So what you are saying about your choices are specific to where you live.

        On Fri, Jun 24, 2022 at 10:20 PM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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        • And in truth I grew up in the Bay Area, but now just visit it, often, as my family lives there. Now I live in a small much more conservative town. Because my life is different, when I see changes in the Bay Area – such as white people no longer being allowed to wear Hawaiian shirts etc. I’m shocked. I don’t see the gradual change, over time because I am not there all the time. Therefore I am more up in arms about what is lost as we police ourselves to not appropriate other cultures than most Americans.

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  4. As you know, I was born, grew up, married, and live multi-cultural. Black, white, brown, North African, West Indian, East Asian, Latino, the skin color, ethnicity and cultural identities of my relatives goes on and on. Most are American, some are waiting for their papers to come through, others don’t want citizenship, more so now than ever. We range in age from great grandpas to teens and none of us identify as white.

    As I’ve posted before, holiday dinners at my house used to be a hoot. Everybody showed up in Sunday best, which might be djellaba or kimono. I’d usually do a pasta dish or something in a tagine, my sister-in-law jerked a couple of chicken legs, my brother’s partner brought jars of shoyuzuki, and my husband’s cousins poured dueling bottles of coquito. But here’s the thing, while we’d all start out happy to see each other, by dessert, the battle was joined. Disagreements escalated to argments, “forgive-me-for-saying-this” became “you’re an idiot”, and Tia Zusa usually ran from the table in tears. The next day, we were friends again but not always and not everybody. Still, we’d all show up for the next dinner.

    I don’t know if this is because we’re from volitile cultures or it’s just human nature, but I’ve never known anybody in my family of Italians, Jamaicans, Japanese, Hondurans, Puerto Ricans, and Moroccans (with newer and odder combinations every year) to look before they leapt much less analyze the effect of cultural perception upon their behavior as you have in this post. It might be a uniquely American pursuit. Or not. In any case, what you write is most interesting and got me thinking happily about the old days. Thanks for that.

    DCIB is so much more than an Indian cinema blog.

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    • What I was taught by example from the people around me is that this sort of personal analysis is the responsibility of privilege. Or, put it another way, if you are at the top of the heap it’s easy not to look down. As part of upper middle-class white folks who had been in America for generations upon generations by the time I came, we know we are the “default” culture, we are the one you see on TV and read about in books and everything else, so we have to work hard to see and respect the other people around us.

      On Fri, Jun 24, 2022 at 12:49 PM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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  5. When I was in Mexico, near Tulum, local stalls were selling Dream Catchers. Dream Catchers are not Mayan, they are Ojibwe. The Ojibwe don’t live near Mexico. I looked into it, and I guess the local artisans were having a hard time finding things that tourists wanted to buy, and then someone made a dream catcher and it sold, so they made more. And now Mayan dream catchers are everywhere. I’m not sure there is a term for this.

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    • I don’t know if there is a term either! But I know it is the sort of thing that has always happened. The underclasses sort of adjust themselves into what the over classes want. And then it turns into a cycle, the over classes use what the underclasses are doing to prove their points and so on. So for this example, if someone says “There is no one Native American culture, it is multiple varied tribes just like different ethnicities/countries anywhere else”, someone could reply “but, what about dream catchers being sold in Mexico?” and the answer is “that’s because you want them to be sold there!”

      I guess people just have to think about the reasons behind what happens inc communities, not the simple reasons but the economic social drives?

      On Fri, Jun 24, 2022 at 10:27 PM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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  6. I see many posts here on Bindi so chipping in a bit.

    Traditionally , the spot between the eyes on your forehead is believed to be the location of the ajna chakra or the third eye.

    Originally the bindi or the pottu was just red kumkum (turmeric powder mixed with slaked lime for that rich red colour)applied at the spot of the ajna chakra or divine or the third eye. It’s just a dot and round traditionally. Both men and women wore it. In fact in south India people still make a point of wearing that dot before stepping out of the house.

    Religious connotation aside, turmeric is a powerful spice and has many immunity boosting properties and in all possibility the bindi began as a method to cool the forehead as well.

    North India especially the parts which have had a lot of Mughal influence don’t necessarily prescribe to the bindi phenomenon. Punjabis and people up north in the mountains don’t have a tradition of bindi. Then again I wonder if it is because they already lived in cool
    Climes and didn’t need that extra coolness induced.

    However over the years it has evolved into a decorative item such as sticker bindis or drawn with liners and other paints or completely forgone. These are in my view just costume then these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This stuff exhausts me. I feel like people tend to take anti-appropriationism as a hard-and-fast rule that privileged groups are obligated to enforce, in lieu of actually being attentive to what the under-privileged themselves have to say about it. Perhaps that pattern derives from wanting to assuage one’s own conscience: “If I use the right words, if I apply the correct rules, then I won’t hurt anybody/be ‘bad’/get in trouble.” Not a terribly thoughtful or self-reflexive position, but the inclination is admirable enough. On top of that, though, comes the satisfaction of applying the same rule to other people, which nine times out of ten boils down to reinventing racism. (I mean the academic sense of “race” as a category applied by others and not by the self.) You see Y Person doing a thing you affiliate with X Culture; Y Person doesn’t match up with your idea of what X Culture should look like, apart from that one activity; so you get to “call them out” for it regardless of your degree of knowledge of either Y Person or of X Culture, because externals are the basis for the whole interaction. Power rush! Yippee.

    It’s precisely because I come from a tiny ethnoreligious group that I take refuge in the idea of culture as messy and malleable. Egypt exiled the last of the Karaites in the early ’70s; Karaites in Israel, where most refugees wound up, are under excruciating pressure to assimilate; and then there are a few thousand of us scattered across the whole rest of the world. It’s entirely possible that the Karaite community, in any organized sense, is going to disappear during my lifetime. It makes me want to cry. It also wants me to share what I think of as our peculiarities with anybody who’s interested. I don’t much care about WHY they’re interested or how much context they want. When was working as a cook at a Korean restaurant, the owner asked me how I tied my headscarf because she thought it looked cute and she was tired of wearing a hairnet everyday. The last time I visited back, she was still wearing the Egyptian-style headwrap I taught. I’ve entrusted this one small thing to her, at the pleasure of the Food Safety and Inspection Service ( ; Thinking of this stuff as a process rather than a static object makes me feel a little less hopeless. The things that make me feel at home have another tiny foothold in the present world, in the form of a Korean-American restaurateur.

    I get why people from larger subaltern groups might feel differently than I do, or why (for instance) resident Indians might feel differently than Indian-Americans and Indian-Americans from Indian-Canadians. I have a friend who’s a professional mehndi artist (well, “kofer” artist, as we call it in Judeo-Arabic) and who spent a long time learning the Moroccan-Jewish style. He’s happy to apply kofer for anybody, but he only does traditional designs and feels distressed when other people knowledgeable in North African styles also work in the modern paisley-type stuff. I think he felt that his Moroccan teachers had trusted him with something really important, leaving him more protective of The Tradition(TM) than those teachers themselves are. When he learned that my family also does kofer, he was so eager to learn about our style. (A lot of Egyptians use henna on their hair, but kofer on the hands or feet is considered really old-fashioned.) We use some of the classic angular patterns and Karaite religious emblems like the eyts hayim. But when we were putting on kofer for Purim when I was eight or so, my little cousin Emily was WILD for the musical “Cats” and demanded a cat on her foot. Ever since then my mother has also specialized in tattooing goofy little doodles of cats. Our Purim kofer usually winds up including a cat or two. I can’t imagine that the traditional designs had any more profound origin than a little girl asking her aunt, “Draw me something pretty.” The cats are as much pure Egyptian Karaite kofer as any of the rest of it, in my opinion–but you can imagine my friend’s puzzlement when a mere paisley upsets him ( ; Thus it lives on.

    (Meanwhile, we just had a big North African festival in the Boston area. An Indian lady had a mehndi booth set up there. My friend–not the same one from the previous paragraph!–and I flipped through the album and asked if they knew how to do any North African-type designs. Nope, sorry. So we plopped down our twenty bucks regardless and got some paisleys, because the kofer paste smells like home no matter what pattern it’s in. I am very grateful she was there.)

    I figure I’m pretty far on on the lenient side of things, but I do have a few hard lines–

    1) “Outsiders” purporting to be experts on the “inside” culture when they demonstrably are not;
    2) “Outsiders” profiting on the “inside” culture without any credit or benefit to the “insiders,” and when said “outsiders” know better than that;
    3) “Outsiders” doing things that “insiders” consider off-limits to the uninitiated. (In the Karaite context, that’s basically confined to religious ritual, but other groups may have different boundaries.)

    –and apart from that, I feel hog-tied. I firmly believe that it’s more respectful of an immigrant who’s running a restaurant or an imports store to buy their goods than to boycott them out of some self-located propriety, including if your rationale for doing so doesn’t extend beyond “It’s tasty.” How can anybody reasonably police the interactions of people whom they don’t know intimately with cultures to which they don’t belong? NOBODY knows that much, nor needs to. A lot of folks in my circlew about my half-Karaite-ness because it creates a lot of halakhic problems for me. When they meet my parents, they almost invariably assume that my dad is “the Mizrahi (Oriental) one;” neither North Africans nor Arab Jews fit gamely within the black/white and colonizer/colonized dichotomies that inform so much intercultural discourse in the U.S. today. Surely I and my light-skinned, green-eyed mother couldn’t be part of a minority culture. . . yet we are, in the extreme. I wish that people wouldn’t criticize me for sharing it on the terms that I wish. We are too few and too scattered for Karaite culture to live on in the hands of Karaites alone. If I give you a recipe and you like it, please cook it. If you want to wear a satin headscarf to keep your hair clean, please do it. I am still so close to the mental framework of that little headscarf-wearing girl in the Midwest, who would have felt that much safer, that much less alone to see ANYBODY else looking ANYTHING like her.

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      • A most interesting comment, shelomit. I too sometimes feel like screaming, or I did when I was younger and people assumed because of how I look that I was “one of them” when I wasn’t. Now that I’m old, I regret that I didn’t calmly set them straight. I guess I wasn’t exactly sure who/what I was back then. Or I was a coward.

        You are firm, enviably so, in your identity . In many ways I still feel like the “outsider” a term we both use differently.

        A popular black author, Iceberg Silm, used to write that “interracial intercourse” (he didn’t mean discourse) would solve all the world’s problems. Add inter religious and intercultural to that and you have something. For a while, we seemed to be headed in that direction. But sadly, not any more.

        Margaret’s thinky posts are exhausting.

        Liked by 2 people

        • It is fun about mixed race families/children. I expected that it would mean people can accept them as multiple things at once. But instead it seems society has reacted by becoming more rigid. It doesn’t matter if you are married to someone of another race, or have children of another race, or even are mixed yourself, you have to pick an identity and stick to it and not get out of your lane unless you are Perfect.

          What really kills me is people like yourself who’s ethnic/racial identity is hard to tell by looking at them, and they get punished for doing something that is actually part of their heritage unless they are willing to draw up an elaborate family tree for people. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s business! You should be allowed to choose what parts of your personal history you share and what you don’t. One of my absolute favorite people at my church is married to a Black man and has a mixed race daughter and it was probably about the same time as your marriage. I know this because I know her family and so on. But I have seen her be shut down in conversations with folks who don’t know her as well for not “understanding” racial prejudice and so on. Yes, she’s a white woman, but she was married to a Black man and raising a mixed race daughter in the 70s and 80s in midwest America! Just knowing those facts, I know she experienced a lot more racial injustice than most people. Why can’t we listen to her and assume she is speaking from experience, instead of shutting her down and assuming ignorance?

          On Mon, Jun 27, 2022 at 6:59 AM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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          • I think with your church friend it would depend on who does the shutting down. From what I’ve read so far, it made sense for me to differentiate that you can’t speak FOR your spouse or kid in those circumstances. Sure, you’ll probably experience and notice quite a bit more racism, but as a witness, not as the subject of racism. I’ll never know how that feels for Baby.

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        • Thanks for the kind words, Margaret. I’m glad I seem “firm” from the outside–I don’t necessarily feel that way. I spent a long time hiding from this stuff before I got, in large part, too tired and too freaked out to bother being somebody else.

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    • Oh dear, you were already having a hard week too!!!

      In media, i am increasingly seeing the “if it isn’t perfect, don’t bother” problem. Representation has to be juuuuuust right, in every way, no learning curve allowed. And it has to be JUST right for everyone, like in your henna example, you could have made a big fuss over not having your particular henna style represented instead of just being glad there was something.

      And yes to externals all around!!!! On this blog there have been moments where that has gone to a ridiculous degree. Like, getting yelled at because everyone here is white. We aren’t! And, you are online! You are leaping to assumptions at a crazy level, you can’t even see us but in your head you have picked our race and punished us!

      You also point to one of the biggest problems with these cultural rules, there is no one true perfect moment of development! It all evolves, constantly. You can’t say “you are doing it wrong” because what is wrong? And what is right?

      Also, can i through in “insiders” purporting to be experts? For me personally, i can’t stand it when i get a lecture on Indian film from someone of Indian heritage who hasn’t watched an Indian film ever, but assumes they know more than me.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The problem I’ve run into with cultural appropriation is that it can really vary from person to person what’s offensive and what’s not. I’ve run into this a bit as a White American Jew, but more so with language and history rather than physical pieces of the culture like clothing.

    But I’ve also been embraced to an extent since I’ve been a tad more open with my students about my interest in Indian film, cuisine, and culture at large. Not sure if I put this on the blog, but during the last week of school, one of my Indian students brought a henna cone to school and was doing henna for people. She wanted to do mine so badly, and the main reason why I kept saying no is because I’m white and if other people see a white person with henna, what would they think? Would they think it’s cultural appropriation? Would they yell at me? But it was done by an Indian girl! She offered! She wanted to do henna on her white teacher! But then there’s also the distinction between henna and mehndi. To me, she used them interchangeably when talking about how she wanted to practice her designs, but it was because I didn’t know the difference. Would she/anyone else be offended if I said mehndi when it should have been henna? It’s a balancing act, but part of the problem is that you’re expected to know. Like if I said mehndi instead of henna because I don’t know the difference, someone would jump down my throat and yell at me for using the wrong word when I don’t know the difference between the two words. You can’t even talk about different cultures without being expected to know everything about said culture and then reprimanded when you get something wrong.

    I’m not really sure where I was going with all this, this is just my personal experience with the topic, super stream of consciousness. I’m sure I have a bit of privilege considering I work with non-white teenagers, and if they learn their white teacher is interested in their culture, they’d be more excited than anything else. But it’s still weird sometimes.

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    • Maybe it goes back to the world assuming the worst? If people saw a young white woman with Henna and thought “oh, her friend must be desi and did it for her”, then the world would be a much more happy trusting place.

      On Tue, Jul 5, 2022, 5:19 PM dontcallitbollywood < comment-reply@wordpress.com> wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

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