In the Cultural Appropriation wing of the Museum of 21st Century Celebrity Culture Squabbles, the visitors, eschewing the traditional museum etiquette of hushed reverence and feigned awe, simply look puzzled. Here, they behold an eerie wax model of Selena Gomez wearing a bindi. Around the corner is a moldy sampling from Gordon Ramsay’s new establishment dedicated to authentic Asian food. At last, they reach the centerpiece: the sombrero that Lionel Shriver placed on her head in scornful, flamboyant defiance of the folks who told other white people not to wear sombreros to “fiesta”-themed parties.
Is this sort of cultural appropriation — fixated on sushi and saris and sombreros — a big deal?
Or maybe it is bad. Ramsay, for instance, sought to collapse all of Asian cuisine into a restaurant he chose to name “Lucky Cat.” This reeks of contrived, Orientalist ignorance. Even this sort of seemingly trivial actions might be borne out of a malicious cultural pathology.
Or perhaps this is actually a good thing, you might think. A Melting Pot! Two-way, double-edged assimilation! Cultural exchange and such things!
When forming a judgement on specific acts of appropriation, one seeks the answer to the following questions: Is it performed by a collective or an individual? Is it an act of control or horizontal cultural exchange? Is it an instantiation of a colonialist attitude or merely the product of benign ignorance?
The confusion surrounding the debate on cultural appropriation reflects the ambiguity inherent in these questions.These are important and legitimate questions to be answered by some visionary or sentient Twitter account.
But more interesting than the actual objects of the debate is the nature of the debate itself — especially pertaining to the appropriation of “foreign” cultures. These discussions fixate on the most visible markers of culture, and they are disproportionately driven by second- and third-generation migrants, as opposed to literal migrants and people who are native to the culture in question.
This is not to condemn or delegitimize their position. Due to their familiarity with the appropriated culture and understanding of the appropriating culture, achieved through lifelong inspection and maybe imitation or repudiation, it is often easier for this group to recognize patterns of appropriation. It’s easier for them to view the individual appropriator in the context of a broader tradition of collective requisition, of institutionalized theft, that essentializes and establishes authority.
But there is another factor underlying second-generation migrants’ passion for the cultural appropriation debate. Growing up in a place that is vastly different from where their parents or grandparents were socialized makes their relationship with their ancestral culture strained and remote. Familiarity often seems like the absolute limit of their interaction with their ancestral culture, simply due to the people they are surrounded by. In certain cases, “involvement” or “engagement” might be more appropriate terms. In any case, these are placeholders for actually living in a culture. The cultural appropriation debate consolingly and perhaps falsely provides the possibility of an authentic, secure relationship with one’s ancestral culture. It offers a means of defending it, and therefore possessing and belonging to it.
For the majority of those of us born to migrant parents, our ancestral cultures have always retained some degree of distance — geographically, personally and spiritually — but are nevertheless crucial to how others perceive us. These include our parents, our relatives and peers — the white people who will always see us as foreign because we are not seen as white. And if it feels like you might never fully belong in America, where you have grown up, the natural place of refuge seems to be the place you have involuntarily left behind.
But in the country that is foreign to you but not your parents, it occasionally seems as if you are only a sightseer, a privileged wanderer. It might seem like you are not essentially different from the white tourists, the Westerners from whom you have temporarily fled.
On my otherwise joyful summer escapades to India and Sri Lanka, this remains a constant and terrible fear.
Part of the reason I love these biennial trips so much is that I get to spend a full month surrounded by people who look like me — who share my skin, my arms, my bones. I allow myself to stare at these dark brown faces, at the dark brown eyes fenced within, and imagine them as mirrors. I’m aware that my intense concentration on these people is rooted in a precarious delusion. As soon as I open my mouth they will recognize me as American, as someone who is different.
When white people also involve themselves with these symbols, it can be distressing for descendants of migrants because they are a reminder of the truth: that they come from neither here nor there.
I also recognize that I’m so desperate for a sense of belonging with these strangers — to feel like I originated from them or from the culture that binds them and my family together — because it is clear that I did not originate entirely from America and certainly not from Americans, if these are indeed different things.
This ancestral culture exerts an intense gravitational pull and yet constantly drifts away. It is hidden by faces that are endlessly inscrutable and yet uncannily similar to mine. The language of cultural appropriation, a language of emotional violence and of theft, implies an unambiguous, rightful possession of this culture. This is acutely comforting; it is why cultural appropriation is the means by which descendants of migrants prefer to challenge the dynamics and parallels of colonization and dominance in Western societies. Guarding one’s ancestral culture and expressing resentment toward the trespasser is a method of coping with the unique, universal alienation experienced by those born into a foreign country to foreigner parents.
There is also something to be said about how the debate revolves around only the most visible markers of culture: clothing, accessories, food and artistic expression. Perhaps this is the limit to which those driving the debate are capable of relating to their ancestral cultures.
Migrant parents often try to socialize their children into their home cultures. Their intention might be to lessen their struggle to relate to their children and vice versa; to handle the distance from their own upbringing; or maybe to create a new home in this foreign land. I don’t think any of this is necessarily wrong or harmful, but when the children of migrants are surrounded by peers and teachers who do not share their parents’ culture, as they essentially always are, their ancestral acculturation exists only on a symbolic level. The idea is that if one volunteers dutifully at the temple, learns to cook the national food and wears the traditional clothes while dancing the traditional dance, they will be the authentic Something that their parents and their grandparents and their great-aunts were, or still are.
Of course, this is not true. But perhaps it is something that migrants and their children need to believe. Because of the logistical difficulties involved in transporting all of the people who produce this culture to a new land, we have settled for importing their clothes, their dances and their food. These are things that can easily be transplanted halfway across the globe into an entirely new context, and still retain their beauty, if not their original meaning.
For migrants, these cultural markers trigger nostalgia, the memory of a different world. For their children, they allow refuge from the ambiguity inherent in their identity. In performing these acts of tradition and cultural symbolism, they construct an ideal model of a migrant that cleanly separates what is American about them from what is, say, “Oriental” about them. They are allowed to believe that they are both things at once, rather than neither.
So when white people also involve themselves with these symbols, it can be distressing for descendants of migrants because they are a reminder of the truth: that they come from neither here nor there. They do not belong here because the white people, to whom this place purportedly belongs, have proven repeatedly that they would prefer to take the clothes and discard the person. The symbolism that is so fraught with meaning for second- and third-generation migrant identity is a vehicle for the appropriator’s voyeurism.
Does my brownness alone absolve me of this superficial, negligent cultural-sightseeing?
This voyeurism serves as a mirror, however grotesque and warped, of the falsehood inherent in this unambiguous identity. It is a reminder that the way in which white people relate to your ancestors’ culture is not fundamentally different from the way you do. Their appropriation is really an exaggeration, an unintentional but mocking caricature of the way you have been forced to understand yourself. In this sense, the disgust toward cultural appropriation reflects a discomfort with one’s own identity that, in addition to being subjected to racism, is further muddled by ancestral migration.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy trashing white people just as much as the next left-wing curmudgeon. But I also think it would be a valuable exercise for those of us who (maybe justifiably) seek solace in the cultural appropriation debate to consider what the concept really means, where it stems from and to where it should extend.
What does it mean, for instance, that I keep a little statue of Vinayagar in my room next to my secular and absurdist monkey sculptures? What does it mean that I hang a Hindu calendar on my dorm wall despite the fact that I don’t believe in any of these gods? Despite the fact that I don’t know or care about any of the special days carefully mapped out on the calendar — this day is good for vegetarianism, that one for marriage, yesterday for especially frenzied praying.
I don’t know which gods are which and why, but I like to go to temples, eat the food and look at the bright colors, the stone-gray statues, and the brown people. I would be irritated if a white person did this sort of thing. Does my brownness alone absolve me of this superficial, negligent cultural-sightseeing? Why do I have to intentionally explore these elements of a culture that I would instinctively call “mine”?
Why are Asian-Americans allowed to be so enthusiastic about creating artistic fusions between “Oriental” and “Western” cultures, when this runs the risk of essentialism and misrepresentation? What about the co-adoption of hip hop culture by Asian Americans? Hierarchically unequal social relationships do not have to involve white people.
I wear a simple, black, sacred Hindu thread on my wrist that I do not know the name of, that I do not understand the purpose of and which is not at all sacred or particularly Hindu to me. The reason I care at all about this thread is that my grandmother tied it for me. I asked her to, impulsively, and as she tied it she muttered things, about my future, my education — words of faith and terror — that I did not have the cultural context to understand.
I’m often afraid that I lack the cultural context to understand her, even. Her routines, her habits and her rituals are more perplexing to me than seems proper. There are so many things that are available to me that could help me understand her: my mother as a human intermediary, Tamil as a communicative medium, the periodic month-long visits, the food that she is perpetually preparing in the kitchen that is solely her territory. I know just about everything reasonable there is to know — besides consistent proximity to her and the world she occupies.
But the question that I am really dancing around: What do I think about Selena Gomez wearing a bindi? I think it says something about how we relate cultural symbolism to gender. Women are most often accused of appropriation and appropriated objects most often belong to other women.
The cultural appropriation debate may not yield answers. It may only serve to illuminate the nature of the lies that govern them.
Raveen Sivashanker is perplexed by fruits and vegetables with white interiors and exteriors of color.