At my first dance practice with the South Asian Society, memorizing a combination of Bhangra and hip-hop steps for the Roshni cultural show, I looked pretty much like everyone else: confused and clumsy, grinning foolishly as I repeatedly messed up the footwork. But onstage next week in a borrowed kurta, swirling and kicking to upbeat Hindi remixes, I’ll look noticeably different from the rest of the freshman act. If you find yourself in the Woolsey Hall audience, you’ll inevitably realize why: This particular white girl is conspicuously not South Asian.
After my first practice, I found myself wondering if I ought to be performing in Roshni at all. Though I was roped into the act by my Indian-American suitemate, I still had some qualms about donning another culture’s clothing and attempting its traditional dance, especially in front of a pretty wide audience. As a white American, the act of exploring Indian culture immediately brings up questions of cultural appropriation — when an individual or group adopts parts of another culture, like clothing or music. Cultural appropriation runs a pretty broad spectrum, from the seemingly benign, like decorating your home according to Chinese principles of feng shui, to the ignorant, condescending or just racist. If I dress in traditional Indian wear, attempting to dance Bhangra among people of actual South Asian heritage, where does that fall on the spectrum?
The boundary between genuine cultural exchange and a more dangerous sort of appropriation is nuanced, but it depends at least in part on one’s motivations. Dara Huggins, a Pierson freshman and black woman, describes her take on appropriation — particularly that of black culture — this way: “It’s one thing to appreciate black culture and pay homage to it simultaneously. It’s another thing to use black culture in order to gain publicity and fatten your paycheck.”
Huggins’ observation describes a social and commercial trend, particularly among young women in music. Miley Cyrus twerks among an ensemble of black women in her “We Can’t Stop” music video, Selena Gomez wears an Indian bindi during her concerts and Lady Gaga references both Islamic and Roma culture when she dons a burqa and sings about her “gypsy” life. It doesn’t seem like any of these can be justified as sincere explorations of cultural meaning, particularly when they contribute to artists’ commercial image or even, as in Lady Gaga’s case, their notoriety.
Appropriation also carries oppressive implications that are often ignored in the name of entertainment. Huggins points out that, “White people can appropriate different cultures without dealing with the implications thereafter.” She gives the example of an upper-middle class white male dressing as a hoodlum. He can easily escape the stereotype of criminality — all he has to do is lower his hoodie to show the color of his skin. Black men do not have the option of casting off the stereotype. Appropriation, in other words, isn’t a two-way street. It happens from a position of privilege, and culture is often borrowed not as tribute but as parody. It’s a form of oppression that reduces minority groups to a caricature of complex and historically rich cultures.
That reduction of culture to a cartoon or parody — as often happens with Halloween costumes, for example — belittles the struggles of a particular ethnic or racial group. Dinée Dorame, president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale and a Navajo student, describes Native American costumes as especially dangerous caricatures of Native women.
“Many of the ‘Pocahottie’ costumes sold today sexualize Native women and perpetuate the notions of colonization through the exploitation of Native women,” she says. One in three Native women reports having been raped in her lifetime, according to the United States Department of Justice. Though the concept of wearing Native American culture as a costume is inappropriate in itself, the reality of sexual violence against Native American women makes the sexualized outfits all the more unacceptable.
But as I grappled with definitions of cultural appropriation and considered my own participation in Roshni, one South Asian student nonchalantly brushed off my concerns. “We love having people who aren’t brown participate!” she emphatically assured me.
The South Asian Society, like Yale’s other cultural organizations, facilitates the kind of cultural exploration and exchange that helps combat appropriation: the kind based on learning and experience, rather than the assumptions and stereotypes from which appropriation stems. That’s why it’s so valuable that people do take the opportunity to genuinely explore cultures other than their own. That’s why, even if I do look entirely ridiculous in the borrowed kurta, I will be dancing in Roshni next Friday.
Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.