Friday, October 29, 2010

Cultural appropriation?

I've mentioned it a couple of times, maybe, but as you may or may not know, in the summer of 2004 I spent ten weeks in India for a summer language program. Our program was based in the city of Pune, a rapidly growing city about 100 miles from Mumbai. Although I'd been wanting to go to India for at least eight years before going, I - naturally - experienced a fair amount of culture shock when I arrived. Don't get me wrong, it was a pretty incredible summer, but obviously India itself is going to bring up a lot of emotions for a girl born and raised in New York and (at that time) living in Philadelphia for five years. A lot of things were great - I could finally apply my Hindi, I became quite independent, and I immediately took to riding on the back of scooters. Also, I will never get tired of seeing an elephant on the street. Never.

But on the other hand, one thing was quite difficult for me: the constant attention. Pune, although it is turning into a big city right before our eyes, is not really a popular one on the tourist beat. Why should it be? It's the city for research and/or university studies, true, but ... well, foreign tourists aren't exactly flocking to visit it. We did see other foreigners, of course, especially in the fancier areas, near the ashram (remember the Rajneeshis? Yeah, this is where they were based.). However, I lived in a very residential area and studied in an institute quite a ways away from the center of the town, so I (and my friends) was often the only Westerner in the vicinity. That led to a lot of attention. A lot. As a woman born in one of the biggest cities around and as a woman who lived in a quite shady area of a rather dangerous city, I take staring and eye contact as an act of aggression. I had to consciously remind myself that this wasn't the case in Pune, but it was hard. One way to give myself a bit of a home-court advantage? "Go native," as the colonists used to say. I started wearing Indian clothes. Once I got my first taste of it, I didn't stop for the rest of my trip, vastly preferring them to anything else - they're so damn comfortable, especially the traditional salwar-kameez.

[Quick note to interject that I never once wore a sari in India. not graceful on a good day and I knew that I would only suffer huge embarrassment and make a mockery of this most beautiful of outfits. I do own a sari, though, as a gift from one of my Hindi students, but I have not yet worn it. Mostly because I don't know how to wind it.]

Anyway, although I was still quite obviously not a native Punekar, I felt like wearing the modest and beautiful local clothes gave the wandering eye something familiar and not necessarily stare-worthy. I averaged about three seconds less of open-mouth staring when wearing the salwar-kameez.

What does all of this have to do with anything? Well, when I returned to the states, I wore my various salwar-kameez around the home a lot, mostly to study and sit around in. SO COMFY! And I brought my favorite ones back to Massachusetts from New York for the same purpose:

This is an extremely difficult outfit to capture while standing still. It moves with the body and always keeps one covered up and modest. See how unflattering it is when I just stand there in a perfectly natural pose?

A little better: at least you see all of what's going on. So what is going on? On the bottom I have the traditional loose salwar pant; then the colorful printed kameez / kurta; then, to hide anything inappropriate, the always-necessary dupatta. I was always very bad at draping my dupatta, as you can see. When walking outside you see a lot of girls loosely tying them in the back so that they don't slip: I would do that, too. I bought this (and my other favorites) in a great store called Fab India, a place that my friends called "the J. Crew of khadi [homespun cotton]."

Anyways, let's move on to the title of this post. I am...uncomfortable wearing the salwar-kameez out of the house here in the States. When I first came home from India, I didn't want to take off my salwar-kameez. I wore one out to have dinner with a friend in New York. I wore a couple in Philly after a bad break-up that depressed me and made me want to swaddle myself in stylish comfiness. However, I always felt weirdly guilty, like people were wondering, "Why's this white girl wearing Indian clothes?" Let me just say that I never got a negative reaction. In New York, a South Asian man told me that he loved my outfit, and all of my South Asian colleagues in Philadelphia compared notes as to different styles and cuts of kurtas. However...if you specialize in area studies, the way I do, and have to read Said's Orientalism, you start to see a lot of east-west confrontation diluted down to the confrontation between the self and the other. Given South Asia's complicated history with colonialism and Orientalism, one can see how the self-other confrontation is almost inherently hostile. My reaction as a young, naive graduate student was that the confrontation didn't have to be necessarily hostile: one just had to be self-aware. I learned - upon taking the particular class that delved into Orientalism and post-colonialism, not to mention subaltern studies - that I had to answer to a lot of unsaid charges, as a Western female studying the traditions of South Asia. And my learning is legit, y'all: I speak Hindi pretty well, I'm a solid Sanskritist, and I'm a specialist on classical Sanskrit literature and poetics. However, I still have moments of doubt. What is it saying to the everyday observer who doesn't know these things about me when I'm wearing traditional South Asian clothes? Will the Bangladeshi families in my neighborhood think that I'm exoticizing their culture for my own sartorial means [is that even an automatically negative thing or am I just feeling over-guilty?] or will they not even care? I can't go around holding up a sign that says "Not just another new-age hippie" [not that there's anything wrong with them, either: would it be so bad to be lumped into that category "because I like Asian stuff"?], so...where does that leave me? When I taught Hindi, most of my students were tickled pink that a Hispanic girl from Manhattan was the one leading them through grammar drills in their parents' native language. But there was one Indian-American boy who was unmistakably hostile toward me, making me wonder if I was fulfilling the subaltern studies stereotype of the "white man [or woman, in this case] teaching the brown man about his culture" [not my words, by the way, just the crude statement that is bandied around this area of studies].

I know that I'm overthinking this a lot, no? At the same time, though, I wonder. Are we supposed to be responsible in our clothing choices? Am I overcompensating with overthinking and should I just let globalism win? Will my own respectful and innocent wearing of clothes that I happen to find pretty and comfortable point me out as a sartorial colonizer? Am I wrong to wear my clothes? Should I wear them proudly? I don't know - what are your opinions on my very thorny and hurried thoughts on this sartorial cultural appropriation?

Back to the clothes, though, for a bit of much-needed frivolity. As I was only at home working today, I didn't wear my dupatta all day, although I wouldn't dream of being seen in public without it in India:


I also wanted to give you some detailed shots of the outfit's elements. Here is the print of the kurta:

Pretty, no? And this isn't even my fancy kurta!

Lest you think my dupatta was just white matching my trousers, here's a detail of that, too:

Do you see? Tiny mirrors! Yup, interspersed among the scarf are little mirrors to add some visual interest to the whole shebang.

So there you have it, folks. An agonizingly tortured post and look into my brain. I'd be interested to see what others think about wearing clothes from a culture that isn't "theirs." Would you be offended / possessive / huffy if you saw someone wearing something of "yours" or would you just think, "Huh. Cool."?

I'd also like to point out that I haven't taken a graduate theory class in, oh, about five years, so...I'm simplifying things a lot for my own sad little anti-jargon brain.

PS - In case you were wondering, I didn't end up bringing my mom's navy dress home with me: my suitcase was so full that I thought I'd save it for another trip.


  1. I've been trying for upwards of 20 minutes now to formulate a response to this. Oy, a complicated question with a complicated answer.

    At the end of the day, every style originally comes from someplace else - we're never not appropriating in one form or another. However, there are definitely degrees of appropriation and degrees of appropriateness. I do think the context carries a lot of weight: how are you appropriating? I'm always concerned that my appropriation will be read as "romanticizing," and within the framework of self and others as a middle class white girl, that's a way I don't want to be read.

    For example, I'm very sensitive about the use/misuse of American Indian motifs, and I've been seeing it everywhere for the past year (Urban Outfitters and pretty much all hipsters, I'm looking at you). Working as closely with native artifacts, histories, and tribal representatives as I do, I've become very aware of how much those cultures (and Western imaginings of those cultures) have permeated society. Turquoise jewelry, moccasins, feathers in your hair, beaded medicine bags, leather fringe - those are only a few of the objects that are strongly associated with the idea of Native culture. The fact that they're really more representative of plains and southwestern Native culture aside, what happens when I wear those things? Heck, the "Western" look is in lately, and a lot of that look is directly tied to ideas of Cowboys and Indians.

    What I've learned from my colleagues is that, in the end, it's all about context. Do you understand what it means to this group of people to wear that piece of clothing? Do you understand how it's meant to be worn, and what you're communicating when you wear it differently? Have you been given permission to wear this? Do you know where this came from and why it exists to begin with? If you can answer those questions, then I'm much more comfortable with someone wearing a piece from another culture, because then it's more admiration and celebration than appropriation.

  2. Katie, what a thoughtful and great response! And said much more eloquently than my original post! I think you're absolutely right - I know in my case my relationship with India/Indian culture is all about admiration and celebration, as you put it, but my fear is also what the clothes might portray about me to the casual observer? I doubt they'll get "Oh, this girl is clearly a student and admirer of South Asia" just from looking at me. And while part me doesn't want to care what others' responses might be, because I know what my own motives are, the other part of me doesn't want to be taken as someone romanticizing a culture that isn't my own (exactly as a "middle-class white girl") or even, God forbid, an odd cult member! [And oh, boy, do I have a history with those...]

    Anyway, levity aside, thanks for your comment and for understanding where I'm coming from. I was nervous that my only comments would be, like, "Your post is too long. And you look dumb." :-)

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