This Is Not An Apology
We need to talk about something before we get too far into 2017 and I have to endure yet another year of hearing about it constantly. That something is "cultural appropriation".
We need to talk about it, because it equates for around 30% of the messages I get related to my social media accounts. Roughly, I get around 50 - 80 emails related to my blog, twitter, instagram etc. per month. Roughly 15-20 of those emails, nearly half, are attempts at calling me out for so called "cultural appropriation." If you're one of those people, do know you aren't the first, nor do I doubt you will be the last person to send me an email about this.
I've written about this briefly before, my feelings on how online communities often feel the need to take up such causes, write woeful blog posts about how they have learnt from their childhood mistakes before going on to try and school the rest of us ignorant beings on how we too can better ourselves and ensure our views will make us popular on Twitter. Basically guides in how to be your most patronising, headlines read along the lines of "Five Ways You're Unknowingly Appropriating Culture." I know, because I get links to such articles sent to me ALL THE TIME. Seriously.
In my currently "about me" picture, you should be able to see a mehndi design on my hand. Slightly less visable is my punjabi. It was taken just before I headed to work in India. See, one thing the mass amounts of white twitter activists don't seem to notice when they send me messages of abuse about this photo, is the why behind it. So here it is; why an eighteen year old white girl from Scotland is embracing Indian culture and why I will never apologise for it.
Five months ago I started living in India, whereupon I was thrown very much into a culture that was not originally my own. Every day, according to my dress code, I am expected to show up in Indian dress. Alex & I were taken shopping soon after we arrived and we chose to buy punjabis over sarees, purely for ease of movement and for comfort level. We were given bindis as a gift by our host, advised to buy dupattas (like scarfs, thrown over shoulders) and bangles by our students and colleagues. Seeing us in Indian dress made them so, so happy- I can hardly describe it to you.
This was us embracing their culture, and it's a culture I honestly adore. So while I get messages asking me if I know the history behind it (to which I can say yes, as a history student living in India, I know more so about it than you, undoubtedly) and assuring me it is okay to make such mistakes, but that I really, really shouldn't be appropriating culture in this way. "Did you know, " these emails begin, "that henna is only supposed to be worn by brides on their wedding night?" No, I type back, because that isn't true. Mehndi is worn at weddings, yes, but it's also applied for festivals (a very regular occurrence in India) and worn by men. More often than not, I'm wearing it as my students like using my hands as canvases to practice new designs, and I'm a more than happy participant.
I'm not saying everyone who messages me is ignorant of Indian culture, that is not the case. Yet, let me be clear that the vast majority are westerners who, from reading their emails, come across as having very limited knowledge and who are clearly using the internet as their main source of information. Information that is often misguided, overly passionate and entirely black and white. They see a white girl with a henna design, jump to the conclusion that I am stealing this piece of Indian culture and proceed to take it upon themselves to try and educate me on the error of my ways. Rarely considering that perhaps it isn't all that black and white.
I'm not dressing up. This is not a costume I am wearing for the day, or putting on for Instagram. It is, first and foremost, my dress-code for the work I am currently doing. Unless you have ever stood in front of a class of 30 Indian girls aged 15+ and tried to explain why you wouldn't wear a bindi back home as some people might get upset; I doubt you will ever understand why the phrase gets me so angry.
I know that many people find the use of certain hairstyles, dress-styles, and decorations offensive when the person wearing them isn't originally from that culture. Sometimes, taking offense is perfectly justified. If someone is dressing up to mock a particular culture or group, in a hateful way, that is not okay.
Despite this, something I want to see happen in 2017 is an increase in tolerance, in respect of our shared histories as human beings and inhabitants of this earth. We cannot grow as a society if we do not start recognising that before culture, before race, before gender, before sexuality, we are all inherently the same. Living beings with the amazing capacity to love, think and survive. While our culture, race, gender, sexuality etc. are important, they are not the primary factor which brings us together, and we must stop treating them as though they are.
It is my belief, and has been for some time now, that phrases like 'cultural appropriation' and 'white privilege' are not helping us in any way. They serve little purpose but to further put barriers between people at a time when we need to be united. Stand those phrases up next to terrorism, world hunger, climate change, poverty, war and the future of our planet and they pale in comparison. In the grand scheme of things these petty arguments are not terribly important. Quite simply, there are a great deal of far more important, pressing causes to be getting upset over than the dye my students decorate my hands with for weeks at a time.