I am sure that half of the people who read this blog would agree to my view that “getting offended” is the favourite pastime of a majority of people on the social media. The other half who do not agree might or might not be busy getting offended by something or the other, maybe this very blog. My point is that it has always been a difficult task to say or do something without offending someone or the other. But that task has become near-impossible now with so many people waiting for any reason at all to claim they are offended and start a social media war, with like-minded ‘offense-takers’. They keep finding and giving reasons ranging from something as simple as “I don’t like it” to as complex as twisted misinterpretations of big words they think are fancy. One such term I have heard misused a lot in recent times is ‘Cultural Appropriation’.
I first came across the term sometime last year in relation to an Instagram photo uploaded by one of the Kardashian sisters. (My knowledge of this family of “influencers” is minimal. So forgive me for not remembering which one I am talking about here and even not knowing if the right name is Kardashian or Jenner. Since I do not want my Google feed cluttered with news of them in the coming days, I am not going to risk Googling them up either. Sorry!) The photo in question had her wearing a ‘maang tikka’ and ‘bindi’ along with a gown. It caught my attention solely because of the massive outrage under it. And almost every second comment had the term ‘Cultural Appropriation’ squeezed in somewhere. I had no clue what the term meant and decided to read up on it to understand what the issue was.
I totally understand that it is wrong if aspects or customs from another culture, especially a section that needs to be preserved, are taken by another culture, a more dominant one, in such a way that the origin and roots of those are forgotten and the donor loses credit of it. For example, Yoga is a practice that started in ancient India and went on to become hugely popular, even as a part of day-to-day life for so many, across the globe. The ancient Indian culture was in no way inferior to any other or one that is at a risk of being forgotten. Even then, if someday a feeling that Yoga “belongs” to another culture and has always been so is implied and propagated by someone practicing it, it becomes Cultural Appropriation. Because that would mean stealing credit for something that originated in and has a deep link to another culture. In such contexts, I really do understand the gravity and implications of the term and the action.
But to use this term as a reason for taking offense only because someone used an attire, accessory or hairstyle that is traditional of another culture is lame. Being an Indian, I couldn’t find any reason to be offended by the Kardashian lady wearing a ‘maang tikka’ or a ‘bindi’. If at all it was the ‘maang Sindoor’ that only married women normally wear in India, I would still understand the criticism, because for a lot of Indians, ‘Sindoor’ is not an accessory. For them, it is a sacred symbol of marriage and I am no one to hurt their sentiments by arguing whether it is okay to feel that way or not, as long as wearing ‘Sindoor’ is not dictated as a norm or a mandatory obligation. But her wearing a couple of accessories that come from the Indian culture is in no way something that should invite such outrage. She thought it looked nice; she wore it. If anything, Indians should feel happy that others love their accessories and enjoy wearing them.
I see pop stars being targeted for Cultural Appropriation only because they used an Egyptian or Japanese theme for their music videos. I see them apologizing for that because of the outrage and even videos of them trying to understand why it was wrong. But I still believe that such an outrage is lame. In that case, as a Keralite, I should get offended if any non-Keralite lady wears a Kerala saree or if that is used in a non-Malayalam movie and blame them for Cultural Appropriation too. Non-black men and women wearing African hairstyles have been called out time and again for being insensitive to the history of centuries of suppression and oppression or showing off their vanity and privilege. I have read so many articles in an attempt to understand the perspectives different from mine in this regard. While I absolutely support the cause of the people of African descent fighting oppression in many forms even today, and I totally understand how something like ‘black face’ is offensive, I still cannot bring myself to say that someone wanting to try a hairstyle or an attire they feel is nice is doing something wrong as long as they do not take credit for the look or insult the natives in using their style.
This keeps happening all the time. You are from another country and you post a picture wearing an attire or accessory that is from my country – you are guilty of Cultural Appropriation. You are from another country and you post a picture of serving with your side dish, the kind of bread we have in my country – you are guilty of Cultural Appropriation. You are from another country and you have a tattoo in my native language – you are guilty of Cultural Appropriation. It goes on and on and on.
For me, this kind of outrage is just like the radicalisation of every other sensible movement which started with the right motive, but has been twisted over time to suit the personal agenda of people who happily misuse such terms in the wrong contexts. And most of the time, the reason for such outrage is simply the ever-growing tendency of people to take offense at anything and everything, without really bothering about things that do matter and need to be fought against.