Hamsa Srikanth ’19

Cultural Appropriation Is Never Appropriate

Staying up-to- date with Hollywood drama is one of the few guilty pleasures I indulge in. A few weeks ago, Coldplay released their music video Hymn for the Weekend, and the internet burst into outrage accusing Beyonce of appropriating Indian culture. When I told my friend about this, he remarked that he didn’t think “cultural appropriation was such a big deal.” I desperately wanted to refute his statement, but like most situations, I only came up with a good comeback long after the conversation was over.

The truth is, there’s a fine line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. Appropriation involves the inherent belief that some aspect of another culture is “exotic.” The word exotic implies that the other culture is out of the norm, and deserves no place in the mainstream. It is very flattering when the dominant group hails an aspect of the minority culture as the new “fashion statement,” and adopts a cultural artifact as part of their style. But why is the same culture then rejected as “foreign behavior” when it is practiced by the minority group? This is a clear instance of power-play, where the minority culture is appreciated but the minority community is discarded.

We, as the dominant society, are more than willing to wear a black facemask around Halloween, or try out afros and cornrows. But we are reluctant to discuss the more difficult aspects of the black experience. Black culture is aspirational to us, unless of course it involves something like police brutality or workplace discrimination. In those cases, it’s a taboo – a discussion that is better avoided. In doing this, we cherry-pick only those aspects of the minority experience that we are comfortable with emulating and create a romanticized version of it. Cultural appropriation attempts to separate minority culture from the minority community, as if they are not intricately intertwined with each other. Truly appreciating minority culture means acknowledging the minority experience in its entirety.

Many would argue that no one truly “owns” a culture, and therefore people cannot get policed for adopting it. Let me concede to this point for a minute. I’ll grant the fact that minorities don’t have property rights over their culture, but no one can deny that they are the majority stakeholders. Their culture is reflective of them in the dominant society, and they have the most to lose with its misrepresentation. The traditional artifacts that we adopt so carelessly are indicative of the minority’s shared history, struggles, and triumphs. Cultural heritage is the core identity of the minority, and a mere novelty to the dominant group. It makes no sense to state they have an equal claim.

We are not dealing with physical things like cornrows, Bindis, or feather headdresses – but the significance that real people attach to them. The value of a cultural artifact to a fellow human is what we, as a society, need to respect. If we truly wish to appreciate a culture, we must honor the sentiments of the people first. We can adopt aspects of other cultures as long as we appreciate the belief systems of the community, and practice it within the required context. If we are mindful of this, then we can freely engage in a cultural exchange that is based on trust and mutual respect.

So, to the friend who didn’t think this was “such a big deal”:

This is my long overdue come-back to you.

By Hamsa Srikanth