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Cultural misappropriation strikes again

This topic pops up frequently Stateside around Halloween when we often find ourselves cringing as we explain to others that "dressing up as an Indian" is not in fact a costume option. It is actually cultural misappropriation. This can be a touchy subject as we can often be perceived as being overly sensitive. However, the main issue is that unless you "walk the walk" of the minority group day in an day out (you face all the discrimination that it entails to be brown), then you don't get to play dress up and use our culture and dress on a lark. Our traditional dress, and adornments such as the tikka or mehendi are routinely used as props by Westerners who don't know the first thing about what the practices mean. I want to be clear that appreciation and misappropriation ought not be confused! If as a non-Indian, you have learned about the cultural practices and significance, you would also know not to cart out bindis as props. Likewise, if you are attending an Indian wedding, certainly wear Indian attire - that is an entirely appropriate context. To be clear, the misappropriation of culture isn't Indo-exclusive by any means - over here, it can take the form of dressing as a geisha for Halloween, or with sports mascots such as the Redskins, and more insidiously, we cannot forget the minstrelsy of blackface.
The point of this post, however, is to show that we are also capable of misappropriating others' cultures. I saw the latest Daboo Ratnani kitsch-fest calendar photos recently. And this one in particular, gave me great pause. Shraddha Kapoor is decked out in a Native American head dress with tribal-inspired motifs painted on her. Clearly this isn't meant as a tribute to Native American culture. The headress is worn out of context and is nothing more than a prop for a pouting Bollywood starlet. It has literally nothing to do with the shot. And as far as I know, she's not portraying a Native American character in any forthcoming films. I gather that cultural appropriation is not a hot button subject in India, however it very much is an issue in the diaspora. We must all take care to understand, admire, and respect other cultures and to exercise caution in not reducing an element of another culture to the status of a prop.


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