My culture is not your costume

By Meg Sharma

You may have seen many opinions flying around regarding a certain ‘prom dress’, after a twitter user was ‘attacked’ for wearing a traditional Chinese dress to her prom. Jeremy Lam was the first to point out the dress, saying ‘my culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress’, showing that the season of cultural appropriation has truly begun. As summer draws nearer, you’ll see people wearing traditional and cultural dresses to their proms and balls in an effort to be quirky and different, or even – god forbid – exotic, and Instagram will be littered with ‘festival looks’ involving bindis, mehndi (or ‘henna tattoos’) and American Indian headdresses.

Many will argue that it’s just ‘sharing culture’, ‘appreciation’, with youtuber Ethan Klein saying ‘if your idea of culture can be boiled down to a dress then if anyone is insulting it, its you’. But I will never forget the fear I felt at being ridiculed for wearing a sari to prom, and the comments I overheard about the girl who did.

Cultural appropriation is defined as the ‘particular power dynamic, in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group’ (EverydayFeminism).

Even though colonialism is not still in affect, its implications and effects are present. As an Indian, I have been on the receiving end of direct and indirect racism, whether it was as small as being told my mendhi or clothes smell like curry, laughing as my mum and grandma in their traditional dress, asking ‘why don’t they wear normal clothes?’ or even being told I’m a ‘dirty pa**’ – many others can relate to my experience. For my parents who are first generation immigrants, they either had to westernise themselves fast, or be the subject of bullying, attacks and harassment.

We still live with racialisation, marginalisation and the harm that colonialism had, and these won’t go away overnight. In reality, white people are praised and protected for wearing traditional items, clothes or hairstyles, but those who wear them as a part of tradition are bullied mocked and discriminated against.

In some cases the oppression is still very apparent, for example celebrations of Thanksgiving in America. White people will dress in American Indian clothing to act out the ‘thanksgiving story’ and ‘celebrate’ while ignoring the plight they still face.

I have often heard the argument that native people (still living in their country) and first generation immigrants have no problems with cultural appropriation and even find it flattering, so why should I or anyone else take offence? To me it’s slightly sad to see, as they see appropriation as appreciation, acceptance and validation. After years of western disdain and oppression it’s an understandable feeling, but appreciation isn’t about picking and choosing parts of others culture in order to look cool, different, or the worst one – ‘edgy’. Appreciation is asking for education about others culture, and the significance of different items. Exchange is a mutual teaching and understanding, not forcing western ideals then taking what you want.

It’s difficult to fully understand or learn about a culture to the point where it isn’t cultural appropriation. As Kat Tanaka Okopnik put it, ‘The fact that you studied for years to become a tea master doesn’t mitigate the way that some Asian was coerced into assimilation, and victim-blamed for every bit of “non-American” behavior.

It doesn’t mitigate the way that people making their native foods are expected to provide cheap, “authentic” fare while white people are granted the right to be expensive and “innovative”.

So what should you do if you really want to wear a sari or qipao (or any other traditional dress) to an event? Or you want to wear a bindi, henna, headdress (or any other cultural items) to a party or festival?

Don’t. Really, it won’t affect your time or the fun you’ll have, and you’ll be able to find something just as nice to wear. It’s better to choose something else than to disrespect others – if you’re putting the little joy you’ll actually get from appropriation before respecting others cultures’, it says more about you.

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