Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exchange – An Indian perspective

A couple of days ago, my friend Ionatan over at Kaleidoscope Flux had a very interesting story to share about the history of Quaker Oats. He questioned the appropriateness of using the religious community of Quakers as a brand and at what instances it may or may not be okay to co-opt aspects of a culture this way.

Firstly, it is important to distinguish an exchange of ideas between two cultures on a level playing field and cultural appreciation from what we mean when we use the term ‘cultural appropriation’. Cultural appropriation necessarily connotes a power differential that puts the culture being appropriated at a disadvantaged level from another more dominant culture. As Ionatan put it, given the history of persecution and genocide of both the Jewish diaspora and Native American communities, it may not be wise to simply borrow aspects from these cultures and use it in a way that is not at all related or is completely divorced from their sordid histories. As an outsider to both of these ethnic groups, I can probably safely herald most Native American and Jewish appropriations to be largely insensitive.

However, as an Indian, I can think of numerous instances in which valuable and equitable cultural exchanges actually took place between foreign nationals and Indians, and equally as many outrageous modern appropriations and caricatures of a certain Indian hegemony.

What I am trying to say is that there are ways by which it is technically slightly more okay to borrow from aspects of South Asian cultures, because South Asians, while still facing tremendous challenges both in their native countries and elsewhere in the world, have held a position of historical and political importance and voice in a way that Native American communities, and until somewhat more recently, Jewish communities, simply could not afford.

Since ancient times, South Asians have traded with Europeans, Africans and other Asian nations which allowed for a long-standing tradition of cultural exchange between these areas without the power differential that is notable in cases related to Native Americans and Jewish people. Of course, this is by no means absolute, and things quickly changed due to European colonization, however, South Asians retained a collective understanding of what real equitable cultural exchange can look like, economically, scientifically and artistically.

Since the advent of colonialism, however, it has become quite fashionable to portray India as magical and exotic land that benefits a certain kind of Western individual in their search for self-discovery – the whole nation becomes but an instrument to the enlightenment of our privileged white heroes/heroines, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl of sorts.

Take these images from Vogue UK for example:

The model in the pictures cannot be said to be participating in anything resembling equitable cultural exchange.  To begin with, she makes her inherent privileged status among the backdrop of possibly the most impoverished and technologically underdeveloped parts of India apparent with simply the stark contrast in her clothing, using historically stereotypical images of a country that is as diverse in terms of culture as economic wealth and simply using this context as a proverbial accessory to her implied worldliness. There is apparently also a video associated with this photoshoot which shows all the hustle and bustle of industry in the parts where this took place, from which we can deduce that the creators simply avoided those truths about India in favour of an aesthetic more appropriate for the western palate seeking the traditional Oriental thrills. Oh yeah, and in this picture, there is an actual snake charmer.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s impossible to create good fusion between Eastern and Western things. I’d condone that wholeheartedly, really. What I’m really up against is the inherent lala-landification of India while completely ignoring the struggles of gazillion different forces and their tangible and pragmatic effects in favour of a spiritual and religious experience (which also is terribly misunderstood by most) that force a monolithic understanding of an entire people and the commodification of complex histories and cultures for the consumption of the self-actualization-hungry westerner. This is the same sort of thing that would cause a young budding Casanova to ignore the misogyny in the Kama Sutra, and a queer New Age enthusiast to overlook how yoga is advocated as a cure for homosexuality; not fully understanding how blind western endorsement of certain trends can exacerbate many social ills local to South Asia.

Now for an actual good representation of what equitable cultural exchange could look like (or at least a step in the right direction) in the Indian context, check out Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues. Of course, Hindu fundamentalists hate it, but who cares! While it’s done by a very nice lady from San Francisco/Brooklyn, who does gain some self-actualization from her Indian experience, it is not done in the same condescending way as the Vogue photoshoot and is very well-researched. She actually brings to our attention a series of historical and cultural debates within Hinduism, most notably the feminist viewpoints, and she does it while being funny!

I’m reluctant to leave these thoughts hanging without considering how all this ties in with what theorist Spivak calls strategic essentialism, but I figure that would merit an entirely separate discussion.

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