“Did you go to holly last weekend?” my friend asked on a Monday morning. I had just seen his recently updated profile picture while scrolling through my Facebook News Feed. It showed him with his arm around his girlfriend’s waist, both wearing white shirts and both covered in some kind of colored powder.
I have celebrated Holi (pronounced the same as “holy”) my entire life and considered it a great privilege that Penn was tolerant enough to sponsor a campuswide celebration where people from all walks of life participated in the festivities. However — and I didn’t realize this until the event was already over — I was slightly annoyed that it was taken out of its spiritual context, possibly in an effort to draw a bigger and more diverse audience.
Thinking about cultural appropriation as it affects my life brings up more questions than I expected. It is a complex topic because of the way it has been handled and regarded over time, and how it has impacted the lives of marginalized minority communities.
Tina Lulla, a College sophomore, is optimistic about Holi being celebrated on campus, and more broadly speaking, the mainstream adoption of some Indian cultural ideas such as yoga and even vegetarianism. However, she suggested that “[The Hindu Student Council] should have given a five-minute introduction to what Holi is so that people actually know why they’re throwing colors around, other than just to get cool photos for Facebook.”
I am definitely among those who celebrate Holi for more superficial reasons, but as an Indian American, there are so many examples of cultural exchange that has led to conflict that I have been almost desensitized to it.
Following celebrities on Twitter is often a great way to observe some cultural clashes playing out in real time. Is Katy Perry racist for incorporating Japanese themes into her concerts? Should Iggy Azalea and Eminem not be allowed to win music awards in the rap category? Does Selena Gomez have the right to wear a bindi on her forehead?
I asked Amanda Martinez, a Wharton sophomore, about her thoughts on Iggy Azalea. While she doesn’t identify with hip-hop culture, she said, “I never saw Iggy Azalea as someone who tried to take a group’s culture. There’s a difference between exploiting and celebrating a cultural tradition. But I can see how it might be hard to recognize that difference.”
The answers are far from clear. However, I do think the ideal version of cultural exchange is quite different from what actually happens. It is difficult to disentangle when exactly exchange becomes oppression, but what seems clear to me is that cultural appropriation itself is not the issue. It is simply a revealing symptom of a larger, more pervasive presence of racism that manifests in various ways.
Justin Malone, a Wharton senior, agrees to an extent, but feels more strongly about the kind of oppression that cultural appropriation reinforces. “I think the problem with Iggy Azalea is that she’s from Australia and does not talk the way she raps. People think she’s trying to rap or spit verses in a way that isn’t authentic. The problem is when people make this their own, white dominance and cultural appropriation become an extension of slavery. People’s cultures are shunned, but when other people make money off it then it’s not right.”
To return to the bindi example, an Indian-American woman wearing a bindi and shopping for groceries might be criticized for not acculturating, whereas the same bindi on the forehead of a white woman might be perceived as edgy or even fashionable. What Justin was alluding to was not an issue of a lack of cross-cultural understanding, but the fact that often times cultural ideas can only become mainstream if a white audience adopts them.
I find it incredibly gratifying that I can share cultural traditions and values with other people in this setting. However, the idea that culture can be imported without acknowledging its origins is more problematic. In this salad bowl of backgrounds, we should try to be conscious of the ways in which we appropriate culture and perpetuate ideas about it as well.
RAVI JAIN is a College sophomore from Syosset, N.Y., studying economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Tall, Skinny, Mocha” appears every other Wednesday.
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