Growing up, I watched as my white peers were so comfortable in their own skin, bubble-wrapped by a society that protected them from ridicule. Never did they have to worry if their clothes were too outlandish, or their traditions too unconventional. There was never a moment of pause to wonder if they were showing too much of a culture that didn’t weave itself into the fabric of social protocol. Thus, whenever I witnessed cultural appropriation, it struck me that the norms I felt obligated to obey did not apply to the privileged.
In February of this year, Rihanna posted a photo wearing a necklace with a Ganesh pendant, advertising her lingerie brand. Similarly, Kim Kardashian posted photos to social media in May wearing large silver hoops punctuated by the Hindu Om, a sacred spiritual symbol.
These incidents not only speak to the boundaries we allow celebrities to push, but also the broader implications of what these figures pass down to their devoted followers. The pedestal they’re granted gives them the power to make the line between appropriation and appreciation indistinct.
Another salient case is Hindu influence on hippie fashion among individuals of our generation. At Coachella and other music festivals, bindis have become a popular accessory. Chakra crystal bracelets are sold without context of their ties to Hinduism. The issue here is not that people wear or purchase these items — it’s that they do so without any inclination to apprehend the origins. I take issue in knowing there is someone in the world for whom these symbols guide everyday life, and for others it’s merely today’s trend.
If you don’t understand the issue behind cultural or spiritual appropriation, imagine having a status where what you take from others and adopt as your own is glorified and lauded. Then compare that to someone you know, maybe a friend or family member, who struggles with expressing some part of their heritage because standards set by the privileged permeate and absorb any sense of culture.
We enable appropriation by encouraging how it looks on our predominantly white peers, while shaming and ostracizing those who unapologetically embrace their culture. This hypocrisy denotes that whiteness lives at the core of human identity politics. We struggle to accept difference, yet we’re self-righteous in taking elements of someone else’s culture simply because it fits our aesthetic.
At the end of the day, when you borrow a significant piece of someone’s culture and use it as a prop, you trivialize a lifestyle. My culture, and anyone else’s, is not an accessory for someone to use at their convenience.
I would never want to discourage appreciation of a culture that is different from your own. Intrinsically, appreciation makes up for everything appropriation lacks. It is more than OK to admire and choose to adorn yourself with something consciously and with acknowledgement of its background. That’s when we make the necessary jump from insensitive exploitation to informed practice.
My advice is that you ask yourself what your intention is before you partake in something potentially harmful to people of color. Are you wearing or participating in something for an aesthetic purpose, because it seems fashionable? If so, it’s possible you are appropriating someone’s culture. Are you doing these same things in a cultural context, or making a concerted effort to understand the significance behind a practice? Are you engaging with a culture beyond surface-level interest?
Culture is not exclusive to those who grew up in it, but it is a source of deep reverence for so many. Showing respect for a custom without using it superficially is an undemanding task. Steering clear of appropriation requires making education, awareness and acceptance your priority.
Shay Suresh CM ’24 is from San Jose, California. She loves literary fiction, folk-rock music and making Pinterest boards.