Cultural Appropriation


Best defined as the ‘adoption’ a.k.a. theft of specific parts (icons, traditions, rituals, behaviour) of a culture by a dominant culture where the significance of the parts of the original culture are not acknowledged, eventually leading to the ruin of what’s appropriated. The items become meaningless and lose their original spiritual, cultural, and historical significances and simply becomes stereotypes of pop culture.

In racial dynamics where white supremacy was started with colonialism and currently upheld and maintained, appropriation is usually done by white people of the cultures of people of colour. Cultural appropriation is in fact a by-product of imperialism, colonialism, and the oppression of people of colour wherein PoC (people of colour) are shunned for celebrating their culture. This is not a post-racial society, and there is a very definite imbalance in the cultural, economic and territorial relationship between people who are white (dominant culture(s), the oppressors in a world that upholds whiteness) and people of colour (minority culture, the oppressed). The imbalance between the two is maintained by extracting everything of value from the oppressed (people of colour) for profit and in this case, culture is very much of value.

And cultural appropriation is very much profitable. Objects and traditions of a culture of marginalized people are seen as trendy, exotic, edgy and desirable, which means profit. The media industry profits off taking parts of marginalized cultures and portraying them in ways that degrades them from their original value. In the meantime, the people those traditions originate from are oppressed and treated inferior for the celebration of their own culture.

And because of the history of colonialism behind white people and the continued oppression of people that exist today, white people have no ‘ethnicity’ because celebrating whiteness is racist. People of colour are the only ones with ‘ethnicity’ and white people, ‘without an ethnicity’ try to take on aspects of other cultures to appear worldly.

One of the worst things white people do is treat everything like it is theirs to have. But they do, and it is maintained by white supremacy, which means even a lot of people of colour are willing to allow whiteness to consume all of their culture in an effort to be accepted. It has not, does not, and will not work.

So culture is then treated not as a part of existence of people of colour but as a ‘thing’ in this capitalist society where individual people with differences are not treated as such but as identical workers, parts of a machine. So culture is not seen as maintained by the people, but as maintaining the people. This is best seen as when people of colour are informed and treated like there is a ‘right way’ to be of their culture/race and thus moulded into stereotypes that are very often mostly inaccurate and originate only from pop culture.

But things from a certain culture? Have their meaning BECAUSE of the people of that culture. It is given meaning by the people, and not the other way around, those objects have meaning when particular people of that culture wear it/do it, partly because of the history of the people and that part of a culture, and the people fiercely holding on to their culture despite the years of oppression.

When a white person wears something from a marginalized culture, they ignore the years of oppression PoC endured, and still endure, because of their culture. It becomes a mockery, makes it seem like all that hardship suffered doesn’t matter. When PoC wear or do something, they do it in defiance of white supremacy and the ideals of whiteness. When PoC celebrate their culture, they suffer, but it is done in defiance. White people do not have to suffer, because they are not oppressed for that culture, instead, white people appropriating culture strip the original culture of its meaning and the years of oppression that culture has borne. And most white people do not wear/ do something of another culture of another culture with its historical, cultural and/or spiritual significance in mind. Which is why it’s not okay for white people to wear/do things of PoC culture, even if particular people do know the significance. (See the post through the link)

There ought to be a differentiation between cultural appropriation and cultural syncretism , the latter of which is defined by “the process of reconciling or melding of differing views or beliefs or uses. This can happen intentionally, or by a natural, unconscious process. More or less discrete cultures that come into contact with one another, either through geographical proximity, migration, conquest, trade and exploration, or in other ways, will start to syncretize aspects of each culture. This is inevitable, and neither undesirable nor preventable. Cultural items tend to get taken on in a new culture if they are useful, convenient, resolve a problem, or appeal to a value that already exists in the host culture”. (From the article through the link- read more there to better understand syncretism.) Cultural syncretism, however, IS how cultural appropriation (degrading of a culture, loss of significance) happens eventually.

Things confused with cultural appropriation often: cultural exchange or sharing, which suggests an equality between the cultures. However, sharing can only be cone when parts of a culture are ‘offered’. Like when cultural food or art is offered by the people of that culture, or learning of a culture from materials given to you by the people of that culture. That’s based on syncretism. An example would be when a native martial arts master offers to teach others. Here there is a willingness to share, and it is a skill given freely (or sold) by a member of the original community. As in, their culture belongs to them and they can do whatever with it, but other people learning Japanese martial arts doesn’t make them Japanese, nor does it allow them to adopt other parts of Japanese culture, which is downright appropriation.

And cultural appropriation is stealing, and degrades culture. It is not okay for white people to take from a culture that does not belong to them, which is racist.

What Does It Mean To Be A Woman?

Or to put it in context, for myself: What does it mean to be a desi woman, exactly?

I tell myself everyday, it means pride, it means joy. I stand proud and tall and smirk internally because it is only in a predominantly white country that I learned that “beauty” is tanned. But I’ve always had that naturally. It is in a white country that I learned that patterns and embroidery that I have always loved (and rather taken for granted), are so valued (and taken out of context too, consequently), that they are sold at exorbitant prices, and for not great quality either. 

But that’s not all. That’s not all what it takes to be a woman. But what does it take to be a woman? 

And the simple answer is: I don’t know. I really, really don’t know. 

I was reading this submission on whoneedsfeminism about a competent woman being fired from her job because she refused to give her boss sexual favors. Which led me to thinking about another post I saw on Tribune Express Blog where female students in Universities were forced to give their teachers sexual favors. 

And somewhere internally I cringe. 

Let me explain: I am a Desi woman, and so from a very young age, this is what I have been invariably taught that my life would be: I’d grow up, go to school, maybe or maybe not get a job, and at the end of the day since I am a woman, my family would come first, and somehow, yes, somehow, I find it extremely difficult to imagine having children and having a career all at the same time. So it would be one thing or the other. 

I am not saying that it isn’t possible. Oh no! With great courage and fortitude, a lot of women and families do it, and I admire and salute them. But -it’s just that- I have never had a close role model to look up to and to say, yup, that’s possible. They are a happy family, I’d totally model myself after them. 

What does it mean to be a woman, to be a desi woman? It isn’t uncommon for me to hear horrifying stories from graduate school (or yes, even medical schools), where colleagues and students are blatantly harassed and asked for sexual favors. If you keep abreast of such issues, you’d know that it happens in the work place, and in the most mundane situations. And usually, the victims are without resources to fight back. 

It happens in America, in Pakistan, and everywhere else around the world. And this is just a small part of my identity: that of a woman. Simple as that. My identity of a woman. 

So let’s take this a step further: if you keep abreast of such situations, and see into racial aspect of it, you’d know that women of color, both in the world of academia and the job market, not only have to contend with harassment of a sexual nature, but also that of a racial nature. And because the media very *helpfully* (sarcasm intended there!) promotes very sexualized images of women of color, the pressure becomes double. [In instances where a women of color isn’t sexualized, she is portrayed as an incredibly dumb, idiot, ignorant fool. Guess what that does to our chances at getting a job?]

And so here I am, weighing out my stacks in a competitive secular world. Because the moment I turn around at home, I’ll be told: “It’s a good thing you have a husband, who has a job, and who doesn’t want you to work. Why would subject yourself to all these lewd harassment by men in the street and the job market anyway? Your place is in the home. It’s the jannat, the heaven on this earth and you were meant to build it.”

And dear Desi people, especially from Pakistan: you know this is true. There is enough literature and drama serials that will back me up here. 

So what does it mean to be a woman, a desi woman? It means a ticking time bomb. Because I know a day will come when my nani [grandmother] or ami [mother] will approach me, and tell me: "Tumhara rishta aya hai." [You got a marriage proposal]. And I am not sure, because I don’t like to talk about the future, but I can imagine my heart stopping. Not because I am against arrange marriages (don’t get them confused with forced marriages), but because, as simple and as complex as it sounds: I am not ready for marriage. Why? The question would invariably come. And: I wouldn’t know how to answer, because the answer becomes complex and long, but no, no, I am not ready for marriage. Not now, not yet, not for arrange marriage anyway (but the last part I would probably not utter). 

And the blame will come that I have become Americanized. Or if the battle ground is different, it would be because I am not American enough. It’s a lost cause anyway.

What does it mean to be a woman, to be a desi woman? It means a ticking time bomb, it means a constant battle ground. Behave a certain way, walk a certain way, talk a certain way. Don’t shout, don’t be too loud, are you mumbling, I can’t hear you, speak up. Have children, don’t have children, build up a career, but older women have pregnancy complications, but I can’t afford one right now, oh the Lord will provide, and yes, yes, get married, single women are looked down upon, (is that not so, dear Desi community?) everyone needs a partner at some point in their life, was she ugly and undesirable when younger? Oh, that’s right, headstrong, didn’t listen to her parents, hmph, these girls, so easily Americanized these days, why don’t they listen to their parents? But why do they, does the way she dress, is it because her father, her grandfather, her husband, it must be because someone forces her to? Oh she doesn’t have a husband? But I cannot imagine any woman covering herself up out of her own desire? Oh, you are free, and not oppressed, so you wouldn’t mind giving me a blowjob then? That’s freedom, freedom of expression haha that’s so funny! Oh, you Indian women, Pakistani? same thing same thing you guys are supposed to be good in bed, aren’t you? Oh I didn’t mean any offense haha but I was curious, and you know, a kiss doesn’t hurt, now does it, meant no offense. (Does it matter, sir, that I don’t even know you, or know you only in a professional way, but we both know I would never dare utter that). You think she’s smart, doesn’t look like it, if she was, she’d be in medicine or engineering or something, poor parents, saddled with her. Hey, you know, apply some ‘Fair & Lovely’, the marriage proposals are sure to come flocking, and use some ubtun, home remedy, always works, and well age doesn’t matter, you are still young, you still have that youthful innocence look on your face, in your eyes, your marriage night would be spectacular hain…….

What does it mean to be a woman, a desi woman? It means a myriad of voices, a constant battling of near exhaustion, trying to keep my sanity intact….

It means, reminding myself everyday as I wake up: it’s okay to be me. To have pride in me because I am brown, and  not very affluent, and it’s okay.

It also means, sometimes, to wonder what would life would be like if I were a boy, if it would be a little easier … .

Look, I know that in the last post, I derailed my whole community. To address the whole “Muslims/Desis don’t stand up for the victims”, no not all Muslims/Desis are like that. Here is an Imam who talks about sexual assault. And here is a desi program aired in India which talks about childhood sexual assault. [ Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 ] So I mean, no, there are some sensible people in there too, (for instance, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without my sister’s unwavering support, so no I don’t come from a crazy “backward” or whatever family either), but this needs to become a mainstream thing, not just random people out there. 

And to set the record the straight, I am very proudly Muslim, very proudly Desi. Still very proud of my Kamees Shalwar. So all of you can fuck off. 

Victim Blaming in the Very Muslim, Very Desi Community

Trigger Warning: Childhood Sexual Assault, Sexual Assault, Related

Request to the reader: Before you start reading this, please keep in mind that the issues this post addresses are not only unique to a certain culture, religion, or geography; these are universal issues that tend to permeate demographic borders. Dear White Feminists (TM), or White Liberals, or White Identifying Whatevers, you take my post and twist it into something that erases my voice, or justifies yours into some twisted sense, may the wraths of every hell available be on you! 

I am going to talk about a very specific issue in a very specific context, because of the way it has recently been jumping out at me. 

As many of my readers are aware, I come from a Very Muslim, Very Desi background. It was recently that my mother and I were discussing a few things, and she was talking about “that woman” (she never named her, so I do not know exactly who she was talking about), who somehow “sold” herself, and humilated her entire community, - both in the religious sense (Islam), and national sense (Pakistan). 

Of what I understand from my mother’s conversation, this woman was a rape victim, who told her story on the media publicly. Or it somehow got out. I don’t know. In my mother’s view (and I suspect in a lot of the view of fellow Very Muslim, Very Desi’s views), this woman wasn’t a “real” victim. She “probably fabricated” this story to “get money”. In my mother’s words, what did this woman gain from telling her story “out into the whole world, washing her linen in public like a disgusting woman that she is?” When I said, it got her a whole lot of ostracism from her community, my mother answered “no, she got money. She did this for the money. All these outsiders [White Liberals/feminists/whatevers] want these stories to humiliate ours, and she gave them that. She got money from them.”

Look, I understand that the White Savior Industrial Complex is annoying. And so is the White Tear Manifesto. I understand my mother’s frustration with both of them, (though she doesn’t understand them in the academic sense, and I can’t seem to explain to her that her frustrations are valid and is voiced and shared by many across academia), it is still wrong to ostracize any victim who chooses to voice out their stories, despite the platform that they chose. If she really did get money (whoever that poor women be), for telling her story about rape, well you know what? Good fucking job to her! It seems that within my Very Muslim, Very Desi community, no body really seems to understand trauma. Which creates problems for the victims. Where on earth are they supposed to turn to?! This whole “solve it quietly within your own community, don’t voice it out, it’s very shameful” isn’t working anymore, obviously. Not only because no body seems to understand trauma and is willing to carry out the justice deserved, not enough people seem willing enough to hear and believe the victim’s story, let alone help the said victim.

 And so if the outside community is looking at ours through certain narrow lenses and finding victims, it isn’t the victim’s fault. Stop the goddamn victim blaming. Stop goddamn erasing our experiences, stop telling victims that they are not “real” victims, that this “didn’t really happen”. It isn’t going to solve anything. My mother mentioned Former President General Pervez Musharraf and he voiced similar disgust against said woman. And if this is true, it strengthens my belief that my community isn’t willing enough to listen to it’s victim, not willing enough to do anything about them. In my mother’s words, these problems have always, and will always exist. Does that mean that we don’t do anything about these issues? Is my community just so concerned with their honor and their dignity and how humiliated they have been that they have no time, no ear, no compassion for the actual victims?

Frankly, it is times like these that make me ashamed of my culture, my community. It is because of these instances that I can’t help but question my pride on Kamess Shalwars. It isn’t something that the “outsiders”, the West, the Americans, whatever is making me do. It’s my own community. And it is really sad. 

On “Political Neutrality”

Bullshit, I call it. 

It was yesterday that my mother brought it up. Last April I changed my major from Biology to History, dropping all intentions of ever going to a medical school, or having a serious career in the science field. 

It’s come as a big shock to her. Big. As in she’s been fighting with me until last week big-shock. Which surprises me since I didn’t expect that. But well. 

She told me that to be a doctor, or having any career in the sciences would mean “political neutrality.” I think I’ll estimate my shocked silence time to be at least a full 3 seconds before I gathered my thoughts and told her: “you know there are doctors dumped into prisons because they dared treat ‘protesters’, or whoever, right? Yeah I would be that doctor treating whoever happens to walk through the doors needing help.”

She pleaded me to think, do I not have responsibilities to myself? She is afraid that I will get into politics, that harm will come to me (more so because I am a woman, I think. I called it out, told her yes, there is a chance of rape, assault, whatever to me as a woman, but it would be to a man, too. She was incredulous. “What, men are going to be raped by women?!” “No, Mother, but men get raped by men.”)

But yes, the answer to her question is of course I do, and this is exactly why I am going after what I am going. Identity. History. Things stolen, things lost. People silenced, people ignored. 

People terrified. 

Let me talk about this concept, “political neutrality”, because I think that the concept in some way not only exists in “politically violent” countries like Myanmar and Pakistan, but it also exists in the grand old U.S. of A. 

Look, just because you are not “actively in politics”, just because you are not an active “activist” (and I think that word means different things to different people), let me tell you, you are never, ever, ever, ”politically neutral.”  I don’t care if you are a clerk in a store in a sleepy town in the middle of no where, with no knowledge or interest in “politics”, never mind opinions, but let me tell you something: you are never, ever, ever politically neutral. 

Why? It’s simply this: if you see a wrong being done, and you don’t stand up against it, because “it’s none of my business,” you are directly siding with the oppressor, the one who is committing the wrong. “Wait, how come, I didn’t condone or condemn, you are being too much!” No, my dear, I am not. And let me tell you why: because if those who fuck up even one other person, hell even any other being, and you don’t do any thing about it, the “oppressor” (scary word, huh?) becomes more bold. And continue doing whatever it is that he, or she is doing. Tell me, why should they stop if no one has called them out on it? And if you are not calling them out on it, if you are being “neutral”, you are silently saying, “that’s right, I think what you are doing is completely right, carry on.” 

Which is okay, too, by the way. Maybe you agree and whole heatedly support this action. But again, you are on their side. Not neutral. 

Irresponsible campers. Abusive partners. A whole system of people which continually ignore or deride a whole other people. And you know, both systems are made of individuals themselves. So every time you are simply standing by being “neutral”, not saying anything, you really are not. Even if it means “safe careers”, as the mindset is in at least the two countries which I come from because oh, they are not political, let me tell you, they are. If you are a doctor, yes, you will be treating “controversial” patients at some point. If you choose not to treat them, you are still being political. Commerce? You choosing to conduct business with someone is not always purely business sense, and even if it is, there is some sort of politics involved in there (“I don’t care about their politics or anything, they just have good business and I cannot afford to lose more money!” Which is okay, but please note: if someone has pointed out to you that this person you are about to have business with have some unscrupulous practices, whatever they may be, you are still silently telling them that it’s okay, they can do whatever they want, clients will always come to them. Nope, I see no political neutrality.) 

Go on, throw any other “safe, neutral, careers” at me. Even if you are a clerk in that sleepy store in the middle of nowhere and you treat every client “fairly”, you are going to look at their purchases, and once in a while make idle presumptions about the person making said purchases. Those idle presumptions play out in your every day interactions. Which in the broader world, like it or not, translate into politics. 

So yes Mother dear, to answer your question, I am being very responsible to myself. If my actions are going to have some political meaning, no matter what, I’d rather choose for myself how I want it to be. Even if it’s just a phase. Even if I am being an “irresponsible teenager with too much adrenalin pumping through my veins.”

When I get old and get disillusioned Mother, there is always the option of going back to medical school if I want to. Or graduate school for science. Or whatever. But for right now, no. No, I’d like to understand my people, my culture, myself. So I am better able to fight for them, for me.

You see, Mother, this “politically neutral” profession of medicine? It’s not that neutral, and not that safe, and family friendly either. Doctors also get harassed, assaulted, and raped, too, together with grueling hours, and all the other bullshit they have to take. So, don’t worry, I am rather being responsible here, if I may say so myself.