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How I Fell In and Out of Love with Cultural Appropriation

As a teen growing up in India, pop's biggest names swiped from my culture. We didn't see it as crass; thankfully, today's kids do.
Illustration by Taylor Lewis

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It's 2016, and white celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Justin Bieber, and Vanessa Hudgens still think nothing of fashioning their hair into dreads and cornrows. This weekend, Hilary Duff and boyfriend Jason Walsh thought nothing of dressing as a pilgrim and Native American for Halloween. Last week, Amy Schumer thought nothing of releasing a lip-sync video remake of Beyoncé's "Formation," a Black Power anthem. Schumer was vocally accused of cultural appropriation for her parody. That seems to be the problem—they think nothing of it.


In a public response, Schumer said the video was Beyoncé-approved, and that her intentions were good. It's a common refrain—that these stars' intentions are good, that these were not racialized acts—and one that continues to ring forth when offensive acts spark outrage online. Often, where others see appropriation, these stars see themselves as celebrating and honoring diverse cultures.

This spring, Beyoncé herself was criticized for an appearance in Coldplay's "Hymn for the Weekend" music video, in which she wore an outfit reminiscent of an Indian bride, complete with a sari, henna, and a bindi. Some called the video exoticizing; others praised her for celebrating Indian culture and spreading awareness of its history. She follows in a long tradition of pop stars incorporating Indian culture into their looks and acts, for both better and worse. She, like those stars before her, chose to walk the fine line between celebration and appropriation, to predictably mixed results.

As an Indian immigrant, seeing these and other examples of Hindu exploitation now makes me cringe. It didn't always. Odd as it may sound, I once loved cultural appropriation—and I wasn't alone.

I grew up in India in the 1990s, where I looked to entertainment to distract me from my teen angst; that meant turning to Western media. And while I cannot speak for the entire country and generation, other Indian kids of my age and background—English-speaking and upper-middle class—seemed to agree that listening to Hindi music or seeing Bollywood films was social suicide. (Everyone still did, but as a somewhat shameful, hidden secret.)


We spent our school days discussing the latest Hollywood action films and singing lyrics from the Billboard charts. We wore Nike, Lacoste, and Levi. Our bedroom walls were not unlike those of my American cousins, plastered over with the same heartthrobs, hot rods, and pop stars. If Westerners pegged us as exotic, we returned the sentiment. Nothing was cooler, louder, and more exciting to us than anything we deemed "foreign." We drank the proverbial Kool-Aid (also unavailable in India).

You may know where I'm going with this: Gwen Stefani, right? Yes, the epitome of 90s cool girl rebel. She wore bindis—on red carpets, in concerts and music videos. While dating No Doubt band member Tony Kanal, an Indian American, she noticed his mother wearing one and adopted it into her look, simple as that. She thought it was pretty. Many thought it was appropriative—as was her most notorious cultural stunt later on, her Harajuku girls.

I remember watching her on TV in 1997, when the band visited India for the Channel V Awards (South Asia's MTV). Gwen took to the stage in a full sari, hands covered in mehndi, forehead adorned with jewels and flowers in her hair, looking like a Hindu bride. (Not unlike Beyoncé this spring.) The first words out of her mouth were a heavily American accented "namaste." The crowd went wild. So did I.

A slew of celebrities would go on to take cues from our culture throughout the 90s and early 2000s. And we noticed.


British artists like Sting and Kula Shaker used sitars and tablas on their albums. Bollywood samples were prevalent in hip-hop. Fashion designers like John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier gave our culture a nod in their collections. Saris were seen on visiting celebrities like Oprah, Naomi Campbell, Elizabeth Hurley, and the Spice Girls.

Of all of them, Madonna, the mother of reinvention herself, may have been the queen of borrowing from South Asian culture. After all, she sang a song entirely in Sanskrit, "Shanti-Ashtangi," on 1998's Ray of Light. She performed a sample of it at that year's MTV Video Music Awards, complete with traditional dancers, religious imagery and, of course, a bindi. When a Hindu organization condemned her performance, the tone-deafness of her reply was telling.

But in India, her albums were not burned in the streets—we thought it was awesome. My friends and I were ecstatic at these brief moments of cultural "appropriation." It wasn't like these stars had stolen anything; we felt they were promoting and celebrating India by bringing our culture and tradition to the masses. Making it cool, in fact. We were proud. It was the only form of mainstream representation we could hope for. We honestly didn't know any better.

My parents likened this to their own youth, when the hippie movement borrowed mantras and fashions from the East throughout the 60s and 70s. No one protested when the Beatles came to our ashrams, wore kurtas, and played the sitar with Ravi Shankar. It's an important moment in music history and influenced their, and others', work profoundly. "Jai Guru Deva Om" indeed.


Looking back now, I can see the forest for the trees. I realize that in the 90s, India was seen as a rising global economic powerhouse. These entertainers were celebrating our culture, to be sure, but so much of that had to do with making money, a sad realization that taints some of my favorite childhood memories. I can forgive ignorance, but not greed.

When I moved to America in the early 2000s, I saw the other side of the fence. This place I had worshipped from afar was indeed a dream come true, partnered with a few harsh realities.

Many people I met had a concept of India that was archaic. They saw us as exotic, true, but also backward. Some marveled that my family and I spoke English "so well" and were up to date on the latest news, music, and trends. The fact that we didn't sleep in huts and have pet monkeys seemed to disappoint them. Their ignorance disappointed me back.

I was no longer enamored by the "glamour" of the West. Many immigrants I know and have met felt the same way. This shiny star of a country is a great goal to aim for, but you shouldn't have to dismiss your own background for its own sake.

Fortunately, Indian youth today are far more politicized and well-informed than those of my generation; unlike the undying adoration of Western culture I saw from my generation, today's youth have achieved a remarkable balance between embracing their heritage while drawing inspiration from the West. And according to my relatives still there, Bollywood is just as cool as Hollywood now, as it has been for some time. I just didn't see it when I was growing up.

We still very much want mainstream media representation, and we want it in a way that celebrates, rather than appropriates. And it's high time that such celebration comes from actual South Asians, not from white people playing dress up. Today's Western cultural terrain is far from perfect, but when South Asian stars like Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and Priyanka Chopra have broken into the mainstream, that's cause for true celebration—and, one would hope, only the beginning.

The fact that cultural appropriation no longer gets a pass, that such acts are now vehemently condemned when they happen (even if they happen all too frequently) is important and telling. If you want to pay respect to our traditions, learn about them first. Educate yourself. In 2016, we no longer seek your approval—you need ours.

Follow Reneysh Vittal on Twitter.