Social-Justice Blog Asks if Asian Americans Can ‘Appropriate Their Own Culture’

A dancer performs a traditional folk dance at the North East Games in Tripura, India, in 2009. (Reuters photo: Jayanta Dey)
Apparently, it’s okay for you to celebrate your own culture, as long as you are continually examining your reasons for doing so.

According to an essay in the social-justice blog Everyday Feminism, it actually “might be” possible for Asian Americans to appropriate Asian culture — yes, even though it’s their own culture.

“There are two main reasons why we might be considered to be culturally appropriating as people of the Asian diaspora,” Ayesha Sharma writes in a post titled “Can Asian-Americans Appropriate Their Own Culture?” “The first is we’re reclaiming our culture with some unfamiliarity and distance from the cultures of our ‘homelands.’”

Sharma, who is “a non-binary South Asian scholar,” writes that they — “they” is the pronoun that Sharma prefers, as seen in the bio of one of their other essays — have “found a lot of power in reclaiming the bindi,” “because . . . it isn’t just a decorative symbol.”

A bindi, according to Webster’s, “is a mark (such as a red dot) or piece of jewelry worn on the middle of the forehead especially by Hindu women.”

“It represents my resistance to the ways that my South Asian community has policed my gender and claimed that South Asianness is narrow in its possibilities,” Sharma writes.

Clearly, Sharma understands the cultural significance of the bindi, and considers it something to be very important to them. Add to that the fact that they are South Asian themselves, and you would think that there would be absolutely no problem with their decision to wear one.

But you’d be wrong. According to Sharma, some people actually do think that it’s kind of a problem for people like Sharma to wear a bindi — because even though they may be South Asian and understand its significance, they are still not actually, physically living in South Asia — meaning that they actually might be appropriating their own culture:

In an article for Black Girl Dangerous, South Asian artist and activist Janani claims that South Asians have “a lot more than Bollywood and chai and henna going for us,” so diasporic South Asians need to “quit Orientalizing our cultures.”

They speak about how our distance from South Asia (“in geography, class, Western socialization”) can produce an unfamiliarity of lived experience and culture of native people in South Asia.

Basically, they’re making the really valid assertion that we need to be critical about our positions as diasporic (South) Asian people. Particularly with lived experience, we can’t claim to understand what everyone in South Asia goes through.

In other words: Some people actually think that celebrating your own culture — even though it’s your own culture – automatically becomes appropriation once you start living in the United States, just because you live in the United States.

Now, to be fair, Sharma does take the position that this view is a bit extreme. According to Sharma, even though the claim may be, as they call it, a “really valid assertion,” calling people’s celebration of their cultures “appropriation” because of where they live is also “problematic” because “wrapped up in their message is also their assertion that (South) Asians of the diaspora always have an ‘incomplete and secondhand’ knowledge of (South) Asian culture.”

“It’s also rooted in the destructive concept that people who have ‘mixed ancestry’ are impure — that they have a distance from ‘pure’ culture, and so they will never be complete,” Sharma writes.

So, if calling the celebration of your own culture “appropriation” is both “valid” and “problematic,” just what in the hell is Sharma suggesting that people actually do?

“I don’t think it isn’t [sic] as simple as telling Asians of the diaspora that we need to quit irresponsibly reclaiming our cultures,” Sharma writes. “It’s more a matter of deciding how we can heal while we’re existing in a white supremacist world that has constructed racist and reductive stereotypes in the first place, and checking ourselves on how we’re profiting from reproducing these stereotypes (and at whose expense).”

So basically, Sharma actually thinks it’s okay for you to celebrate your own culture, as long as you are continually examining your reasons for doing so and making sure that none of them are propping up white supremacy and that you are doing all you can to fight white supremacy.

I suppose I’ll have to do better this year.

I’ve got to be honest: I’m not entirely sure that my family’s celebration of our own culture has always passed this test. I’m Polish, and my entire life I’ve engaged in Polish customs: For example, on Christmas Eve, my family always celebrates “Wigilia,” or Polish Christmas Eve. We do all of the traditional Wigilia things that my ancestors did in Poland: We have a meatless dinner, we break wafers called “opłatek” before we eat, and so on and so forth. I have to admit, though, that we have never discussed whether or not we were being racist against ourselves.

I suppose I’ll have to do better this year. Yes, this Wigilia, before I allow myself to eat even a single pieróg, I will make sure to stop and contemplate my reasons for doing so. I hope it goes well — after all, if I wind up realizing that I’ve just been being super racist towards myself this entire time, then I’m going to be really upset at me.


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