Content Note: cultural appropriation, discussion of oppression, dehumanisation and historic injustice, discussion of white privilege.
A lot has been already been said and written about cultural appropriation. It’s been defined, dissected and debated by others with far more nuance and knowledge than me. But something I feel has sometimes been missing from the discussion – or something that often gets subsumed to the greater task of having to explain what injustice is – is the pain of it. I’m a big believer in feelings and lived experience, so for me, it is the pain that is interesting and difficult. It is the pain which makes cultural appropriation both so ambiguous to distinguish from appreciation sometimes, but also what makes it so real.
I was watching some youtube clips of old Bollywood films at home the other night and at some point I felt a deep sadness. I felt it whilst watching women dressed in clothes I don’t wear, singing a language I need subtitles to properly understand, making reference to a culture that feels like a whispered memory more than anything I know to be substantially true. And yet, I felt sad. I knew it was romanticised, I knew they were films, but what most got to me was that as much as I watched and listened and read; as much as I could want to immerse myself in Punjabi songs or wear my grandma’s old frocks or anything else; that culture, that language, those references and those people weren’t mine. Or at least, whatever was ‘mine’ was a jumble of things. A jumble of being a third-generation member of a diaspora, of being many things at once, and sometimes, because of that, feeling like not much at all.
And that’s where the pain comes in.
At its most basic level, cultural appropriation is about the cultures of people who have been historically marginalised, robbed, killed and oppressed being adopted by people of the dominant groups in Western white societies with several major detrimental consequences. a) Privileged people can adopt the clothes, items, rituals or other artefacts of a culture without any of the connotations that come with it for people of those cultures who do the same, thus trivialising violent historical oppression. b) Adopting only aspects of cultures tends to misrepresent, stereotype, disregard and reduce them – and when you reduce a culture, you reduce its people, continuing their dehumanisation. c) Cultural artefacts become suddenly and only ‘cool’, ‘innovative’, ‘exciting’, or ‘beautiful’, when adopted by the dominant white Western groups, perpetuating power dynamics and hierarchies and allowing people to show a love of a culture whilst remaining prejudiced against its people. (For some great articles and videos, see: 1, 2, 3, 4.)
But aside from all this, aside from the macro-level of injustice that takes place when appropriation occurs, is the micro-level: the personal pain.
Often, this pain can seem too trivial to try to bring up. Too selfish, not intellectually-justifiable enough, or a strong enough argument against appropriation. But in all honesty, pain is the essence of injustice and whether ‘right’, or ‘wrong’, the reality of it remains true.
For me, it is a complex and overlapping pain that comes with knowing that I am not really a part of a culture I connote my heritage to. That that culture has been slowly unravelled around me and stripped from me in the process of my family’s migration to Britain;in the processes of attempted integration and assimilation for acceptance and survival. It is the pain of never having been allowed even a proper chance to hold onto something that is a part of my story, and then seeing it sit easily on the bodies of others, the tongues of others, the faces and hands of others. And it’s not just any old ‘others’ either. It is the pain that comes with knowing that what was deemed ugly, uncouth and unwelcome on the brown bodies of people like me can be a fun ‘costume’ to slip into for the white bodies which made those judgements. It’s the pain of knowing that such pain will just be shrugged off, that it won’t stand up in the face of people wanting to wear those things, wanting to try those things and wanting to take those things. It is the pain of hearing other brown girls admit to me that they make sure to perfume themselves well before going out so the connotations of curry-smells don’t haunt them in the daytime; and the pain of seeing how easily some people cook any food of their choice. It is the pain of feeling small for feeling such things and the pain of feeling petty. It is the pain of every brown girl who grows up looking in the mirror and not understanding why she will never be the right kind of pretty; the pain of every child whose parents worry about what to wear for the eyes of white people. It is the pain of knowing that some people will slip easily into ‘fun’ clothes I wish I had the bravery to wear; and the pain of knowing that they wear them without ever having to confront the white voyeur. It is the pain of knowing that people can eat the dinners you have every night at home, they can love and laud those dinners, but still treat you with disdain. It is the pain of knowing that some people will never have to feel this pain and that they’ll go through their lives never dealing with the harm they have caused or dealing with its consequences. It is a guttural pain. The pain of generational trauma and of a loss you can’t even fully know. The pain of a theft that leaves your throat empty before you realise you had a language prior to the one you already know.
I’ve had to teach myself that this pain is valid because it is the kind of pain cultural appropriators will only mock. The pain of people whose cultures are only fun on other people’s bodies is a pain too personal to be deemed significant and too subjective to be deemed justified. When you tell people who are entitled to most things in life to please stop taking and reducing and belittling, they won’t. So when people ask me what the difference is between cultural appropriation and appreciation I can only send them articles and videos; because the real answer – the truest one I know – is that the difference is the pain.