Last week, Cardi B was loudly criticized for a magazine cover where she was photoshopped to have multiple arms, a shoot inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga. People raged about cultural appropriation, upset that she was casually using Hinduism for a promotional pic.
There’s nothing new about this. Selena Gomez and Heidi Klum have been criticized for dressing up in Hindu-inspired clothes and white people have been frowned at for everything from doing yoga to drinking turmeric lattes. Even Hindu women like Deepika Padukone have been criticized for “twisting” traditional Indian stories and “modernizing” them for the benefit of earning a few bucks.
I’m a Democrat and left-of-left, happy that we are finally protecting and standing up for maligned minority culture everywhere. But this is crazy.
Cultures are meant to be used, adapted, and changed. White women don’t own Soul Cycle any more than I own yoga. One of my favorite songs is Hallelujah and I cook better enchilada sauce than my part-Mexican husband. My favorite Bollywood dances are heavily inspired by Michael Jackson and one of our traditional “prayer” meals in my family is potato, a new world vegetable. Globalization is a good thing.
Of course, where there is smoke there is usually a fire and not all cultural appropriation is acceptable. A lot of the original criticism was levied at white artists who used blackface or stole parts of Black culture while criticizing the same elements when used by Black people. There is an insidious history of racism, hatred, and theft.
But Cardi B dressing up like Durga is different. Black people have never squashed Hindus in America. There is no story of oppression, no clear intent that she is “stealing” our culture or criticizing our use of it. Rather, most people in this country compliment me on my ethnic clothing, music, and cooking. Then, out of admiration, they seek to copy it.
That is a good thing.
One person adapting or even mocking us is fair game. We are no more — or less — special than Christianity.
To me, there are three important reasons why cultural “appropriation” is an important part of modern society.
First, cultural appropriation is how cultures and melting pots work. People often say religion isn’t entertainment, but what they mean is that minority religion isn’t entertainment. Christianity is commercialized and ubiquitous. It’s been feminized and queer-ized and packaged on Netflix.
I want that for Hinduism, a thousands-year old cultural tradition that is far more than just religion. Indian/Hindu food, festivals, and myths are cool fodder for comic books, art, and whatever capitalism wants to throw at us. It’s how beautiful new things get made, like fusion food and music.
And the cultural appropriation slippery slope doesn’t have a clear line. It used to be okay for white people to wear Indian clothes. Now it’s not. What’s next? Spices? Our religion? Can white people even convert to Hinduism any more? It seems like, slowly, my culture is becoming protected, cloistered, and distanced— and most of this is being done by liberal white people, not by my community.
Now criticism is being spread to Black artists, like Cardi B. It is not possible for Black people to harmfully appropriate Hinduism because there isn’t a long history of oppression or harm, no intent to steal or insult. One person adapting or even mocking us is fair game. We’re no more — or less — special than Christianity.
Second, criticizing cultural appropriation is costing Indian businesses. When I was young, I remember many of my white friends buying saris for festivals or lights for Diwali. In the Bay Area, there were entire shops devoted to selling Hindu charms and henna to white people — in general, priced far higher than anything we Indians would buy.
Today, most liberal white people are afraid to wear our clothes in public. They worry about having figurines of our gods in their homes or workplaces. They don’t want to “insult” Hindus or “use a minority religion for fun.” This is costing Indian-run businesses, in America and in India.
Meanwhile, cheap plastic figures of Jesus and Santa line the streets of Bangalore, Good Omens is one of my favorite shows, and my family has an expensive model of the Last Supper as a dining room piece. White culture grows richer as ours grows poorer.
Third, cultural appropriation helps Hindus feel less alone. Back when white people wore bindis and had Hindu-inspired tattoos, I wore a bindi every single day. Now, it’s become an “ethnic thing” and people feel obligated to compliment me on my bravery when I do. If more people wore Indian clothing, I could do so without it being unusual. If more people wrote fiction about Hindu gods, I’d have more stuff from my culture to read.
And appropriation also helps modernize culture. Cardi B was criticized for using Durga and wearing a revealing outfit. As a woman, I’m proud of her. I’m tired of the Hindu right controlling what our goddesses are supposed to look like: “chastely” clothed virgins who worship their male counterparts. And Cardi B is Black, a skin color traditionally associated with Hindu demons, rather than goddesses. The more that strong, modern women use and adapt our culture, the more relevant it remains to progressives like me.
My culture is not an exotic, almost extinct animal that needs to be protected in a zoo.
When the criticism poured last week, Cardi B apologized profusely and genuinely for her gaffe, but she also made an excellent point in her response: it isn’t considered offensive for people to dress up as the Virgin Mary.
This point stuck with me. Why?, I asked myself. Is it that we are all taught to believe that Christianity and white culture is the standard? It’s okay to laugh, criticize, and even mock the dominant identity, the “default.”
I want that for my culture too. I want Hinduism to be equally entrenched in the framework of our economy, inspiring everything from bathing suits to bad costume jewelry. For that to happen, we have to allow people to use it.
My culture is not an exotic, almost extinct animal that needs to be protected in a zoo. I want more bindis in the workplace, more henna art, and more jokes about karma. I want to see more fusion food and Hindu prayer remixes. I want mockumentaries of Ganesha and commercialization of our festivals.
I am proud of my culture. But I have still written fictionalized stories set in Christian mythology. I have worn traditional German and Hungarian clothing, made art inspired by Renaissance painters, and sung choir songs. I have adapted other people’s cultures, worn their clothes, and read their books.
I’d like everyone to be able to do the same with mine.