In elementary school, I was made fun of for having mehndi done on my hands, which I had gotten done that past weekend from celebrating Eid (a Muslim holiday). My classmates were asking questions like “why did you color on your hands?” and saying that it was “dirty” to have that on my hands. Some of them didn’t want me to touch them out of disgust and fear. I was so confused because in desi culture (desi = South Asian, a.k.a. Indian, Pakistani, etc), mehndi is considered beautiful and a way to celebrate holidays, weddings, and more in our culture. It hurt, as a child, to feel that my culture was weird. It made me start to resent my desi identity and try to conform to become as white as possible. I wanted to seem as “normal” as I could to my white friends in order to avoid bullying and feeling left out, so I started acting like I didn’t have any desi roots at all to prove I wasn’t your stereotypical “Indian” (lol, I’m Pakistani, but that’s not the point. I’m still desi AF).
Fast forward to high school, my friends were bragging about their “henna” they got done at a fair or something. Suddenly mehndi (known as “henna” in English) became cool and trendy when my white friends did it. But, why it was weird and “dirty” when I did it even though it was my culture? That’s cultural appropriation for you. (note: Mehdni/henna from not only desi culture, it is used in Africa and Middle East as well)
Cultural appropriation is when “a dominant group exploits the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions”. Desi culture is appropriated all the time. Another example is the bindi. The bindi is worn by Hindu women and has a religious significance to Hinduism, but now white hipster girls will wear one at Coachella too. This isn’t to say desi culture is the only culture being appropriated; Asian, Black, Latino, and other cultures also get appropriated. Dreadlocks are a hairstyle that is popular and common in the Black community but the media and others view dreadlocks as “ghetto” when on Black people. Recently, Justin Bieber showed off his new hairstyle (shocker: it was dreadlocks!) and just like that, it wasn’t “ghetto” anymore. Looks like it only took a change of race for something to be cool and edgy! But wait there’s more!
Holi is a Hindu holiday that celebrates spring and significant religious stories in ancient Hindu scripture and texts. The holiday has been celebrated for centuries and has importance to millions of Hindus. It consists of throwing powdered paint at each other and having a good time while remembering Hindu legends associated with it. In 2012, an American thought it would be awesome to have an event where people would run and throwing powdered paint at each other, sound familiar? The “Color Run” fad literally diluted Holi to just the powder paint aspect in order to have “fun” and stripped Holi from its religious significance. Color Runs were seen as being fun, new, and innovative but in reality Hindus had been celebrating Holi as early as 300 BC, that’s how old this holiday is! However, the official Color Run website has no mention of where the idea comes from. A Hindu blogger online, commented: “Come uncultured, leave uncultured – that’s the color-run promise … Honestly, the Color Run does absolutely nothing to give credit where it’s due… they’ve trademarked our tradition.” That’s cultural appropriation because the Color Run takes an important religious holiday and re-invents it without acknowledging the original historical/religious background.
Now keep in mind that I’m not a Hindu, but as an Interfaith Intern and Pakistani, I believe in being ally to other faiths and supporting other desis. Being an ally means being supportive of one’s identity and different cultures. Does this mean that you can’t ever experience Holi? Not at all, Holi is amazing and fun. That’s where the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation comes in. Cultural appreciation is “learning about another culture with respect and courtesy. It is appreciating a certain culture enough to take time to learn about it, interact with people among the culture, and actually understand the culture.” Essentially, cultural appreciation requires an invitation into the culture, while cultural appropriation is a colonial move that takes an aspect of culture for yourself. This means that if you want to celebrate Holi, see if your college campus or local Hindu temple is having a Holi celebration (DPU is having one on April 15th at 5pm in Gobin) and attend that because that will include an education aspect. If I invite you to a desi wedding, and I ask you to get mehndi done with me, that’s fine because I’m inviting you to experience my culture with me and how it was originally intended to be used. So please don’t take my culture (or others) that I was once ridiculed for by you, and make it into a trend. Learn about it and appreciate it in the right way!