*First published by Wear Your Voice Magazine, May 10, 2017.*
Should I wear my hair in a ponytail? Should I dress myself up in chanel? Do I measure me by what you think? Absolutely not, absolutely not If I go to work in a mini-skirt Am I givin’ you the right to flirt? I won’t compromise my point of view Absolutely not, absolutely not Today I drape my #whiteprivilege in six magnificent yards of handloomed hand-block-printed kalamkari-inspired saree from @designerayushkejriwal You may be familiar with the uber-elegant black saree with green and gold border made famous by the breathtaking beauty and my personal saree-style inspiration @balanvidya What attracted me to Ayush is the ease with which he articulates his brand ethos and the straightforward way he writes about style. This gorgeous #protestsaree stands for the rights of women everywhere to be fully and freely ourselves. Am I not Indian enough to wear this traditional motif? Am I putting myself at risk in this culture by wearing the garments from another? Are you too Indian to wear that miniskirt? Should you wear that in the evening? Do the opinions of others about what is appropriate have anything to do with me? #absolutelynot. #iwearhandloom #deborahcox #bekind #bestrong #befearless #alwaysingratitude #indianfashion #sareelove #sareenotsorry #sareeonmovement #keepcalmandsareeon #didyougetthatinindia (Nope! This beauty came from Scotland!) #diversitymatters Photo by my lovely @kate.jacobs
Every single day in the geopolitical West, brown women are glared at, harassed and even assaulted for daring to wear traditional garb out in public. Whether it’s a sari, a kurta, a hijab or a salwar kameez, these items of clothing code us as Other, and for our own protection and self-preservation, many Desi women opt out of making inadvertent political statement by dressing in their own clothes. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s Electoral College win, even a jeweled bindi on my forehead has gone from being an accessory I wear proudly to making me feel like a walking target. It’s exhausting, to say the least. Not to mention terrifying.
Brown and black skin and indicators of non-whiteness have been newly weaponized since the Trump regime was installed, and many of us are managing our Otherness more than ever as a matter of survival.
And along comes a white woman by the name of Stacy Jacobs, whose gimmick is wearing saris in protest of Trump’s reign. She hashtags her fashion activism #BordersAreForSarees and #ProtestSarees. Her Instagram feed is filled with pictures of her in a sari every time Trump does something awful. She even had a #BlueLivesMatter post (that has since been deleted) and makes pithy statements like:
“Today I drape my #whiteprivilege in six magnificent yards of handloomed hand-block-printed kalamkari-inspired saree from @designerayushkejriwal. … This gorgeous #protestsaree stands for the rights of women everywhere to be fully and freely ourselves. Am I not Indian enough to wear this traditional motif? Am I putting myself at risk in this culture by wearing the garments from another? Are you too Indian to wear that miniskirt? Should you wear that in the evening? Do the opinions of others about what is appropriate have anything to do with me? #absolutelynot.”
In this particular context, #AbsolutelyYES.
To Jacobs’s credit, she does at least seem knowledgeable about the textiles she’s wearing, and she promotes the sari designers in her posts. But make no mistake: her “protest saris” are blatant cultural appropriation. And it is a huge problem.
Millions of brown women around the world wear a sari as a daily matter of course. Do they get articles written about them? Do they get magazine features? Interview requests? No. But when a white woman does it, suddenly the sari’s cultural cache increases. But only for white women. In America, a brown woman doing the same will get dirty looks and told to go home.
Cultural appropriation reinforces the notion that anything that exists also belongs to white people to co-opt and use for their own ends without understanding or acknowledging their relative position of power. Hashtagging your #whiteprivilege isn’t close to being enough. White people feel singularly entitled to take other people’s spiritual, cultural and even social currency for their own, and often-capitalistic, gain.
Worse, there is a growing and disturbing trend of supposedly progressive and liberal feminists who seem to think that their political wokeness gives them free license to appropriate other people’s cultures. Under the guise of globalistic rhetoric, these so-called progressives justify and defend their cultural appropriation as the natural course of our globalized society — a post-racial society in which differences can be erased because they have decided so — veritably denying that cultural appropriation exists at all. To these fauxgressives, everything belongs to everybody and they have the right to transform these cultural and spiritual practices as they see fit. Like metal yoga, “fuck you” yoga and beer yoga, not only has an ancient Indian spiritual practice been culturally appropriated, it has been mutilated and Frankensteined together into a monstrous shadow of itself.
To those of us who value these cultures and traditions as they were, denying cultural appropriation is a dangerous kind of erasure.
Cultural appropriation inevitably makes a mockery of the appropriated culture. It fetishizes and removes cultural practices from their contexts and reinserts them onto an acceptable figure: often that of the skinny white woman. Her white skin validates an appropriated practice. Just look through the comments on Stacy Jacobs’ Instagram. Indian women are falling over themselves to praise her because she helps them align themselves with whiteness. It’s a sad fact of the post-colonial brown experience that many South Asians believe proximity or deference to white people increases their own whiteness. In real life, it doesn’t matter how much a brown person does to align themselves with white people — like voting for Trump or voting Republican at all — we will always be considered Other.
And progressive, liberal, feminist white women like Stacy Jacobs — who has become my own personal poster girl for white feminist cultural appropriation — are failing miserably at allyship.
Everyone has blind spots when it comes to their social and political consciousness. Being a true progressive and an actual ally means being able to take a couple steps back and check your privilege when it gets necessarily called out. That is not an opportunity for white people especially to argue and defend their actions. It is a moment to be humbled, to take a seat and listen to what a racially, ethnically, culturally marginalized person is telling you to be true. Expanding one’s consciousness and understanding can be painful work, and if you’re not willing to do it, then you might not be as progressive as you think you are.
Dismissing concerns over cultural appropriation as identity politics and labeling them divisive is just another prime example of white privilege in action. It must be nice to have so little at stake and yet somehow these copious white tears end up framing discussions.
Here’s the final thing: When it comes to practices like yoga, it is possible to engage in that activity as a non-Indian, even though it will always be cultural appropriation. Having an awareness of one’s own privilege and cultivating a deeper understanding of the practice you’re appropriating are huge steps forward. And, unlike other forms of cultural appropriation, yoga has important health benefits for its practitioners.
But saris? Salwar kameez? Kurta? Bindis? Tikkas? These things being re-branded as “festival wear”? White women, please just stop. Not everything belongs to you, and that is okay. You will live. And while you’re in the sidelines wishing for our precious cultural signifiers and color, think about all the time that brown and black women are forced to do the same because of the simple fact that we are not white. For us, being socially and culturally sidelined in America is the majority of our experience, not some minor fashion inconvenience that will pass.
Stacy Jacobs, there are better ways to show your solidarity with brown folks than co-opting our traditional dress.
And white women, if you love our cultural production so much that you can’t live without it, feel free to marry into the South Asian community. That’ll get you something of a pass.