The commodification of culture is ‘you can wear it, but I can’t’.
Cultural appropriation is the same - ‘You can wear it, but I can’t!’ cries the white person as they drench themselves in henna, superglue a bindi to their forehead, and refuse to brush their hair for weeks on end.
Growing up, I was surrounded by white kids. They said I smelled dirty every time I got back from visiting my family, or when I went to school the morning after my mother had made a particularly strong curry. They complained to their parents, who complained to their teacher, who complained to my parents, who gently told me that I spilled rice on the table at lunch time. Thus the switch to white bread and red meat began - bleaching myself from the inside out. School meals fucking sucked. I was banned from using my tastebuds for years.
Every time I went to Delhi, I would leave with henna on my hands - my mother would take me to the market in a rickshaw and we’d sit there for half an hour while some stranger drew these beautiful things all over me, and I would watch him, fascinated, on a stool before me, his legs splayed out. We’d hand him a few coins and be on our way, and she’d stop for panipuri on the way home. I’d be careful not to wipe my hands on the rickshaw rail, careful not to wipe my hands on anything. I’d smell the traces of India on my clothes, and washing them the evening I got home would always be a little sad.
‘You can wear it, but I can’t.‘
Kids ran away from me at school like I was poison ivy. Convinced that I would give them a horrible disease, or if I didn’t, I probably smelled anyway so there was no reason to go within a thirty foot proximity of me. Their parents would encourage them - instating bans on ever ending up at my house when they saw my mother pick me up in the playground with a bindi on her forehead one day, when they heard my father’s strong accent. Like they’d have wanted to go to my house anyway.
'You can wear it, but I can’t.’
Funnily, I can’t wear it. I can’t wear the sari, the lengha or the bindi, even now, without someone looking me up and down with disgust. ‘Get out of our country’; ‘dothead’; ‘Paki’; ‘lousy immigrants, running our healthcare systems to lock us out’; it’s all the same to me.
'But it’s cool to wear it at Coachella, right? At the party next week? I saw Madonna doing it, it’s completely in right now.’ And if I say no, I’m the bad guy, and it’s people like me that are keeping the stereotype of Indian people alive - they’re all freshies, they don’t belong here and they’re just, like, so intrusive. What’s with them taking all our jobs? Why is there one behind every corner shop counter and on every call centre line? Why are all the doctors in my local hospital brown, yet the receptionist is white? Seems like some kind of supremacy, right?
Thus the commodification of my culture continues. I watch crystal bindis being marked up to be sold in Forever21 and Topshop when I can buy them on the street in Delhi for a tenth of the cost. I see girls I knew in primary school plaster Friday night pictures of them in their bodycon dress and their bindi spot with a mixer in their hand all over my news feed, and I know that this is how it is -
'You can wear it, but I can’t.’
I have somehow been locked out of a culture that I want to be proud of; I am rejected as the fresh off the boat immigrant who’s going to give everyone a disease with their dirty hands. On me it’s dirt, worthy of a slur in my direction and an inside joke with the next white person you see - but on you, it’s chic. It’s cheerful and boho-indie-pastel-pale-cute.
You point with your left hand, and painstakingly apply your bindi spot with the right. Then you forget about it, because you can afford to, and adjust your sari in the mirror with both.