July 16, 2009
Ms. Magazine Appropriates South Asian Culture
On its newest cover, Ms. Magazine, a feminist publication that focuses on women, politics and culture, has represented a white woman in the form of South Asian religious iconography. With several arms each managing different tasks, the image appropriates South Asian gods and goddesses, many of which are depicted with multiple arms to signify varying roles and omnipotence.
The cultural appropriation of South Asian culture has become an increasingly popular trend, one that is often met with little resistance by mainstream communities. After all, isn't it a kind of flattery to have one's culture utilized in advertising, picked up by celebrities and influencing mainstream popular culture?
The problem with the commodification of culture in this careless manner is that it's dangerous for South Asian and diasporic communities – it presents South Asian culture as a complete, fragment-free, unified category. What we wind up with is more Orientalist perspectives circulating through movies, magazines and stores, more South Asians having to answer for an entire group of individuals about everything from food to yoga, and more ignoring national, gendered, class and sexual differences within the community.
Furthermore, the appropriation of culture is a small and insignificant step in the process of "having arrived" in society. Bindis may have been acceptable for Madonna and Gwen Stefani to wear, but South Asian women who have worn them in public have faced racist acts of violence in their communities as a result. An oversimplified understanding of culture has not done anything for a larger racial justice movement and has surely done nothing to stop the stereotyping of a community.
I also find it completely unacceptable for a feminist publication to blatantly marginalize women of color as a result of their appropriation of culture. It is a reminder of the divided nature of the feminist movement, and the continued tendency of white feminists to participate in the exoticization or "Othering" of women of color.
I'll leave you with an excerpt and link to Sandip Roy's "My Kitsch is Their Cool," an excellent article published in ColorLines about the effects of appropriating South Asian culture:
"When I first came to the U.S., Americans asked me about that 'dot on the forehead.' Now, Madonna wears a bindi. Bollywood borrows Hollywood plotlines (well, two or three for one three-hour film). Now, the Kronos Quartet reinterprets Bollywood composer R.D. Burman. Birthday cards are reproducing old kitschy Indian matchbox covers. Body-hugging T-shirts worn by gay guys in the Castro say “San Francisco” in Devnagari script. There are even Bollywood appreciation classes at universities. My kitsch has become their cool.
Of course, not everything has been alchemized into cool. My big, fat Indian wedding might be hot (“I want one,” a gay man with a Southern accent told me at my neighborhood lesbian bar while sipping a sweet cocktail), but it doesn’t mean the Indian cabdriver, the 7/11 clerk or the Gujarati storeowner are any more acceptable."