Why Location Matters With Cultural Appropriation

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Unique and inherited culture is a beautiful thing. It is our way of connecting with our history and keeping those traditions alive. We continue the customs and practices of our ancestors with pride while teaching them to our children. Fighting against the appropriation of our lifestyle due to colonization is an act of pure defiance and rebellion.

For people of color, our culture is sacred to us. In our home countries, we are surrounded by our own people and are welcomed and loved. Our neighbors, co-workers, classmates, friends, and family all dress, eat, talk, and look similar to us. For the average person, blending in and being part of the community is not something that is too difficult to achieve. That is the beauty of being born and raised in our own countries.

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This feeling of acceptance, unfortunately, does not extend to emigrants. When we are no longer in our home country, we stand out as "foreigners" and "exotic." The culture that we hold so dear is no longer the norm and we experience that truth every single day. This is a huge part of why we are so deeply affected by cultural appropriation. When we are marginalized and disparaged for simply owning our own culture, it is a sharp slap in the face when white people are praised and admired for it! In my home country, a white person wearing a salwar kameez or a sari is accepted by the locals. They are seen as embracing our culture and are viewed in a positive light. This is possible because the locals do not have a full and clear understanding of cultural appropriation due to their culture being the dominant one. This is how my family members back home experience it.

Yet for me, it's a different story. Growing up, I was belittled and bullied for my cultural clothing, headscarf, henna, accent, and so much more. Those inherent and vital parts of my very being were demeaned because I didn't fit in. Years went by of this same treatment, I continued to be ridiculed for it all and it got to a point where I started hiding these parts of me.

One of my most vivid memories of this is when I was in elementary school...no more than 10 years old. I had henna all over my hands and halfway up to my elbow. All the little girls were playing "Miss Mary Mack" outside before school started. When it was my turn, one of the girls in my class refused to play with me...because of the henna. She shouted "EW!" and jumped away, saying that I was diseased and gross. She refused to touch me. The rest of the kids stopped too. So there I was, tears rapidly filling my eyes, wondering what was wrong with me and why I couldn't just be normal, instead of heartbroken and confused.

Flash forward 10 years. Now, henna is cool and edgy, something worn to music festivals and raves.  It's a trend and a fad, to be used and tossed aside as the next big thing comes along. The other people wearing this same henna aren't called diseased or gross, though. No, they're spiritual and oh-so-hip. This contrast is what makes cultural appropriation so damaging to people like me.

Back home, no one is mocked for wearing henna...because everyone wears it. So when the locals see a white person wearing it, they don't see the problem. They are ignorant of the harm that comes from cultural appropriation to emigrants and people born or living in Western countries. This is why you need to listen to those of us who are directly affected by cultural appropriation and not tokenize the PoC in our home countries. Their experiences are vastly different from ours and they are not affected the same way that we are. And to the PoC in our home countries: stop speaking over us on this. If you don't know what it's like living in a place where almost every aspect of your heritage is condemned, then you do not get an opinion on if we are harmed. 

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Understanding when your voice is needed and when your opinion is valid can prevent a lot of harm and lateral oppression. Learning when to sit down and listen is also crucial to minimizing the negative impact you have on PoC.

Listen to those who are directly affected by your actions and words. Absorb the knowledge and make changes to your behavior!

Sammie LewisComment