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 Harbeer Sandhu
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by Harbeer Sandhu
art by Austin Smith

It started at Coachella, this noise. About four years ago at Coachella. It started with a bunch of pretty, rich white kids from Los Angeles prancing around a polo field in the Mojave rocking war bonnets and face paint.

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So, let’s just go there. Let’s cut to the chase. Godwin’s Law states that any online discussion will eventually turn to Nazi comparisons, and since my topic this month — Cultural Appropriation — has been contended and contested in every internet forum for the past few years, let’s just start off with the Nazis.

Imagine that the Nazis had won. It’s 2024 and the Nazis won WWII. No, wait, let’s make this analogy as accurate as possible. Let’s get the time frame right.

The “American Indian Wars” allegedly ended in the 1890s, but Native American children continued to be taught that they were ugly stupid savage losers as part of official US policy into the 1990s. They were taken from their families and their communities and sent to American Indian boarding schools where they were beaten to submission and taught that they were ugly stupid savage losers. But enrollment in those institutions peaked in the 1970s, so let’s draw a line at 1975, with the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. So…1975 to 2024…round that up to 40 years.

It has only been 40 years since the US government’s official policy was to tell Native Americans that they were ugly stupid savage losers.

So, the Nazis won and it’s 40 years after the end of the war. It’s Germany in 1985 and the Germans have a huge festival in the Alps featuring Kraftwerk and David Hasselhoff and Scorpions and all the hottest German bands of 1985. Let’s call it Smoachella. And dig this — at Smoachella, all the hippest, hottest German kids are rocking swastikas. No, sorry, not swastikas — the Nazis won, so swastikas are passé (that would be like hipsters rocking the Stars and Stripes). No, sorry, all the hippest, hottest kids at Smoachella are rocking the Star of David, the six-pointed star, the Jewish symbol. Because, you know, they’re like, pretty, and easy to draw, you know? I mean, it doesn’t have to be religious; they just like how they look, OK?

A white person rocking a plains Indian war bonnet in 2024 is equivalent to a Nazi wearing a Star of David in 1985 — if the Nazis had won.


They have always been around. Dreadlocked white boys singing reggae. “Ratchet” white girls twerking with cornrowed weaves and gold grills. Hippie mamas sportin saris with bindis on their foreheads. Dude-bros playing ultimate frisbee with their Chinese calligraphy and tribal tatts showing. They will always be around.

Before Coachella we called them Culture Vultures. Edward Said, the great Palestinian cultural theorist, called them Orientalists. They say they’re giving respect, but really they’re just taking what they want and leaving the rest. There is no real exchange; there is no back forth — we know this, because if there had been a dialog then somebody would have taught them better — you just don’t do shit like that. (And that Chinese character tattooed on your shoulder that you think means “power” might actually mean “pencil sharpener.”)

But what about the zeal of the convert? I just heard a story from the wedding anniversary of a local man who has been devoted to playing table for 50 years. He’s European American, but he traveled to India in the 60s and learned from the greatest masters. He was such a dedicated student that he even won the hand of his teacher’s only daughter, and he continued to study his craft with respect and devotion after returning stateside with her. He is considered a great by the greats — and this white man teaches Indian students how to play Indian classical music. Apparently, at his wedding anniversary, one Indian man rose after another to sing his praises and claim, “Forget my coconut kids, this man is even more Indian than me!!!”

Shit’s complicated.

My family is only one generation removed from the villages of rural Punjab. My parents were not born in hospitals.

You know how country folks in Tejas love their cornbread and their greens? Same goes for Punjabis. Makki di roti (comparable to a pupusa or a thick, corn tortilla) with saag (mustard greens) is about the most authentic, down-home comfort food in the Land of Five Rivers. That’s right, the most authentic, down-home comfort food weary travelers ask to eat first upon returning from a long time away…comes from the New World. There was no corn in India (or Europe or Africa) before Columbus. And the Italians didn’t have tomatoes and no potatoes for the Irish — those all come from the Americas.

I taught writing at a local university for a few semesters. One of my assignments had to do with defining “American” culture. I gave my students some broad racial categories to work with: White, Black, Native American, Latin American, then I gave them another list and told them to put things in the right racial category: Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, rock n roll, hip hop, jazz, horses, etc.

Many were surprised to learn that Native Americans hadn’t seen horses before the Spanish arrived, and that the Spaniards got their horses from the Arabs who had conquered Spain. Hip hop, though, quite obviously fell under the African American banner. Obviously. Except…early hip hop was made using “instruments” (turntables and mixers) that were probably made in Japan…and the records being played on those turntables were likely funk and rock (see Run DMC — “the Kings of Rock”), and every college kid knows that rock is white people music BUT WAIT: before there was Elvis and the Beatles (white) there was Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley (black)…BUT WAIT: Since we’re talking rock n roll, where do guitars come from? I think they have their origin in North Africa or the Middle East…so…Follow anything back to its origin and you’re going to end up with back and forth, tit for tat, muddled zig zag of stuff moving from one place to another with gold and songs and kisses and blood.


Is there anything more appropriative than hip hop — a pastiche, collage form born literally from splicing together bits of music that came before? And in 2024, is there anything more universal than hip hop? It is a truly global phenomenon. Did black people in the South Bronx (or was it Queensbridge?) invent it? Yes. Did they do so in a vacuum? No.

Culture is a fluid and dynamic thing, it can’t be fixed in one time and place. Are Germans supposed to wear Lederhosen forever? Wait — culture is like a shark — if it stops moving, it dies and it’s stuffed and relegated to the museum or it rots and begins to stink of nationalism, and nationalism tilts in the direction of fascism. (See Patrick Buchanan.)

“This is our culture. Our pure culture. Our ways are the best, and we are going to eat your lunch.”

So…what’s the deal with cultural appropriation? Is it ever ok? Is it always, necessarily disrespectful? I guess the answer to that depends on whether you like to eat tasty vittles and blast righteous tunes and think folks like Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz are fine. There’s a humble and respectful way to do it and there’s an entitled douchebag way to do it. Some things are kosher to appropriate and other things are off-limits. How should you know which is which? I dunno, ask questions and listen when people answer? So how about Korean tacos — your treat.


[Addendum: I have a lot of notes and links on this topic which I am just going to paste below if you are interested. And as a Sikh American on this, the 30th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards for what she did to our people, let me just say that there are few peoples/traditions more appropriative than the Hindu tradition, so I find the post on Black Girl Dangerous particularly galling. I’ll start with that one.]

From this: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/11/feelings/

It’s not that I feel offended that the performer appropriated ‘my’ (South Asian) culture, and I’m also not sitting at home crying about it.  What I witnessed, and called out, along with my friends, was a blatant act of unchecked White supremacy.  In this case, it’s an act that perpetuated the kind of Orientalism that constructs South Asia as an exotic place, where the people and culture are more magic than human and therefore appropriate targets of material and military domination–a place where the United States can play imaginary war games with its drones, for example.  Calling out the appropriation is not about me, or any of my friends being sad or offended.  I want to hold space for acts of appropriation that generate emotional damage and/or trauma, but in this case, I’m not sad or offended or victimized: I just think it’s fucked up.

Lady please. Your name is Balasubramaniam. You are South Indian. Maybe a Tamil Brahmin, who are among the most elitist motherfuckers in the world. I defy you to find me one of your relatives back home who is not STOKED about US drone strikes on Muslims. Don’t front like you and Muslims are the same people. “South Asia” is a fictional construct, useful only in the diaspora, and Hinduism might be the only thing in this world that appropriates everything, including it’s critics (such as Buddha and Guru Nanak) better than even capitalism appropriates its critics.

Here are some blurry photos I took at an exhibit of Jean Paul Gaultier’s clothing. He appropriates A LOT, but I think he gets a genius pass. (Not everybody agrees with me on that pass, for the record, including some Sikhs who were offended by his using Sikh-style turbans on white male models in a runway show in Paris at a time when the French government had banned religious headgear.)

Comments From here: http://arts.umich.edu/ink/2010/04/14/the-hipster-headdress-a-fashion-faux-pas/

Comment: What if I’m terribly bored of “my” culture? What if I feel I am an outsider in this little box you have made called “my culture?” What if I feel the art and design of another culture better fits who I am? What if I just think headdresses are pretty? Who are you to make rules for me? Who am I to make rules for you?

Response: I’m not a Christian. I wouldn’t wear a cross. Why would I wear it? It has no meaning for me. Yes I can appreciate a beautiful filigree cross from Portugal as an object, doesn’t mean I have to wear it and offend people with sincerely held beliefs by flaunting it while I’m out getting drunk at a gig and checking out guys.

From here: http://www.salon.com/2014/03/04/why_i_cant_stand_white_belly_dancers/

Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.

What “harm” is being done and is it so significant? And are these women limited to square dancing or whatever, because of their cultural background?

From here: http://jezebel.com/on-miley-cyrus-ratchet-culture-and-accessorizing-with-514381016

it’s important to understand that Miley is very privileged to be able to play dress up and adorn herself with the trappings of an oppressed/minority culture. She can play at blackness without being burdened by the reality of it…blackness is not a piece of jewelry you can slip on when you want a confidence booster or a cool look. And playing at being poor — while earning a profit by doing so — is just distasteful.

From here: http://bullettmedia.com/article/13-voices-speak-on-fashions-appropriation-of-urban-culture/

Appropriation occurs when bodies, typically white, popularize styles that didn’t originate with them, across a matrix of power: the power of visibility, the power to define what is ‘ethnic’ in the market. The gains that follow are reserved for the appropriator, not the appropriated. When the participation of poc in mainstream culture is relegated to trinkets Urban Outfitters can sell, what are we supposed to do, be grateful? While our communities are mined for the latest hip accessories that are lauded on white bodies while suspect on ours, it’s a valuation of whiteness above us. Above our history, dignity, and humanity. I want to see dreadlocks be appreciated because of the black people wearing them, not the corny white dude who doesn’t have to worry about looking ‘too ethnic’ at a job interview. I want to see Bollywood dances appreciated from our current Indian American Miss America, not Selena Gomez’s mangled approximation in her VMA performance of “Come and Get It.” Guess which one of them was subsequently called a terrorist.” -Ayesha Siddiqi, writer, Ideas Editor at BuzzFeed, Contributing Editor at The New Inquiry

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