Friday, October 4, 2013

Is it cultural appropriation?

I was SO excited to find a beautiful Indian garment in my size and a good color for me at Goodwill this week. I can't wait to wear to the next Amtgard (medieval combat recreation and fantasy social club) event.

And then a few days later, I thought, Oh shit. Is this cultural appropriation? Am I even allowed to wear this? It's not as if I'm going to wear it to work or around town; I really only want to wear it at this particular social event where it would fit in very well, and another white lady costumer whom I respect has also worn Indian Goodwill garb there, but I don't even know.

I've worn cholis and saris combined with other garments to create awful bastardizations before, but now I know better and am going to try harder. (No, I don't expect a cookie or a pat on the head. This is my personal blog about my personal journey, and I try to use my privilege to raise awareness and teach. The issue of white legitimization of other cultures is a topic for another day.)

Not cool, Past Me.

So now I have some reading and research to do and need to examine my intentions.

It's clothing that is pretty and comfortable to wear and will protect me from the sun. It fits my persona of being a world traveler who has no set "style" but samples from different genres and sometimes cultures. My motivation is admiration not mockery.

It's an everyday object not sacred or holy. It's not half as ostentatious as the hot pink and turquoise piece I originally had my eye on. What the hell is this garb called? Maybe I should learn that. From Wikipedia:
Shalwar kameez, also spelled salwar kameez or shalwar qameez, is a traditional dress of South and Central Asia, especially of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it is worn by both men and women. In India it is worn mostly by women. It is also worn by women in Bangladesh. Shalwar are loose pajama-like trousers. The legs are wide at the top, and narrow at the ankle. The kameez is a long shirt or tunic, often with a western-style collar . . .
Yay for learnin things! Tunics and loose pants comprise most of the garb worn at Amtgard, and this piece is a modern version of a historically accurate outfit. This garment differs from those used for specific religious and festival occasions.
The Shalwar kameez is sometimes known as "Punjabi suit," in Britain[3] and Canada.[4] In Britain, especially during the last two decades, the garment has been transformed from an everyday garment worn by immigrant South Asian women from the Punjab region to one with mainstream, and even high-fashion, appeal.[5]
In India, the garment was originally confined to the North, but as a convenient and modest alternative to a sari - and also as one that flatters practically any body-type - it has become popular across the nation. By varying the fabric, color and the level of embroidery and decoration, the salwar-kameez can be formal, casual, dressy, or plain; and it can also be made to suit practically all climates.
No one is profiting from my purchase except the poor in my community and the community of the person who donated the garment in the first place. Maybe my purchase is depriving low-income members of the culture from a needed garment. These gorgeous things do tend to sell quickly.

I read five pages of forum discussions on cultural appropriation, and all I can say is at least it's not fucking yoga, which I'm now more glad to have never liked in the first place. But one commenter did have this to say:
I think the difference is you specifically mentioned Native American regalia - which is different from wearing a salwar kameez or yukata because it is specifically sacred dress, and therefore less like eating a buche de noel and more like serving communion wafers at your party - it's not okay just because you got the little crosses just right.
Others think that using it for costuming is problematic because it's not a part of my culture. I have no inherited culture, so I'm not naturally sympathetic to the issue and have to work my way through mental contortions to even halfway "get it." I'll keep working at it and reading more and learning more.

All I can seem to find is more white people talking about what they think about cultural appropriation and no clear answers. Yes, it's appropriation, and inherently problematic, especially considering the history of British Imperialism. But I'm Polish, Czech, Italian, so does that matter? Sure, I could go ask some Indians about it, but no few of them are representative of the whole community, either.

Centuries of systematic oppression are such a pain in the ass.

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