My roots were only seen when they were worn by a white person


Shruti Rajkumar

By Shruti Rajkumar

In my sophomore year of high school, I was excited to find out about a course called Asian Studies. The popular course focused on the significance of Indian religion, traditions, holidays, food, traditional clothing, and music, and incorporated field trips to temples and mosques. At the time, I was grateful that the course provided my peers with a better understanding and appreciation of my culture. In retrospect, I have only one criticism: a white woman taught the course.

Why was my culture not only seen but glorified when a white person brought attention to it, yet when I tried to embrace it, it was received poorly?

For centuries, the appeal of Southeast Asian culture drew the attention of white people, dating back to when Europeans traveled to India in search of spices and textiles. Today, Indian food, clothing, music, and holiday traditions are celebrated. However, there is a lack of Indian people at the forefront of this cultural awareness in the United States. In turn, the appreciation and significance of the culture and its background gets lost, bordering on appropriation.

Aspects of Indian culture are often stripped of their significance and used solely for aesthetic purposes by non-Indians. In 2013, Selena Gomez released her hit single “Come and Get It,” which incorporated traditional Indian music in the introduction and background of the song. Her music video, as well as live performances of the song, also included Bollywood dancing where she wore a bindi. The incorporation of Bollywood styles and Indian accessories added nothing to the meaning of the song or performance. It was used solely to add color and uniqueness, but in doing so the cultural significance was overlooked.

Similarly, the 2016 song “Hymn for the Weekend” by Beyonce and Coldplay included Holi colors, a popular ancient Hindu festival custom, being tossed around in the music video. According to Society for the Confluence of Festivals of India, Holi is the oldest Indian festival and originates from the story of Radha and Krishan. The throwing of colors symbolizes the arrival of spring, as well as good over evil and the spreading of love and happiness. But in this music video, Holi colors were used to create an aesthetic appeal.

Another aspect of Indian culture that has been appropriated by non-Indians is a form of body art called Mehndi, commonly known as Henna. Traditionally, Henna is applied to the hands and feet of a bride on her wedding day. It is used to wish good luck and prosperity for the bride and her journey into marriage. Today, American carnivals and fairs incorporate Henna booths where visitors can get designs on their hands, yet very few people know of its significance or even it’s country of origin.

In all of these instances, there is a complete disregard for the history and beauty of cultural significance. These artists succeeded in gaining the public’s attention and benefiting from the incorporation of Southeast Asian culture. Ironically, whenever I tried to embrace that same culture back then, it was received poorly and resulted in my assimilation into American culture.

According to a 2017 study by Nairuti Shastry, Southeast Asians described their experiences in America as “Adopting various strategies that exist on a spectrum of accommodation to white, American culture—in the form of whitewashing—to a form of resistance, specifically the rejection of the devaluation of their Indian heritage and culture.” In turn, this repression has resulted in a split Indian-American identity in which American served as an adopted identity—a representation of their socialization and future in this country—and Indian was defined as something desirable to “hold on to.”

I embraced my culture when I was younger. My mom used to pack homemade Indian food in my lunchbox every day for school. One day at school, I opened up a container of one of my favorite dishes⁠—basmati rice, baingan bhartha, and dal. The smile I had on my face quickly vanished as my peers looked at me and covered their noses with disgust from the strong smell of spices that was spreading in the air. From that day forward, I asked my mom to send me to school with peanut butter sandwiches instead.

This was the beginning of being aware of my own split Indian-American identity. I then became overly cautious so the line between the two never blurred. Bindis and Indian garments were only worn on holidays, when going to the temple, or for Indian gatherings. Henna was only worn for Diwali or when visiting India. Indian food was only eaten at home. I began compartmentalizing aspects of my life because I believed that my Indian culture would never be accepted or understood by my white friends and peers.

I spent years of my life assimilating to American culture due to the ignorance around me, and all it took was a white teacher and white celebrities to embrace Indian culture for my peers to become enlightened. When I was younger, I was grateful that my culture was gaining any recognition. However, looking back it frustrates me to realize how my voice and agency to share my culture was overpowered by the voices of the white people around me.

Following that class, I took steps towards embracing my culture on my own terms, including wearing traditional Indian clothing to my senior prom. I’ve since allowed the lines separating my Indian and American identities to blur together, but it shouldn’t have taken the attention of white people to bring awareness to my culture in the first place.