Cultural appropriation, hierarchies and casteism


*This is a thread for people who are South Asian —diasporic and otherwise— and/or are familiar with South Asian geopolitics*

Instead of going to the original post inspired by this horrendous pair of shorts and its quite horrendous response by the OP, I’m going to start with Ardhra’s reblog, a conversation we need to have, however away from the thread where many are still trying to decide whether it is a case of CA or not, placing it on varying degrees of offensiveness; hopefully this thread will be more focused on South Asian power dynamics rather than useless apologism. Also, I write what I know — I do identify as South Asian, however my experience is limited to India (specifically West and to some extent, South India) so try as I might, I end up mostly writing about India; if I’ll mention South Asia, I’ll credit wherever necessary.

Do feel free to add/call me out wherever I’ve faltered — quite certain there are huge gaps in my knowledge.


Ardhra’s response is in quotes, needless to say I agree with quite a bit of it:

Well, casteism overall has done more harm than cultural appropriation, I agree.

But the white chick who posted this photo probably doesn’t give a shit about that. The photo is from a pretty boring, bog-standard fashion blog that doesn’t mention caste, Dalits, Hinduism, or even Ganesha once. So I’m pretty sure nobody was “shitting” on “you are dirty, unclean” casteist ideologies” at

And she’s pretty happy to appropriate from other cultures, too.

Pretty sure that was the case, didn’t have a doubt about that. Not one bit. I don’t think I implied that in my reblog in any way.

I was quoting directly from cellardoor2006, and given you agreed with those comments I think that implies you agreed that the fashion blogger was “some white girl shitting on your “you are dirty, unclean” casteist ideologies”.

This does raise an issue that I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, which is how complaints and pushback against cultural appropriation are bound up with power relations within & between cultures being appropriated from, and whether cultural appropriation by white western people can ever be a comment on/intervention in, domination by a racially subjugated group.

A lot of the time pushback against cultural appropriation is about preserving authority by insisting that traditional authority is the only legitimate source for images/traditions/practices/narratives/ideas, and if they’re copied by anyone else (including, implicitly, people who are subject to that authority), they violate the integrity & dignity of everyone who’s part of a culture regardless of what position they might be in, in relation to the holders of traditional authority.

Obviously, this pushback is coming from the standpoint of caste privilege, when it comes from Hindu organisations in western countries. Most of the Hindu migrants to western countries are class- and caste-privileged.

This one is a bit tricky — and am quite unsure how to go on myself. I’ll try:

Of course, one of the most effective tools of CA is to reduce a culture a whole people to a few identifiable markers (India is saris, pantheon of animal-gods etc etc) — but one of the unintended consequences of CA is to also show up a hierarchy *within* the cultures. As I mentioned before, people will get Sanskrit tattoos (as their “Indian experience”) but there will be rare —if any at all— that will make similar attempts in Pali, a language deeply entrenched in caste-hierarchies, Pali is “identifiably” Dalit/Ambedkerite/Buddhist, and hence “not really Indian”. * I won’t say it’s an intervention of any kind, but it *does* expose this hierarchy present, that maybe otherwise unexamined — save for protests etc by said marginalised groups. Case in point : well until the 80’s, the whole “decade of women” by the UN went along with Hindu feminism as “Indian feminism” till Flavia Agnes and Razia Patel (both non-Hindu women) pointed it out at one such meeting. The UN *to a large extent* doesn’t do much about this hierarchy within and across women’s movements in India, but it was that moment bought about by UN mechanisms — it didn’t do much, but it did give a moment to the mainstream women’s movement to inspect its own faults.

Yes, like the OP — the argument against CA is “this is sacred to me, and how dare you defile it” — which is all well and good for things that *are* considered religious — what happens when a non-religious practice is being appropriated? Tamasha and Lavni that are *so* popular on Bollywood screens now were caste-based “erotic occupations” — people were stigmatised, even killed at some instances for practicing it. Similarly, Bharatnatyam used to be a form of “nautch” that Sarojini Naidu and crew “Hinduised” (but using a Hindu god’s name as a prefix) and it became an art only the upper-castes could be allowed to perform. Today, of course, Bharatnatyam is a ‘spiritual commodity’ — one doesn’t necessairily have to be Hindu to learn it — I know several Muslim people who learn it, love it etc. Not all instances where market forces have intervened are inherently bad. Now, to have Baharatnatyam boxed and sealed as an “essential Indian thing” is racist, and just plain wrong.

Instead of decrying “sacrilege”, perhaps it would be better if we’re focusing on this reduction, thereby saying that CA that doesn’t have religious ties is equally horrid.

And going to the religion/caste of the migrants, it depends *which* part of the world — and even the West —you’re talking about. There is a LONG legacy of Dalit tamils migrating as cheap labour to many parts of South East Asia (most prominent being Malaysia), not to mention large parts of South Sri Lanka. Many people in England are Sikhs (again, a religion that has its origins in being a rebellion to the casteism in Hinduism, and over the years was co-opted by the State into Hinduism, in most parts of the country), and there are many Rice-christians (again, the ex-untouchable castes) in the Middle-East. Granted, in most cases, given their social position, many may not be marginalised economically etc, but it *does* matter how they started out. Many ayahs that went to Great Britain were in fact Dalit-Christians (sometimes, it all comes down to *who* can afford to “dishonour” their caste in such a way, considering they were the women who have *always* been a part of the workforce). Most Hindus who are the part of the diaspora may be  caste/class privileged, but there is a whole population/pattern of non-Hindu people migrating to western countries, precisely to move away from the caste and/or religion hierarchies. The problem with these discussions of “religious cultural appropriation” is that it tends to ignore non-Hindu modes of appropriation, and comes with the ugly subtext that non-Hindus don’t have anything *worthy* of even being appropriated — whatever that means.

But this is because of racism and classism on the part of white people. To put it simply, white people don’t let poor brown people into their countries (and tend to kick out, beat up, exploit, and kill the ones who are there).

But also, a lot of the time, you’re right, cultural appropriation does privilege certain ‘high culture’ forms. Which is why the same demographic - upper middle class, upper-caste/Brahmin Hindu migrants - are sometimes pretty lax about cultural appropriation. I have family members who, in the same conversation, will talk about how The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was great fun, how white cheerleaders in Bharata Natyam dress for IPL is racist, and then go on to watch Outsourced without batting an eyelid. This is because, as class- and caste-privileged people, they’re fairly insulated against any consequences arising from cultural appropriation and racism. My parents don’t have any white friends. In fact, they don’t have any friends who aren’t South Asian. They don’t need them. So if they experience racism at work, get excluded from things, or see it casually occur, they can complain about it to their friends, feel self-righteous, and then not worry about it.  Their autonomy to practice their culture is pretty unaffected by appropriation, because they’re not in any of the positions that might lose out or be exploited by appropriation.

I, on the other hand, have had cultural appropriation used in a campaign of bullying, victim-blaming and intimate partner abuse (and enabling of intimate partner abuse) against me. I don’t think I’m the only one, either, since I know other women of colour (not all South Asians) who’ve had similar experiences. Then there are situations where stereotyping is directly related to intimate partner violence, resulting in murder. And when the university I went to had a party celebrating British imperialism in India, I can’t say this is a small problem. But it’s not something that fairly traditional middle-aged Hindus in culturally-sanctioned marriages are likely to experience very directly.

[Nods] Can’t even imagine what that must have been like. CA is yet another tool in the hands of an abusive person, don’t think I’ll ever know how that must have been like, having one’s culture mocked and dehumanised like that. CA is wrong, but there *have* to be non-religious reasons for defending it.

But then, for people of the South Asian Diaspora, I don’t know how much (caste- and class-privileged) actions and practices we engage in contribute to casteism and caste violence within South Asia… like, I am asking, because I genuinely don’t know.

To my understanding, there are diasporic South Asian communities, especially the longer-established communities made up of people who were transported as indentured labourers under British imperialism, where caste is really not the main vector of division, and where anti-blackness looms much larger as the discourse that maintains the racial privilege of South Asians.

But even the upper-caste and upper-middle-class migrants to western countries since the 1960s, by and large we aren’t the ones protesting against caste reservations for university places, public service jobs, education. We aren’t directly benefiting from exploiting Dalits; though I can see there’s plenty of indirect exploitation, and definitely casteist ideology that South Asian communities in western countries espouse.

But anti-Blackness is expressly tied with the caste ideology.

I think it’s a bit too simplistic to reduce caste oppression to anti-blackness. I think they’re separate but intersecting ideologies & axes of oppression. They have a historical relationship, but they’re not the same thing. Anti-blackness is often practised by Hindu & South Asian/desi people quite separately from casteism. And I don’t think either casteism or anti-blackness are reducible to colourism/shade-ism.

Historically speaking, the “darkest” have always been the ex-untouchables (today, some of them are Dalit, some are Muslims, some are Sikhs, some are Warkaris etc), the upper-castes and other upwardly-mobile castes (like the Jats, like the Rajputs) became a part of the Raj’s bureaucratic machinery, while the backbone (menial labour, outsourced physical labour) remained the lower-castes and the ex-untouchables in most parts of the country (Goa remains an exception here, Anjali Arondekar has much more to say about that). Sure, most of the disapora wasn’t out on the streets decrying Mandal, but would be a little far-fetched to say no casteism exists whatsoever within these disaporic communities. Caste may be “invisible”, but it pops up pretty quick when the talk goes to marriage, when the person “representing” you in public office is from the “lower caste”. It’s quite possible that you’re not benefiting from direct exploitation of Dalit people no more than we are. That’s the “beauty” of the globalisation-infused-caste-system, it can so easily become “This isn’t caste, [x] doesn’t work hard enough, doesn’t fit in our company etc”, laying the onus *squarely* on individuals — as if we’re just that, ‘plain individuals’, without our histories and markers of our communities.  

But then, the ignorant actions of one white girl don’t really challenge that ideology. It would be like claiming that her wearing the Hand of Fatima represents her protest about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, or that the Dutch racist caricatures of Mohammed were somehow genuinely about the welfare of people under Islamic fundamentalist regimes. Your argument is a non-sequitur. Challenging casteism doesn’t follow from every single thing that subverts Hinduism.

Which doesn’t even get into the issues around how there are stacks of caste-oppressed people whose livelihoods depend on cultural appropriation by westerners…

I made no such claim — what I was alluding to (and perhaps was immensely unclear) that I was enraged enough at the person wearing the shorts *as well as* the OP with her “you’re dirtying my god” (non)argument. Enraged enough, that just this once, I wanted to emphasise how ridiculous and privileged such a position is —given that we don’t have this conversation all too often, as opposed to the “CA is wrong” conversation. When we should be talking about *both* aspects, how CA is racist and there is a system of privilege at work here. 

Shweta said it clearly here: “So I feel that it ought to be possible to have a conversation about the wrongness of this image without being horribly casteist?  But in this case… the original post is casteist, and full of the ritual purification ideology that underlies so much of the caste-based oppression, so I don’t feel like we can separate the cultural appropriation and the caste-based issues in this particular conversation”.

Which caste-oppressed people? Please specify? Many aren’t even allowed to be a part of those professions. Veenas are made by certain castes only, yoga cannot be practiced and taught by “just anyone”, and most of these “religion based goods” are manufactured by ‘OBC’s (Other Backward Castes according to the Indian State), who, crudely put are “lower-caste Hindus”. So yes, people from poor socio-economic backgrounds will be the ones manufacturing Ganesh and Durga and Kali stickers, T-shirts etc, but there will be *VERY* few non-Hindus in these professions (there is a lot of forthcoming work by Ambedkerite feminists in the politics of Dalit counterpublics that discusses the political-economies of these very circuits in the “religious industries”).

Cultural appropriation, dislocating cultures *within and across* South Asia is just as endemic as it is outside. Sure, both have different ramifications depending on your geo-political location as well as position in the social order. Hypothetically, you’re facing a dehumanisation/objectifcation of your culture at the hands of white supremacy, here we have Bhraminical systems of governing lives that *needs* appropriation to maintain itself — you’ll protest at the dying tigers, but not the adivasis whose stolen land you’re making factories on, for instance — sometimes they collude in ugly lethal ways, like in the epidemic of Dalit and/or mulnivasi land-grabbing in West India, where racism and casteism join hands to form a particularly toxic mix. You want their “Warli” art as a manifestation of “Indigenous Indian art”, but completely ignore their exploitation at the hands of SEZ’s etc. I shouldn’t have made that distinction between casteism and the racism — some of us cannot afford to have such a divorced view of reality. 


*To be ABSOLUTELY clear, I am not saying “People should appropriate [y] instead of [x], just pointing out there is a hierarchy at place here.

Tumblr is shit, so I didn’t see shwetanarayan’s reblog & commentary on my post.

I don’t think cultural appropriation is only applicable to sacred symbols, objects or narratives. I also don’t think that sacred objects have a special status in relation to appropriation, where appropriating them is somehow less acceptable than other items.

So what I was referring to was the fact that so many cultural industries, producing ‘authentic’ objects, are sites of exploitation of caste-oppressed, working class and marginalised people. So that the ‘high culture’ forms like Sanskrit text, Yoga etc., as well as handicrafts, textiles, agricultural food products & spices etc. that are used as examples of wealthier South Asians ‘practising our culture’ are actually dependent on some really exploitative labour conditions. And far from cultural appropriation showing up that relationship, I think it complicates it.

Nobody is asking how these items figure in the cultures of the people who actually produce them. Or that, for some of the producers in cultural industries, cultural appropriation by white westerners might actually be more profitable than producing for domestic markets. But that might have other consequences, e.g. prices being subject to international financial markets, undermining of local industries, not to mention the fact that most industrial and agricultural production is by its very nature incredibly exploitative.

I think a lot of the time relatively wealthy South Asians like prettyindian/historyofhindustan fall back on the “this is sacred, how dare you” knee-jerk reaction to cultural appropriation, because if they had to consider the power dynamic of cultural appropriation, they’d realise they’re doing it just as much as white people.

I think that, if you use a different view of cultural appropriation, as being about denying autonomy rather than violating traditionalism, there are other ways to think about ‘practising your culture’ that don’t just involve people repeating practices over and over again. But that would mean that middle class and caste privileged South Asians would need to get better informed about what it is we’re consuming, stop pretending like casteism isn’t part of ‘practising our culture’, and start challenging it.

Except that wouldn’t really give anyone nice feelings of validation against mean, nasty oppressors or allow for a narrative of pure & unadulterated lifestyles victimised by ‘outsiders’.

But the shorts are still horrific.