Most racist people are blind to their own racist views. They showcase how “cultured” they are by describing their love of “naan bread” and “chai tea lattes,” unaware that ‘naan’ means bread, and ‘chai’ means tea in Hindi. Although stereotypical Indian food on American restaurant menus may be the only exposure some Americans have to Indian culture, these foods do not represent the country as a whole. Liking Indian food does not make someone cultured – it makes them normal. It’s good food.
Assuming that Indian culture is just a curry or a piece of bread is downright ignorant. Disrespect of Indian food is just one example of how Indian culture is belittled and exploited in America. Beauty standards, cultural appropriation, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation in mainstream media are all significant contributors.
This prejudice is learned at a young age. When I was in the third grade, I had hairy arms, and I still do. I don’t mean thin, little wisps that white people call arm hair – I mean a thick, black layer of hair that prompted one of my classmates to compare me to a gorilla. But he was not the only one: when my sister was paired with a kindergarten student for a project, the audacious five-year-old asked, “Why are you so hairy?”
Everywhere I look, I see light-skinned models with slim noses and minimal body hair. India itself has adopted Western beauty standards to the extreme, perpetuating colorism in the media and marketing. The country’s most famous actors and musicians are light skinned with rare green or gray eyes. Some of the most popular Indian beauty products are skin lightening creams and hair removal creams, both of which can cause skin damage.
A double standard exists in which Indian features are portrayed as ugly on Indians, yet are seen as beautiful on white people. White girls often compliment each other on their tans, but when I go on vacation and return several shades darker, I receive expressions of shock and comments like, “Wow, you got… dark.” My thick eyebrows never received any attention until Cara Delevingne popularized them.
Indian culture is not appreciated enough, yet appropriated too often. It angers me that I’m still expected to stay quiet when white girls wear bindis to music festivals. When non-Indians get summery henna tattoos it’s seen as “artsy” and “cute,” but when my mom wore traditional henna designs for a wedding, she was pulled over by a cop who thought she had blood on her hands.
Cultural appropriation ma-nifests itself in more obvious ways as well. A few months ago, I approached an overpriced henna tattoo stand on Andover Day. I considered getting one, despite my suspicions about the white lady behind the table. But when I flipped through the design booklet, I saw a page filled with religious words including Aum, a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Being Hindu, I knew what the symbol meant, but I decided to test the lady behind the table and ask her if she knew its meaning. All she could give me was, “It’s a religious sign.” I closed the book and walked away. Personally, I do not think that non-Indians getting henna is inherently cultural appropriation. Using a paste to create pretty designs on your skin is one thing, but exploiting a symbol that you don’t understand from a religion that you don’t practice to make a profit is just wrong.
Indian culture seems to give white people the impression that it is theirs for the taking. Maybe this is because it is portrayed as such in the media: as an accessory or a prop, rather than the lifestyle of a real group of people. Indian characters are rarely seen in movies and television shows, similar to many other minorities. But the few times Indians are featured, we almost always seem to be secondary characters, boxed into the stereotypical roles cut out for us. A doctor who is there to deliver one-liners and supporting information. A convenience store owner with a funny accent. A cab driver, an ex-partner, a lawyer, a nerdy friend. But never a main character.
Whether they realize it or not, people are disrespecting Indian culture when they make colorist comments, appropriate clothing, and accessories, fail to acknowledge a lack of media representation, or when they act like experts on Indian culture just because Paresky Commons serves naan. In order to respect other cultures, we, the Andover community, must constantly educate ourselves on the significance of cultural symbols and customs, be aware of microaggressions, and remain open-minded. Culture is valuable and should be treated as such.