Sacred Threads, Silent Theft: Unmasking South Asian Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation within South Asian culture and how we can aim to buy and not steal from other cultures.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Sin Liu

The Om symbol is the most important symbol in Hinduism, symbolizing unity and the reality of the universe. I wear an Om pendant every day because it makes me feel closer to my religion. However, as significant as these symbols are, they are often used as a source of fashion or profit in today’s Western culture. In 2021, Kim Kardashian had a typical photoshoot on Twitter where she accessorized herself with large hoop earrings showing off the Om symbol. This was soon met with backlash on Twitter, where people expressed their contempt for cultural appropriation. What Kardashian failed to acknowledge is the culture behind the object; the significance behind the symbol. The most sacred symbol in Hinduism was quickly reduced to a mere accessory. 

This scenario reveals how the cultural appropriation of South Asian culture pervades our modern society, whether through fashion, art, or food. As many deem their actions as cultural appreciation, a blurry line forms in differentiating appreciation from appropriation. This brings up the question of what cultural appropriation actually is. The line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation lies in buying versus stealing. Cultural appropriation is essentially stealing part of a culture because the person is using the culture for their own benefit without acknowledging its significance or giving back to its community in any way. It ultimately results in minority groups unfairly being taken advantage of, no matter how much the concern is denied with the statement that cultural appropriation allows people to engage with new cultures. Individuals must learn to buy—to be able to truly learn from different cultures but also make meaningful contributions and advocate for them. 

These instances of cultural appropriation among celebrities have broader implications on the respect given toward South Asian culture. Many South Asians are discriminated against for their traditional clothing, food, and other aspects. Thus, many feel ashamed or embarrassed to embrace their cultural heritage. However, when other celebrities start using these cultures and integrating them just for their fashion or style, they are not deemed to be lesser, and people don’t shame them for it. Instead, they are often praised for either unique fashion choices or for embracing different cultures. 

  Unfortunately, many of these instances go unnoticed, and the offenders do not own up to their actions afterward. While many on Twitter spoke out against Kardashian’s actions, Kardashian herself never addressed the controversy and the situation quickly fell under the shadows. In another example, in the music video for “Hymn for the Weekend” by Coldplay, Beyoncé was featured dressed in a Lehenga adorned with jewels and intricate patterns, a dupatta, and henna, all significant traditional clothing in South Asian culture. Many were appalled that while Beyoncé isn’t South Asian, she portrays herself as such in the music video with all of the traditional accessories. Perhaps the band could have credited the South Asian inspiration at the end of the music video. 

Selena Gomez wore a Bindi to accessorize at a red-carpet event in 2013. Bindis hold a very meaningful representation within Hindu culture, symbolizing concealed wisdom, and are typically worn to indicate marital status. They carry deep and cherished value within Hindu culture, representing a wide variety of unique belief systems. By simply wearing a Bindi as an accessory to complete her look, Gomez minimized its significance and actual representation. These implications of cultural appropriation have been present throughout time, but clearly have yet to reach a line where we can learn to appreciate one’s culture without diminishing its values. While many do speak against the normalization of cultural appropriation, there do not seem to be proper changes being made in these realms.

These actions often go unchecked because of the celebrities behind them. Many do not fully acknowledge the extent of the issues or consider actually calling them out because these artists are so popular. Thus, there can be biases, and many fans will stay in support of these celebrities regardless of their actions, allowing cultural appropriation to continue manifesting itself in other media. However, when these issues go unnoticed and people do not own up to their actions, cultural appropriation can promote stereotypical ideas. When a cultural group is not rightfully credited for its traditions and ideas, people start to neglect its significance, and what arises is a common thread of people simply toying with the culture and mocking it.

In order to meaningfully engage with one’s culture, people must learn to embrace it in a way that acknowledges its nuances and roots. We should be buying, not stealing. Going back to Kardashian’s appropriation of the Om symbol, her actions were clearly stealing from Hindu culture. Instead of using her platform to meaningfully acknowledge the Hindu community, she used it as a source of profit. She could have rightfully credited the community by simply incorporating a message on her photoshoot or donating a portion of her profits to a Hindu charity to truly give back to the Hindu community. The same applies to any other celebrity or artist that includes aspects of different cultures in their works. 

Ultimately, we should let these actions and instances serve as a reminder to recognize the difference between appropriation and appreciation and take action to prevent the misuse of one’s culture. We must learn to acknowledge different cultures without the intention to benefit or profit from them in any way or appropriate them without acknowledging their roots. Whether that is by speaking out when a celebrity appropriates a cultural symbol or educating ourselves on these issues, we must do something in return and not take more than we are giving.