Cultural Appropriation and Conspiracy Theories

Cultural Appropriation and Conspiracy Theories

So it’s Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, and I’d like to talk about cultural appropriation and conspiracy theories.

First, I’d like to clarify that I’m a big fan of conspiracy theories in fiction. From the TV show “Alias” to Sidney Sheldon novels, I love fictional conspiracies. My husband and I have also followed the latest discussion about UFOs. Though I stand by that if there really are UFOs, there are only three possible outcomes:

1) Independence Day,

2) Avatar, or

3) Enchantress from the Stars

I happened to read “Enchantress from the Stars” many years ago. This beautifully written, philosophical adult science fiction novel has really stayed with me. I highly recommend this book for its thought-provoking subject matter.

Wait, You’re Asian?

Most people don’t consider people of Indian origin to be “Asian.”

To them I say that Asia is home to Russia, China, and India, three of the largest countries land-wise in the world. But Asia is so large and contains so much diversity. A lot of people like to separate “South Asians” as those from the Indian subcontinent and other nearby countries with similar cultures.

This is a small improvement in terms of specificity. But it still downplays the fact that I don’t really consider myself “Indian.”

India itself is a lot like Europe. Every state is like its own country, with its own food, language, culture, and clothing. So I’d consider myself more belonging to the state my family is from than to the entire country. I also identify more as a Hindu than an Indian American.

Yes, I’m of Asian origin, but almost 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia. It’s hardly a clear identifier.

Why do Asians need their own heritage month?

It’s absurd to think that anyone could adequately appreciate the full breadth of Asian and Pacific Island heritage over the course of 31 days. Still, it’s important to consider the sheer scope of diversity in the community.

And if for a single instant you think that Asians don’t experience racism in this country, I’d like to point out the documented escalation of violence toward Asians in the past year. Lawmakers have recently introduced specific legislation to curb the increase. After September 11, 2001, domestic terrorists who saw turbans, beards, and brown skin and made assumptions targeted Sikh temples for violence.

Violence upon any place of worship is never appropriate, in case I needed to say it. But it’s doubly upsetting in the targeting of this sect of Hindus. Sikhs have a long history of opposing Muslim invaders, as well as a rich legacy of community service wherever they settle.

OK, but you sound like “an American”

Well, duh, that’s because I am an American. Born and raised in the United States, I’ve had family members hang up on me before recognizing my voice because I sound like a telemarketer.

None of that means I’ve escaped microaggressions of racism.

I moved to Houston and later Baton Rouge (from Dallas) in the early 2000s. There I worked with a relatively diverse and educated workforce. Still, I was the first person of Indian origin that some of those folks had really ever gotten to know.

I can’t tell you how many times people wanted to know if that was “an Indian thing.”

Mostly it was just a “me” thing. How many made assumptions about “all” Indian people based on what they knew about me?

The Grocery Checkout Line

While I’m happy to help bust stereotypes, one incident really troubled me.

I was headed home from a temple event and I was wearing a traditional salwar-kameez, which is a pair of baggy trousers with a tunic or dress-like top over it. Tradition also dictates wearing a large rectangular stole or scarf over those items, either as a head covering or around the neck, sometimes to cover the upper torso in a bid for modesty. If my memory serves, that day I was wearing a bold purple outfit.

Well, I decided that since I was passing right by the grocery store, I would stop in to grab a few essentials. So I collected my groceries and went to the self-checkout line … where the device decided not to take my payment. Remember, this was the early days of self-checkout lanes (nearly two decades ago). Let us also recall that I have an engineering degree, and I’m really good at following directions.

Nonetheless, a helpful young woman behind me, about my age, condescended to explain what I was doing wrong (surprise: I wasn’t). She assumed, based on my clothes and the color of my skin, that I obviously hadn’t assimilated enough to the culture to possibly use the machine independently. It didn’t matter that I pointed out to her—in my metropolitan American accent—the actual problem or that a cashier finally showed up to address the issue.

I have NEVER worn Indian clothes to run errands since that day. I will always change clothes after a cultural event to avoid a repeat of this particular incident. People judge you based on what you look like. I can go to the store in sweaty workout clothes with my hair in a messy bun and find myself treated better than if I show up in Indian formal clothes that cost a fortune.

Diversity is Still an Afterthought

When I look at Houston, the 4th largest city in the US, it’s not like the city lacks diversity. There’s no reason other than sheer insularity that someone wouldn’t have been able to befriend someone from almost any another culture. (Don’t get me started on how literature should reflect that diversity too!)

Given the exposure any major city should offer to other cultures, I then have to wonder how people would fail to recognize the traditional garments of another culture. I don’t have to be Hispanic to recognize Mexican floral embroidery. Nor do I have to be particularly observant to recognize that silk brocade covered in dragons reflects Chinese culture.

So why did the fashion brand ASOS think that calling their new collection “boho” was good enough to avoid recognition of its obvious South Asian influence? Especially after they chose brown models? I’m just baffled.

Am I wrong in assuming most people will recognize the origins of these designs? Is that particular style of jewelry and ornate beadwork common to any other culture?

And if recognizing the clothes is such a challenge, is there any hope for acknowledging any religious elements?

Cultural Appropriation and Conspiracy Theories Together, Really?

Someone had posted their certainty about a particular conspiracy theory pointing to this graphic as their “proof.”

cultural appropriation and conspiracy theories

As a practicing Hindu, I choked with laughter upon seeing it. Talk about bending information to suit your story …

Common belief among Hindus agrees that we are living in “Kali Yuga,” a time of great decline and depravity. They also agree that Kali Yuga began with the death of Lord Krishna about 5,000 years ago. Each yuga supposedly lasts some 400,000 years. Basic arithmetic illustrates that the yuga isn’t going to end in my lifetime or even hypothetical my grandchildren’s lifetime. So honestly, the exact numbers aren’t that interesting to me.

It’s absurd to think that someone who had never heard of two of the most famous South Asian religious texts (the Bhagavad Gita and the Guru Granth Sahib) that discuss yugas could blindly accept this graphic without further research, but there you have it. This person demanded evidence that I was misquoting popularly accepted Hindu scripture.

Let it never be said that facts or education stood in the way of a good conspiracy theory.

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