When I was in Year 5, a girl told me that she wanted a tan like mine, but lighter. “Maybe two or three shades, so I wouldn’t be too dark,” she said. I cried after school that day, wishing my skin didn’t mark me as so obviously different. I used to mix talcum powder with soap and smear it over my face to see what my skin would look like if it were paler. I avoided the sun at all costs so that I wouldn’t tan an even darker shade. It didn’t help – no matter what I did, no matter which books I read or which TV shows I watched or which references I learned, everyone could tell I wasn’t like them. I was Other – the girl with the dark skin and the weird name, the outsider whose family ate curry for dinner instead of steak and veggies. I learned to pray in Arabic around the same time I learned the Lord’s Prayer at school. My parents had both come to Australia from other countries, and though they spoke English fluently, my mother’s covered hair and my father’s dark skin marked them out as different, too – the strange parents of a strange child who never quite fit in.
It’s a weird experience, growing up non-white in a white society. TV shows and movies show you people who look and sound nothing like you, and you’re expected to see them as your heroes and idols. For people like me, the children of migrant parents, the cultural disconnect between the world outside and the world at home can be jarring. It was strange enough being raised in two different faiths (Islam at home and Catholicism at school); add into the mix the fact that the people I went to school with hadn’t seen the movies I’d seen, didn’t know the music I knew and didn’t speak the languages my parents spoke, and I often felt like a traveller between worlds, at home in neither and a stranger in both.
In discussions about race, I can never decide whether I’m meant to be white or non-white. I’m white when it comes to Indigenous issues because I’ve benefited from Australian colonisation; I’m non-white when it comes to the othering of people of colour, because my darker skin has always marked me as a target of racial discrimination from the kind of people who think “towelhead” is a creative insult. I grew up immersed in white culture, but also sheltered from it – my father considered most TV and movies “trash” that would give us dangerous and immoral ideas, but there was no stopping me from talking to the kids at school or sneak-watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch when my dad was working late. (My mother aided and abetted my siblings and me in this, allowing us to watch TV when we weren’t meant to and helping us borrow “bad” books from the library without my father’s knowledge.) Steeped in white culture but simultaneously removed from it, I grew up a white-educated girl in a non-white body – a walking, talking paradox.
My first experience with white people appropriating my culture was the runaway success of Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood adaptation of the Jane Austen novel of a similar name. To me, Aishwarya Rai was a household name – to my friends, she was a new find, an exotic beauty who helped bring the tale of Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy to raucous, garish life through (dubbed-over) song, dance and spectacle. Suddenly, it seemed like every white person I know wanted to be a “Curry”, as they called those of us from the Subcontinent – they thought saris were super-cute, swooned over Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan that my sisters and I had known about for years, talked about trying out Bollywood dance classes, thought “Indian” food was delicious. My culture – the culture I’d kept hidden for years in an attempt to fit in with my white contemporaries – was suddenly mainstream, even cool. As someone who’d spent her life being othered because of her dark skin, to hear similarly-coloured actors and actresses described admiringly as “exotic” felt strange. Was I exotic, too? Was that a good thing or a bad thing?
Of course, none of those people were particularly interested in the rich and varied cultures of the Subcontinent, or even particularly in Bollywood – they were just latching onto something new and exciting to them. None of the people sighing over Aishwarya Rai’s beauty knew or cared about her religious upbringing as a Hindu, the caste system to which she belonged, the meaning of the bindi she and other Hindu women sometimes wore. Nobody knew or cared that there was a difference between the brown-skinned mostly-Hindu Indian stars of Bride and Prejudice and their Muslim, not-even-slightly-Indian friend Aaminah, who was still an outsider and a freak, but suddenly one with valuable information and insights. Perhaps one or two people might have realised on some level that my life was not like a Bollywood film, but that didn’t seem to matter. I was peppered with questions: did I have an arranged marriage in the works? Did I wear saris at home? (No, and no, though I owned a shalwar kameez or two as a young girl.) The trappings of my culture – or something people could equate with what they thought was my culture – had become a source of entertainment, excitement and fantasy for people who’d seen one Bollywood movie and decided that made them Indian film buffs.
Maybe people thought they were complimenting me by doing this. Maybe they thought I’d be flattered by the attention. I’ve found that a lot of people who appropriate others’ cultures think that way – they think their attention is welcome, that their interest is a sign that they’re worldly, cultured, sophisticated, that they’re the good kind of white people. They eat ethnic cuisine and listen to “world music” and feel enlightened. I know a lot of people like this, and you probably do too. They think that by picking and choosing their favourite parts of someone else’s culture, they’re doing that person a favour.
But there’s nothing flattering about cultural appropriation – about the idea that someone else’s culture, with all the complex history and baggage that comes with it, is nothing but a smorgasboard from which you can pick your favourite bits and make a meal that’s to your liking. White people can choose to engage with other cultures at will, but they don’t have to live them. The girls who fell over themselves to gush about Bride and Prejudice knew nothing about the caste system and its effects on Indian society, particularly the poor, nor did they care. To them, “India” (read as: the entire Subcontinent, because white folks tend not to care that it consists of several countries with distinct cultures and subcultures of their own) was a glamorous parade of women in saris and strapping, safely exotic men singing and dancing for their entertainment. To them, I was their gateway to this fantasy world, one they could access without having to weather any of the drawbacks.
And so it is with people who wear “ironic” war-bonnets and can’t understand why Native people find this offensive; with people who appropriate “urban” culture and get upset when they’re not allowed to use the n-word; with people who view the developing world as their own personal spiritual cleanse, through which they can go on Eat, Pray, Love-style journeys, learning valuable lessons from non-white people who exist only as the background characters in their stories. This is something white culture props up and even encourages – the white culture narrative is that white folks are heroes and that non-whites exist only in supporting parts.
The thing is, those background characters have lives and thoughts and feelings of their own, and their cultures are far more than what white people get to see. As an Australian, I have benefited from colonialism, but as a Pakistani, I am forever scarred by it: I grew up hearing my father’s tales of life in newly post-Raj Pakistan and inherited the combination of bitterness and admiration many Pakistanis feel towards their English colonisers. As a person living in a white society, I am both a party to its benefits and a permanent outsider, the girl whose skin colour falls in and out of fashion depending on what magazine editors decide is trendy this season. (“Get that perfect summer tan!” they proclaim, as though skin colour is just another accessory, something to be put on and then discarded at whim. If only it were that easy for me.)
No cultural accessory exists in a vacuum. Our clothes, our food, even our songs and dances all have meanings to us. When you take them without considering what those meanings are, you are treating non-white people like props who exist as little more than scenery on your stage (Miley Cyrus, anyone?). When Bride and Prejudice had been forgotten, no longer the fashion of the hour, I went back to being that outsider with the too-dark skin and the unpronounceable name, my culture no longer fashionable, no longer of interest to white people, and therefore, lacking in worth to them. But it was still my culture. I still went home and ate curry with my family (and watched Bollywood movies my white friends didn’t even know existed). My tan didn’t wash off or fade. My parents were still migrants from other countries. We were still Other. Nothing had really changed.
Here’s the thing, though: I’m not content being the scenery on a white stage. I am the lead character in my own story, and while I might be a traveller between cultures, that doesn’t mean I don’t take offence when someone without my upbringing tries to hitch-hike. If you want to learn more about my lived experiences, ask – but don’t expect me to act as your gateway to a more exotic existence. I’m not “exotic” at all – I’m just me, a regular person who just so happens to have grown up in a different culture with some different values and delicious food (that I will happily share with you upon request). There’s nothing special about my skin colour – it’s just the way my genes express themselves. There’s nothing mystical about my culture – it’s a series of stories, customs and practices with a history behind them, just like yours. You’re welcome to come and learn more about it if you like – but if you want to take anything home with you, even just to try, you need to know what you’re taking first, and what it means for you to take it.
I am Aaminah, sometimes called Jay, and I am a kinda-white girl in a non-white body living in a society that only wants me when I’m in fashion. Both “white” and “non-white” are labels on my soul – contradictory, often in conflict, but both marked on it indelibly by the people with whom I grew up: the white students who were my friends and my non-white family. I am Us and Them, These and The Other. But no matter what I am, my culture is mine, and does not exist for you. I am the lead character in my own story, not a supporting cast member in yours. And I won’t let you forget it.