Australian born Indian: cultural heritage, appropriation and identity

March 24, 2013 § 3 Comments

I support myself as a professional artist and I recently left my gallery representation in Melbourne when I realised they had begun representing a white artist whose work has appropriated Indigenous Australian art. I’m not going to discuss that specifically, but what it’s brought up for me – ideas about my own cultural identity and how I’m affected by cultural appropriation.

The newspaper reporter who interviewed me about leaving the gallery decided she needed to racialise me for the article. Part of our phone conversation was this:

“What’s your cultural background?”

“You can say I’m a non-Indigenous person of colour”

“I can’t say that! We can’t say ‘colour’!!!”

“It’s a term people who aren’t white use to describe ourselves sometimes. It’s not usually an offensive term”

“But where are your parents from? Were you born in Australia?”

“Er, India. Um, yes. But you don’t need to say that. It’s not relevant here”

But apparently she did need to say it. She described me in the article as an “Australian born Indian artist”.

Why does this make me feel so uncomfortable?

Perhaps because it implies that my art is somehow inherently ‘Indian’, that I somehow represent India in my art, and as a person. Possibly because it implies that I am culturally Indian, and only Australian in terms of location.

I rarely ‘out’ my racial background to people, especially white people. This is largely because of assumptions that happen with that disclosure, including the perception that I am a link to ‘authentic Indian culture’, an expectation that I can only disappoint.

My extended family can better fulfil expectations of Indianness. My mum has danced as an extra in a Bollywood film. My parents grew up as part of large, close-knit families in small dwellings, several siblings to a bed. My nana wore bindis and saris. My mum makes mean pickles and curries. My dad is an engineer. My grand dad was a rupee-less orphan. My parents are industrious, thrifty, polite, religious and other stereotypes associated with our model minority.

My parents are proud Goan Indians. My dad is secretary to the Goans of Australia, the GOA club, in Perth. I went to their family functions and camping trips as a child, the only environments where I was around people who looked like me. These events aside, all other trips to the shops, fetes, school or church, weren’t ‘diverse’ in the 70s and 80s in Perth; they were very white. The government’s White Australia Policy limiting immigration to white people had ended only a year before my parents’ arrival. My sisters, cousins and I were the only children of colour in our entire school or suburb that I can remember. Television and the media were dominated by whiteness, even more than today. My ‘cultural upbringing’ includes being socialised mostly in these very white environments.

I’m not sure the kids at school knew my specific racial background because their daily racial slurs towards me were those used for Indigenous people. My racial otherness was defined by my skin colour to them. And in many ways I feel most comfortable defining myself as ‘brown’, though not meaning it only in reference to skin tone. I’ll proudly say that I’m a queer person of colour or a brown genderqueer rather than specifically disclosing that I’m Indian or South Asian.

I question my Indianness as my Indianness has felt questioned by others my whole life. I’ve felt the tangible disappointment of white friends and acquaintances in my lack of connection to their perception of ‘my culture’. People have pitied me for not speaking Hindi. Culturally, my parents’ regional dialect is Konkani but their first language is English. People have lamented my lack of connection to their idea of Indian spirituality. My family is Catholic, which is typical for Goa. I rarely make curries, though white people have tried to woo me with their own. I’ve felt my queerness, feminism and sex-positivity to be perceived as counter to my Indianness. I’ve been racialised in nearly ever yoga class I’ve attended, expected to “be natural at it” or told “yoga is in your blood” by the teacher. To which I wish I’d replied to her German self, “Well if yoga is in my blood I guess that would mean fascism is in yours”.

My brownness made me a target for abuse at school and elsewhere, but growing up being visibly brown or Indian also brought other kinds of attention from white people. Some of the attention wasn’t overtly ‘negative’, but still seemed to carry out a power dynamic. I have been the passive subject of their curiosity, our interactions an outlet for their expressions of their ‘tolerance’; their benevolent acceptance of and attraction to my difference. Whether brownness is perceived as ‘bad’ or ‘exotic’ and intriguing, it’s been a way I’ve been ‘other-ed’, been seen as different from ‘normal’ where normal seemed to start with being white.

There is guilt and shame in claiming my Indianness that comes up when others interrogate or even label it. Perhaps some of the shame comes from my own internalised racism, gathered from a lifetime of receiving pity and negativity for being non-white. I feel guilt that I am disconnected from much of the culture my parents grew up in, and that I’m removed from the relative poverty my parents were raised in compared to my reality, though not compared to so many in India. My parents say they left India for “a better life for our children” and I feel shame that the privilege they have given me doesn’t feel like it counters what I culturally may have lost, and what they sacrificed.

This perception is partly formed by others’ appraisal of me and my Indianness. I am not ‘Indian’ enough and I am too ‘Australian’, but also I am Indian and therefore not Australian. I am ‘really from’ somewhere else, even though all non-Indigenous Australians are ‘really from’ somewhere other than Australia. My brownness negates my Australianness. I cannot easily claim ‘Australian culture’, even though that dominant culture centred on whiteness shaped my life, encouraging aspiration towards (white) Australianness over Indianness.

These feelings of loss are part of why cultural appropriation affects me so deeply. When I see a white person wearing a bindi or Indian ‘hippie’ clothes, white people running a ‘Holy Cow’ chai tent or hosting nearly every yoga class, it is a reminder of my own disconnection from cultural heritage. My ‘Australian’ life can’t be simply blamed for this. It’s not like my parents had a pipeline to ‘authentic’ ancient Indian culture either. They grew up with the legacy of colonialism there. Their language, religion, culture is affected by four hundred years of Portugese colonisation and English imperialism, other influences of the port town of their ancestry, and their parents’ relocations to Mumbai. My mum says she didn’t know Hindi, or the Portugese-influenced dialect of Konkani, well enough to teach me. I doubt anyone else in my extended family, other than my sister, has ever practiced yoga. I’m ignorant as to the factors other than colonialism that contribute to why yoga does not seem a typical activity of my family’s religion, region and class.

Yet it does often seem that white people appropriate what they perceive as Indian culture as if it’s a timeless and homogenous entity. They often seem so pleased with themselves, so content that they’ve found this way to temporarily transcend their ‘normality’, a way to spice what they may see as their dull dish of whiteness*. Whereas for me, referencing my cultural heritage, even by wearing anything seen as Indian, comes laden with my own complicated emotions and the burden of others’ perceptions. While they’re probably being rewarded for their ‘counter-cultural edginess’, my explorations aren’t remarkable because they’re supposedly ‘natural’ to me and I’m further racialised and exoticised. I’m looked to with expectations of authenticity, and then I’m pitied when I fail or feared when I challenge these expectations.

Seeing cultural appropriation by white people is re-traumatising of the loss of what colonialism and white supremacy has stolen and altered. It seems that they indulge in ‘my culture’ as if it is untouched by this reality. They choose to act in denial of their heritage as white people, which includes their connection to colonialism and white supremacy. Much like their colonial ancestors, they uproot what they value from its cultural context, without benefit to people connected to that heritage. Yet they often seem to believe that these very acts prove their distance from this history and their critique of these structures of power.

White appropriators act in denial of the benefits their heritage still gives them. Their whiteness, especially when in combination with class privilege, gives them greater access to the time, money, energy and opportunity to be able to investigate ‘other cultures’; to do such things as travel to India to ‘find themselves’, to market their organic chai, or to study to become a yoga ‘guru’. White people may personally profit from what they see as ‘appreciation’ and ‘celebration’ of ‘other cultures’ with greater ease than those of us ancestrally from the cultures they investigate, affirmed in their appropriation by others with similar privilege who prefer their ‘exotic’ presentations mediated by whiteness. Whereas I am consistently reminded where my inescapable Indianness places me within white supremacy and how my connection to and understanding of my Indianness has been affected by imperialism, colonialism, racism, exoticism, capitalism, migration, and other factors.

Cultural appropriation reminds me of what has been taken from my cultural heritage via the act of stealing it again. What I do know about my heritage is that it includes this legacy of theft, erasure, distortion, and alteration. It’s part of what makes up ‘my culture’ as an ‘Australian born Indian’.

First published at Asian Australian arts and culture blog, PERIL as “Australian born Indian”

*from bell hooks’essay “Eating the Other”

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