As an Indian American who has spent the majority of her life in the "West" (ie North America and to a smaller extent, Western Europe), I've always noticed the commodification of cultures for societies that are based on consumer culture. The moment I noticed this was back in 1997. In high school, my friends took me to a No Doubt concert in Orange County, California. At the time, No Doubt's Gwen Stefani was sporting bindis. So when I went to the concert, I wore one. Everyone at the concert was white; all the girls were wearing bindis. But they were looking at me in the most depreciating manner; I even heard a couple of comments about my skin color (I used to be very tan because I was a swimmer and water polo player) and that I "should go back."
Apparently, it's ok for white girls to wear bindis, but not Indians themselves, even though bindis come from India and bindis are an object created by Indians. I remember all the times my mother was treated like an alien; sneered and glared at, being told to "go back to where you came from" because she wore a bindi and a salwaar kameez in public. Whites can wear bindis with no problem; but my mother, for whom it was a part of who she was, was ridiculed for it. It's permissible for white people to wear bindis because they've claimed ownership (through consumption) over the very idea of bindis: that it's cool and trendy to wear one- but only if you're white. This smug hypocrisy of the whites that I grew up with could make anybody feel resentful and indignant.
So when I came across this post on The Curious Stall, I kept nodding my head in agreement as I read an incisive piece written by Professor Z, an American professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco who has spent time in India:
...[S]ince returning to the U.S. we've noticed several other instances of "brand India" for sale. At least two of the catalogs Marion has come across here at my in-laws have whole lines of India-inspired clothing for sale. All of a sudden it seems that it's hip to be Indian. It's possible that it's been hip to be Indian for some time, and that we never noticed. Or perhaps we've become hyperaware of all things Indian outside of India now that we're back from India ourselves.
Either way, the fact that it's hip to be Indian irks me. Appreciating "brand India" is very different than having any sincere appreciation for the country, its cultures, or its problems. So when western consumers turn India into a lifestyle, I find it troubling on a number of levels. First of all, its not terribly hip for Indians to be Indian, at least not in the U.S. While in India, we talked to at least one Indian who left the U.S. after 17 years because he had found it inhospitable in the post-September 11 culture of fear.
Why would it have become inhospitable for him? Because the color of his skin leads Americans to the presumption that he is either (a) Muslim, or (b) from the Middle East, and therefore a threat. For an Indian in the U.S., in other words, there is nothing hip about having dark skin. Even within India it's not hip to have dark skin. Advertisements for sunscreen urge people to use sunscreen not to protect their skin from the sun's harmful UV rays, but rather to keep their skin light in color. India is still very much influenced by the caste system, and the upper castes tend to have lighter skin.
So I am bothered by the fact that "being Indian" is really only hip if you're not Indian. But more bothersome is the fact that, most likely, none of the more than half a billion Indians living in poverty are benefiting from the commodification of their lifestyles. I guess it's too bad that they never patented their traditional fashions, their stainless steel bowls, and their terra cotta chai cups, all of which are now for sale at Globus for sums 10-100 times what the same items fetch in India. Take the hip hop industry in the United States, at least here you have a model for returning a bit of wealth to a traditionally exploited and oppressed segment of the population through the commodification of its culture [Link].
I couldn't have said it better.
What's more is that this is not endemic to only the US. In Bologna, Italy, I saw hippie orientalist Italians man the stalls at the weekly bazaar at Piazza Montagnola who told me that they went to India every 6 months or so to stock up on goods and sell them to Italians- at high prices. Rich Bolognese women would wear expensive salwaar kameez and carry intricately patterned Indian purses which cost a fortune at boutiques, but would keep Desis at a distance. In Spain, I'd see overpriced "indigenous" items in boutiques, the history of cruel colonization and extermination of indigenous people in "Latin" America absent from the price tag. Even the hippie and progressive folks were basically a walking billboard of trinkets and jewelry from "exotic" cultures, advertising that they were "multicultural" in that they "accepted" and liked those far off, exotic places. And this consumer culture of consuming other cultures is not confined within the boundaries of the West. Yuppie Indians in India consume obscene amounts of Western goods, and thereby consider themselves as more "modern" and "Western" (Franz Fanon's worst nightmare: the local bourgeoisie imitating their masters.) Having knowledge, contact, and an understanding of a locality is replaced with buying objects and consuming goods.
The commodification, capitalization, and reduction of entire peoples, societies, and richness into a few token items is the easy way out. Specific to the US and western Europe, consumption is the way liberal Westerners are "multicultural" and "experience" various cultures: eating foods of a certain region, donning local outfits and accessories, listening to the music, and superficially dabbling in the religions. For a country as multi-ethnic as the US, we're astonishingly insular, inward looking, and lazy to really know about anything remotely different. It's easier -and safer- spending money on objects rather than having "any sincere appreciation for the country, its cultures, or its problems," as well as making an earnest and sincere effort to understand its histories, politics, and social realities. The latter would be too taxing. And can you really blame people? In a country where everything is capitalized, where consumption is culture, and culture is consumption, it's not the least bit surprising that whites can wear bindis, but you can't.