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Casteism and Cultural Appropriation

June 19, 2012

The image above has been floating around lately, accompanied by the following text:

The amount of hurt I feel just by looking at this photo just phantoms me, because what is this girl really thinking when she put on these shorts? That’s my deity, the One I take refugee when I’m experiencing sorrow in my life. He is my all, my everything and you have put him on your body? Not only that, you’re probably unclean, and very dirty and probably were even before you put the shorts onto your body. You do not wear Him, you do not eat meat when you’re wearing Him. You do not touch Him when you’re dirty. The person who’s even wearing the shorts is not Hindu, and I know this for a fact. No Hindu would ever wear this, ever. […]

From this, a lot of good discussion has come out criticizing the ways in which the text uses brahminical casteist ideologies of purity and vegetarianism to invalidate cultural appropriation.

You can read much of the discussion here.

I wanted to respond and add to the thoughtful responses from others (which I generally agree with). I am well aware that the white woman wearing those shorts is not out fighting casteism. My response is not in support for cultural appropriation or its basically racist, ignorant and opportunistic nature.

From the response:

A lot of the time pushback against cultural appropriation is about preserving authority by insisting that traditional authority is the only legitimate source for images/traditions/practices/narratives/ideas […] Obviously, this pushback is coming from the standpoint of caste privilege, when it comes from Hindu organisations in western countries. Most of the Hindu migrants to western countries are class- and caste-privileged. But this is because of racism and classism on the part of white people. To put it simply, white people don’t let poor brown people into their countries (and tend to kick out, beat up, exploit, and kill the ones who are there).

Colonialism benefited from the caste system and had a stake in ensuring that it continued to flourish. And to be sure, the racist nature of globalization supports the specific kind of racism validated by the caste system in India. And while, yes — migration to Western countries is near impossible for poor, darker-skinned people — hardened by the fact that the caste system codifies labor according to skin color (related to caste) in India.

However, shoving the caste system off to “white people” (who are part of the hierarchy, no question) — also allows caste privileged Indians to erase upper caste compliance and privilege in maintaining caste. Upper caste Indian people benefit from the caste system.

Incidently and importantly — the caste system is not restricted to the Hindu religion.

We need to stop talking about caste privilege as if it’s a “cultural” phenomena that is practiced in India — and is relevant to no one else. If the color of your skin has ever influenced what kind of work you do or how much you get to learn — you are part of the caste system.

Challenging casteism doesn’t follow from every single thing that subverts Hinduism. […] Which doesn’t even get into the issues around how there are stacks of caste-oppressed people whose livelihoods depend on cultural appropriation by westerners.

The criticism isn’t in support of white woman’s cultural appropriation. It’s a rejection of the text that accompanies the photo. I want to reiterate this. And it’s probably true that every single thing that subverts Hinduism isn’t challenging caste, and the image above is a good example of that.

However, iconic images of “major” Hindu deities are more visibly re-appropriated by upper-caste ideas than other religious iconography in India. The gods in India — including jesus — are always glowing, chalk white.

In regards, to those caste-oppressed people who are “benefiting from Western appropriation”. Let’s not applaud Western capitalist appropriation of caste-oppressed communities too hard now. Globalization has also contributed vastly to the suppression and displacement of adviasis, tribal people and dalit communities via land grabs, looting of mineral resources, deforestation and exploitative labor practices.

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