This is a callout post for the Curry-Queen-With-Flowers-In-Her-Hair brand of brown girls that flood Instagram and Twitter timelines everywhere.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about:
Indian-American culture is still fairly new in its development. There have been waves of immigration, but the largest wave of Indian-Americans has been the current youth generation. But representations of our culture go between mooching off of Black culture while simultaneously being an anti-Black culture (I’m looking at you, NAV) and this: taking the pretty~ bindis, lehengas and saris and sprinkling it here and there to add some dimension to an individual personality to gain social capital by feeding into the far-removed image of exotic and pretty culture that many white Americans might assume of Indian-American culture.
Now, a quick disclaimer: I don’t see an issue in South Asian girls generally taking pride in their culture. The clothes and jewelry, as Sruthi said, are art. But when it’s a pattern where the only time the culture is talked about is when it makes you look pretty, or when it makes you seem like an Exotic Girl Who is Not Like The Other Girls… what’s the point? What are you actually constructively contributing to the culture if that’s the only thing you post?
Is this all that there is to Indian culture? Even when thinking about this, there are parts of me that wonder if I’m being too harsh on other brown girls. I don’t personally partake in it, but for others, maybe it’s their way of embracing their culture.
But if that’s the case, why are there no other ways of embracing our culture? Why do we place value of what we show the most on what’s most liked by a general audience? And in an era where social justice is more popular, it’s also often framed as a radical act.
Culture is an amalgamation of stories, shared experiences, traditions, and fashion. I know that Indian and general South Asian culture has more to it than just jewelry and pretty clothes because the culture I come from is steeped in generations of stories and unique experiences.
Essentializing displays of Indian culture to solely its fashion is more harmful because ultimately, you’re costuming a culture to remove the ethnic specificity of what it actually is. I’m not even going to explain what Indian or South Asian culture “is,” because that could be the topic of an anthropological dissertation.
There is an inherent denial of children who come from immigrant families of how well they know their cultures. It’s unrealistic to believe that as South Asian-Americans who are children of immigrants, we know our culture and our ethnicity the same way that our parents do. We’ll never know our countries or traditional culture the way that a native born person would… but that’s okay. I promise you, it will be fine. It’s absolutely possible to celebrate our more unique cultures in more constructive ways. There are still amazing ways of celebrating a diasporic culture. You can learn the language of your heritage, celebrate the history of ancestors, and engage in traditions that bring a sense of cultural pride in a country like the US (for example, this is what folks in Michigan Sahana and the IASA do through dance).
Holistically, another way to phrase what I’m saying: What makes you different from the white people who pick and choose parts of Indian culture to make themselves look prettier or edgier at Coachella?
They do it so their Instagram likes will go up and they’ll seem worldly beautiful. What’s our reason?