Liam Wiesenberger: Am I like Iggy?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015 - 8:51pm

When I wear a kurta pyjama to my half-brother’s wedding in Germany, why do I think I’m not stepping into Iggy-Azalea-cultural-appropriation territory?

As a white person, I may not be “TumblrCertified” to defend my choice to wear formal desi clothing. However, I can speak to how I took one familiar element in my life — dance — and used it to surround myself with amazing new friends, an inspiring community and valuable experiences.

When I first meet someone with an, “I’m Liam! Nice to meet you,” I can generally tell when their eyes check me off as irrelevant. At first glance, I don’t stand out much; I’m just another tall white guy wearing fitted sweatpants, Nikes and some University organization crewneck. Not that I really amount to more than that, but there is a bit more to what I’ve found at this school than meets the eye.

After eight years of competitive dancing in typical western styles (jazz, hip hop, contemporary, ballet), I got involved with my high school’s Indian American Student Association, and did some basic bhangra and fusion performances. After discovering the community that came along with Indian American dance, I came to Michigan excited to continue. With the University’s IASA, I had the wonderful opportunity of learning and performing a Raas (traditional Gujarati dance) routine in 2014, and hope to learn and perform with IASA classical in 2015.

The University's fall IASA show is North America’s largest student-run production, and after sitting through last year’s two-hour long show of Indian dance performances, the first thing my dad says to me in his heavy Bavarian accent is, “You should join the German Student Association instead!”

Sorry, dad. Never before in my German-American life had I been exposed to such a large community of students who 1) Have immigrant parents (a defining trait which I’ve found produces wonderfully insightful and resilient humans), 2) Love to dance and care about putting on a killer performance, and 3) Are partially interested in me for the one thing I find boring about myself: being white.

After one year of being a dancer and choreographer, I’m now one of four captains of Michigan Izzat, the University’s all-male bollywood-fusion dance team, which competes with a routine composed of bollywood, bhangra, hip-hop and contemporary. My freshman year, I got to compete with my new team in Austin, New York, Atlanta, Chicago and at the finals, Bollywood America, in Phoenix.

I knew I was officially part of the collegiate Bollywood dance community once some members of other teams began referring to me as “King Liam,” a nickname my friends from high school now mock me for. I’m valued not only for my dancing abilities, but for being a token white boy. After winning first place in Atlanta, an Indian guy from another team told me I “stole the show.”

Am I taking advantage of my race in an insidious way, or just playing my cards right and invoking some bizarre minority-as-a-majority privilege? Am I taking the bollywood-fusion spotlight away from those who deserve it?

I like to justify it by telling myself that it’s OK because it’s not like I’m running around at Coachella wearing a bindi, but is it?

Just a few months ago, my interest in India broke through the dance lens with which I had always understood it. This summer, I spent four weeks in Amritsar, India, studying “Sustainable Nourishment” through langar and seva (service) at the Harmandir Sahib. Informally referred to as the Golden Temple, the site of the holiest Sikh gurdwara has been serving more than 40,000 free and nutritious meals per day for the past 400 years. And yes, to my extreme pleasure, we did also take daily bhangra classes in Amritsar.

On my last day of doing seva at the Harmandir Sahib, I bought myself a kara, the steel bracelet which is one of the five articles of Sikhism, and haven’t taken it off since. I had reservations about wearing one due to cultural appropriation and the fact that I’ve barely scratched the surface of Sikhism, but my professor was very supportive. Yet, I still stand by my original reservations.

Do I have the right to dance and dress as the desis do, despite not having to endure the same racial, cultural and religious hardships? I like to tell myself that the difference between myself and Iggy is that I’m actually trying to educate myself and learn from Indian people, rather than taking fashionable elements and reappropriating them. I’m still not completely sure where that line is drawn, but I hope to remain aware of its presence as I dance along it.

Liam Wiesenberger can be reached at wiesliam@umich.edu