Hey, do you mind if I ask two questions? I'm a white woman, and I try my best to be aware of cultural appropriation, but—you know, always more to learn. :) 1) My sister and I spent several weeks in South India last summer visiting our (Indian) friends, and the mother took us out to buy salwar kameez to wear while there. She wanted us to dress appropriately. I don’t want to be appropriative—now that I’m back in the States, are these like sarees, that I shouldn’t be wearing them? Thoughts? Thanks! —by riverlight82

  • (Apparently I write a lot. Sorry!) Question 2 is: we also bought some sarees at the same time. I wore one, once; I felt weird about it, felt kind of appropriative, but at the same time got lots of approving comments from the ladies who helped me put it on, and a guy actually ran up in the street to say how glad he was to see a white girl trying to fit in. So. I guess what I’m asking is, does the appropriation depend on context, being in India vs. the U.S.? I only ever want to be respectful!

Ookay, we get this sort of question a lot - the ‘is it ok to wear this in this circumstance?’ sorta thing.  In the first situation, you were invited to wear the outfit by someone from the culture.  No doubt they wanted you to enjoy the experience of immersing yourself in Indian culture for the duration of your trip.  Coming back to the US, where you’re just wearing it cuz you want to is appropriative.  You probably have some pretty great souvenirs like photos and stories that you can show and tell people to let them know you really enjoyed your visit.  You don’t need to wear a salvar kameez to prove how into the culture you got.  I don’t mean this snarkily, since you, unlike many of our message-senders, have been very polite.

Indian suits are not sarees but they are still worn by Desi women because they are modest and smart-looking and traditional.  Therefore, you should respect the environment these outfits come from and NOT WEAR them when you haven’t gotten permission.  Remember, our Dadis and Nanis and Masis wear these suits when they come to this country (and the UK, and Australia, and every other location of South Asian diaspora) and they are looked down upon and snorted at and stared at.  You, as a white woman, will not experience the amount of latent and obvious racism as our Desi loved ones would if you wore a salvar kameez.  And that isn’t fair so don’t do it.

As per your second question, a white girl wearing an Indian dress in India is a novelty.  The people there might have been surprised and happy at the idea of a stranger coming in to their country who is make attempts at respecting their traditions.  So feel free to respect these traditions when you get home as well and again NOT WEAR a salvar kameez unless someone Desi has invited you to.  Appropriation depends on invitation not location.

- Nadya

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