My recent purchase of two saris got my restless mind squirming. I began to wonder what people of Indian descent would really think of a white Westerner that would dare to wear a sari. Since I don’t have a huge circle of Desi friends to ask, I was forced to resort to Googling “white woman sari” and various similar combinations of keywords so that I could get an idea of what people actually think of such a thing.
Naturally, it is naïve to expect one clear answer on the subject. The opinions were fairly equally divided between the “of course you can wear one!” and “don’t be ridiculous!” camps, which didn’t really help answer my question.
I decided to wear the cotton brocade out to the shoe store as my black Birkenstocks ruined the look and I needed something nicer, and to the grocery store. Just to see what would happen. Sadly, no Indian folk were to be seen during my excursion and I had to settle for the delighted smiles and compliments of fellow whites.
It was actually kind of nerve-wracking, having all eyes on me like that. I had no choice but to hold my head high, square my shoulders, and walk proudly like I hadn’t a care in the world. One thing I know about wearing a sari: you can’t pull it off if you’re walking hunched over like you want to be invisible. So I didn’t bother trying.
I did learn two valuable things though: for one, saris are really comfortable on a hot sunny day, and two, that I can drive while wearing one.
After I got home, I did a little more Googling. A common complaint of the “white women shouldn’t wear saris” camp was that a Westerner that tries to wear Indian (or any other ethnic clothing) is being rude by appropriating culture that doesn’t belong to them, as if clothing can be insulted or demeaned by some sort of fashion-specific manifest destiny.
This didn’t sit well with me. I live in a city where whites are not a majority. We have an equal number of blacks, as well as large populations of Hispanic and various Asian nations. My city is one of the more violent ones in the US, having a murder rate in the triple digits nearly every year. I have experienced a great deal of what the popular media likes to refer to as “reverse racism.” As if any racism is OK; as if it’s excusable because whites in the recent past used to commit racism, so let’s just go for an eye for an eye and not evolve and do better than our forefathers did.
I’ve never oppressed anyone. I have never called anyone a racial slur – though when I have confrontations in my city (as is inevitable from time to time) I’m almost always called some derogatory name such as cracker or worse. My mother’s side of the family has always been “trailer trash.” We’ve never had the money to own real homes, let alone slaves. I don’t condone racism, I don’t condone racial slurs, I believe in equal opportunities for everyone based on merit and not ethnicity. 60,000 years ago we all had a common ancestor, so in my own scientifically-minded opinion, we’re all the same. The devil, as usual, is in the details – in this case, the details of skin color, ancestral origin, culture.
So when I read that a Westerner in a sari is committing the sin of cultural appropriation, I got more than a little offended, if I’m being honest. Isn’t the intent more important than outside opinion? Sure, I know it’s not realistic to expect people to be reasonable about some things. But how is my admiration and love of the sari an insult to anyone? How is something so positive turned by some people into a negative?
All that aside, this sort of statement seems rather hypocritical. As people all over the world turn aside from their traditional wear in favor of the Western uniform of jeans and t-shirts, shouldn’t it be an occasion of joy to see that their cultural heritage is treasured by people on the outside of the culture? How exactly is it that a non-Westerner can go between the different styles of dress, but a Westerner cannot? Is this not a double standard, and is this truly acceptable?
As a Westerner of my generation, and from a liberal state to boot, I have a generous portion of Western Guilt ingrained in me. We’re taught to be guilty about what we have, and what we are. The imperialistic activities of our ancestors, as well as the rampant greed and corruption of the corporations and the corporate-directed government are a heavy burden on those of us who know better and who regret what has been done in the past, and even in the present, by people that we do not appreciate or admire.
I spent three weeks in Thailand a decade or so ago. Even though haggling was expected and to not haggle was considered rather rude, I felt terribly guilty trying to argue down what I felt was already a ridiculously low price. This need of mine to find that Indians will accept my wearing of the sari is another manifestation of this Western Guilt.
I’m not appropriating the culture, I’m celebrating it! And yet because of the color of my skin, some people consider me to be continuing the abhorrent practices of imperialism simply by choosing to dress in something beautiful from another land.
The power structure of the world is shifting. By my grandchildren’s time, I fully expect India and China to be the world’s leaders in most of the places America leads now. My embracing of the sari, rather than being seen as a confiscation of something that does not belong to me, should perhaps be seen as my acceptance of future world leadership.
I would like to feel proud to wear a sari, but there will always be that little voice that has been instilled in my heart, that because I’m a white woman from America, I don’t have the right to enjoy the clothing and culture from other lands as if they were my own. And I find this to be a sad state of affairs.
Yes, Europeans and Americans have done a lot of damage in the world, and still do. But not all of us support what goes on. Some of us are disgusted by past and present imperialistic acts. Holding all of us responsible for the actions of people long dead, or unsupported by us in the present, is unfair. And bearing resentment against us because of where we were born, or the color of our skin and hair, is just continuing the age-old evil of xenophobia and acts of murder and destruction in its service.
The world gets smaller every day. We all have to live in it. We should all be allowed to celebrate whichever parts of it that we love, no matter if it is something native to our lands or not.
Even if something is not native to one’s homeland, it can become native to one’s heart.