Who Owns Culture

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Tu: “To think that a house or land is yours is a mistake we all make.”

Moi: “Mmmmm”

note: about Tu et Moi

We have no part to play whatsoever in determining the location of our birth. And yet, that stroke of chance bestows upon us both advantages and burdens that we neither asked for nor deserve.

I have, like countless others, wondered who I am, in terms of nationality, and what rights do I have. On paper, I am an American, but I was born in India. Both those circumstances uplift me and weigh me down.

I am not going to worry about whether I deserve them. I am going to question whether they are mine and mine only.

A while back my friend JJ asked me what I felt about Beyonce’s new video in which she dressed up in a sari and other Indian adornments (I haven’t seen the video so I can’t comment on it directly). He asked me if I thought it was cultural appropriation. Even then, without much further thinking, my response was that I don’t own Indian-ness, and I don’t believe anyone does. So, if Beyonce wants to dress like an Indian woman, well, she is most welcome. I am sure she looks darn good in a sari and traditional Indian jewelry.

We fall into this trap thinking we have certain rights to a place just because we were born there, and by extension others who were not born there don’t have the same rights, especially if those rights are rivalrous.

So, who am I? I have lived longer in the US than anywhere else in the world, I have paid taxes there, helped in the processes and policies of that country, to little or great gextent, fallen in love, fallen out of love, owned and sold and owned property, had fleeting encounters and made lifelong friendships… just about everything meaningful in my life I have done I have done it in the US. And yet, because I look Indian, many people still refer to me as Indian. I am not offended by that, but I am puzzled by that – I don’t have an Indian passport, I don’t have an Indian bank account, I have not lived in India for longer than 3 months in the past 30 years… what makes me an Indian? Just because I like spicy food? That actually may well be the only valid reason after all.

And yet, if a white German or Finn were to go live in the US, for the first few years she might be seen as being of her original nationality. But after a while, when the accent fades away, she might get not only as absorbed in the American milieu, other than her name, people may not even have a clue where she came from… for all they know, she could be from Indiana or Texas. And, even more so, if and when she were to have kids there, they would be fully American, no? But, what if they were born outside the US and she moved to the US soon after? How long does it take for a person to become assimilated in a land in the eyes of those who are there from before? How much of it depends on one’s skin color, accent, etc.? And, how much of it is in our own minds?

So, who owns culture? I don’t know, but certainly not me. By the way, here is what Andy Warhol has to say in a similar vein.