The harm in cultural appropriation does not lie in merely taking “elements of another culture” in itself, but in powerful groups doing so towards marginalised groups, said Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at.
His statement was made in the wake of the backlash received by Malaysian actress Mira Filzah following a “Bollywood-themed” photoshoot in collaboration with a coloured contact lens company.
In addition to uploading photographs of her in an embroidered lehenga — a traditional ankle-length garment worn by Indian women — and an elaborate nath or nose ring, Mira also shared a video of herself lip-syncing to the song Maar Dala from the Hindi film Devdas on her Instagram.
The 27-year-old celebrity has since issued a public apology over the matter in a string of tweets to a Twitter user @eshwaaaaarya after the latter criticised Mira for profiting off Indian culture by using traditional Indian cultural elements as an aesthetic to promote contact lenses.
On Twitter, many commenters of the majority race appeared to have defended Mira’s creative direction and even demanded @eshwaaaaarya to apologise to the actress while vilifying other Malaysian Indians who voiced out against cultural appropriation by using racist epithets.
In a Facebook post on Monday (24 August), Alfian posited that culture appropriation involves the “power to cherry-pick which elements of a culture to valorise and which to denigrate” and to remove a cultural element of its original meaning simply because “one is drawn to its ‘exotic’ aesthetic value”.
The example of an Indian woman wearing baju kurung — a traditional Malay garment for women — in Malaysia, he argued, does not carry the same implications as a Malay woman wearing a sari or lehenga.
“In a country where that form of dress is considered ‘national dress’, that is not only OK but probably looks like assimilation,” Alfian wrote, in response to a common “whataboutism” in the cultural appropriation discourse.
Alfian also said — citing actress and singer Amandla Stenberg, whose mother is a Black American — that it is important to question what things would be like if a country loves marginalised racial minorities as much as it loves their culture.
“One of the things that has been useful for me in thinking through these issues is a question that actress Amandla Stenberg once asked: “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” And so we ask, “What would be Malaysia be like if they loved Indian people as much as they love Indian movies, fashions and food?” he wrote.
“Just a few days before Mira Filza’s photoshoot, a landlord kicked out his 2-week Indian tenant with the message ‘we only prefer Chinese tenant to stay in our unit’.
“Before that, Kasthuri Patto was told in Parliament by another MP to wear powder on her face so she could be more visible. Before that, the grinding inequality, the deaths in police custody, the temple demolitions, the conversion of minors, the body-snatching at funerals. #penatlah,” Alfian highlighted.
Cultural appreciation entails awareness of racial and/or religious significance, listening to custodians of the said culture — not using the culture as an ‘accessory’: Alfian Sa’at
Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, entails awareness of racial and/or religious significance and listening to the very custodians of the said culture, said Alfian.
Wearing a different race’s cultural garments to a “good friend’s wedding”, as an example, is “a form of well-wishing, and your friend is still the star of the show”, he said.
“Is the culture used as essence or accessory? How about we listen first before saying that we don’t see a problem? How about we start seeing things with the other person’s eyes?” Alfian urged.
Citing a popular instance of cultural appreciation in the wake of the recent fiasco, Alfian also highlighted the efforts of Yunalis Zarai — a Malaysian singer/songwriter of international stardom better known as Yuna — who chose to collaborate with and hire an all-Indian cast for one of her music videos.
“Yuna was once told that she was not fair-skinned enough to be a recording artiste, but the cinematography in the video celebrated her skin–and those of her co-stars. Brown was golden and beautiful,” he stressed.
In the YouTube description for the music video of “(Not) The Love of My Life”, Yuna expressed her gratitude to the Malaysian Indian community for their “consultation, support, and most importantly, love” in the making of the video.
Yuna also highlighted the efforts of her collaborators such as traditional Indian choreographer Harshini Sukumaran — who is also her friend — as well as that of “other talents and business owners, who live and breathe within the Indian wedding industry” in helping her “breathe so much beauty and insight in what we were creating”.
“I’m not the main star of this video, they are,” she wrote.
The video, which tells the story of a bride-to-be experiencing ‘cold feet’ in the midst of getting ready for her wedding, was uploaded slightly over a year ago. It marked Yuna’s debut as a music video director.
In a tweet that appeared to be referencing the recent cultural appropriation saga, the songstress reminded the public to go beyond superficial admiration of a culture’s aesthetics, and to instead delve into the origins of the said culture and to respect “the branch, the leaves, the struggles of the plant blooming a flower despite the hot sun”.
“Be kind to things that are not yours. Don’t act like you know,
because ultimately you don’t,” she wrote yesterday.
Don’t just appreciate the flower, learn & respect the branch, the leaves, the struggles of the plant blooming a flower despite the hot sun. Respect the roots.
Be kind to things that are not yours. Don’t act like you know,
because ultimately you don’t.
— Yuna Zarai (@yunamusic) August 23, 2020
Twitter user Rohan Javet Beg posited that while cultural appropriation in Malaysian society is contextually different from that in the United States — where discourse on cultural appropriation is frequently believed to have originated from — groups able to leverage their power must nonetheless “engage with minority communities to ensure accurate representation and financial compensation”.
“When all is said and done, promoting multicultural aesthetics is meaningless if the production doesn’t reflect the equity it’s trying to sell,” he said.
Watching minority culture being shared on inequitable terms with the majority against the backdrop of systemic inequality and widespread prejudice will always be a source of tension.
— Rohan Javet Beg (@RohanBeg) August 23, 2020
Tokenist representation of a minority community should not be considered adequate engagement either, said Rohan.
“For the Malay majority, partaking is just celebrating diversity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s a purely cosmetic activity.
“For Indian minorities, diversity means empowerment against anti-blackness and racism,” he wrote.
Rohan stressed that as long as “Malaysian multiculturalism” requires racial minorities to “be grateful” for the façade of being represented “instead of a set of national principles that strives to achieve a greater degree of equality for all peoples living under its banner, it will never be genuine”.
“We Malaysians have been raised to view our multiculturalism with such pride that many of us have fooled ourselves into thinking we’re somehow uniquely better at it than others.
“We need to get a grip,” he stressed.
Denial, defensiveness and hostility shape most conversations on racism: Alfian Sa’at
Alfian previously expressed a similar sentiment in his criticism of the Singapore authorities’ action against sibling duo Preeti Nair and Subhas Nair of YouTube fame for their rap video on an E-Pay advertisement.
The controversial advertisement, which was later modified to remove the offending material, portrayed Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew as multiple “characters” of different races in Singapore, such as a Malay woman in a headscarf and an Indian man with darkened skin, a Chinese woman in a pink jacket and a Chinese man with a moustache in the advertisement.
The advertisement drew flak from many Singaporeans, with parallels being drawn to “brownface” — the racist act of darkening fair skin for entertainment purposes at the expense of people of “brown” races such as Indians and Malays, regardless whether or not it is intentional. Many critics have also pointed out why actual Malay and Indian actors or models were not hired to portray individuals of their respective races instead.
Alfian said that such instances of racism against minorities in Singapore are often glossed over and brushed aside by the oft-repeated narrative of multiracial harmony — upheld by the government and the Chinese majority — which is “built on the eternal forbearance of minorities” who are forced to tolerate institutional and even “casual” racism levelled against them.
“Who was it who said that we don’t really have racial harmony in Singapore, what we have is racist harmony? Because that harmony is built on the eternal forbearance of minorities. To be able to take a joke, to laugh at ourselves, to inspect our flaws obsessively and self-criticise, because minorities are obliged to aim for self-improvement rather than to demand social justice. Tell the other side to take a joke and the police are summoned,” he said.
“Denial, defensiveness and hostility shape most conversations on racism. Messengers bearing a less than rosy picture are disbelieved and terrorised. If something is flagged as racist, it is not that racist thing that will earn censure. The flag however, will be torn to shreds,” he concluded.