“Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.”
Within groups of Western Cultures, this is a non-issue because they are the dominant culture and set the norms for what is acceptable.
To wear a dirndl during Oktoberfest is okay because a) Germany is part of the dominant culture and b) you’d participating in a cultural event.
To wear a sari walking around North Carolina will mark you as an outsider. It’s not appropriation if you’re walking to an Indian wedding but you might not love the stares and the overall way people will treat you. Those stares and feelings are why it’s significant. If the people whose culture that symbol belongs to can’t wear it without discomfort, you don’t get to use your white privilege to enjoy it.
I’ve generally stayed out of the conversation about cultural appropriation because among my friends, up until recently, it has revolved around celebrities and cornrows, bantu knots, etc. Those are not symbols of my culture and to be honest with you, I don’t fully understand their cultural significance even now. When those conversations have happened, my job has been to listen and learn what I can. While I couldn’t explain cornrows and bantu knots to you, I do know that it is 100% unacceptable for me to wear them so I don’t. I don’t think I have ever attempted either of those styles but now I certainly never will.
Recently, within the same group of friends, the topic of nose and septum rings came up. Despite apparently being the only person with ties to the brown community involved in the conversation, it’s not a topic I can weigh in on easily, especially given my mixed heritage. I dislike it when someone deems themselves an authority for an entire multi-billion person group, so I’m not going to attempt to do that. I acknowledge that to someone born and raised in Bombay or Bangalore or Lahore, the nose or septum ring might have different significance. Someone of South-Asian heritage who was born and raised in the West might have a different feelings about it as well. All our feelings are valid but since I can only speak for my own, here goes:
I don’t have any thoughts on septum rings. I can’t think of a single person in my family who has one so I’m not going to voice an uninformed stance and mislead anyone.
As for the nose ring, I wanted one my entire childhood. I loved the way my aunts nose stud sparkled in the light and how beautiful all the brides looked with their elaborate nose rings. I remember hearing stories from my father about his close cousin going to get her nose pierced before her wedding. In college, I loved my friends from India’s pretty nose rings, whether they were simple metal hoops or sparkly studs. I wanted one so badly but was afraid my white mother would see it as ignoring the sacrifices she had made to raise us in the USA where we had more opportunities and as embracing the culture that is, at least in my family, less liberal for women. I was jealous of all the white women who pierced their noses, knowing no one would care because it was trendy and they could just take it out when they ultimately got a job where it wouldn’t be appropriate, including my blond-haired, blue-eyed cousin.
Can we pause here for a second? I want to reflect on the fact most of the women whose nose rings I was jealous of brushed it off saying they liked it because it was “cool”. When I would ask about what their family thought or if they planned to keep it forever, they would laugh and say things like “they don’t care as long as I take it out when I get into the real world” or “it’s no big deal. I can always take it out if I need to for a job or whatever.” Considering it mere fashion and something to be so easily dismissed is white privilege. I say “white privilege” but, to be honest with you, I know women of other races who have done this too. You can culturally appropriate something even if you are another minority group.
After college and after much debate (and maybe a few drinks), I finally pierced my nose. I was so nervous about how my mother would react. I went home to visit and shyly showed her. She looked at me for a moment and then said “you pierced the wrong side” before picking up her book and heading to the living room to read. Years of apprehension for that response.
She was right. I had pierced the wrong side. According to my family and most of Indian culture, you pierce the left side. I had pierced the right, which is traditional to a group in South India. I forget which one, but I did run across someone who also had her right side pierced at an airport once. I caught her staring at me, probably trying to figure out if I was stealing from her culture or if I was from her part of the world.
I ended up taking my nose ring out, not because of shame for piercing the wrong side or because I decided to follow the traditions regarding it. It was because it got irritated by the dirt in the air (I assume) while on a trip to Pakistan. I can’t decide if that’s ironic or terribly appropriate. I intend to pierce the correct side at some point. I still have the beautiful stud I bought myself and the sparkly one my father gifted me in his excitement. I don’t know whether he had decided I was connecting with my heritage or I was declaring myself ready to get married by piercing my nose, but he was thrilled.
It was an interesting experiment even if it wasn’t intended as one. I am racially ambiguous. People in Europe are sure I am either from Spain or Italy. In most of North America, they assume I’m from South America. In Asia and in the Middle East, they assume I’m Middle Eastern. Except when I had my nose pierced. While my nose was pierced, I was 100% South Asian. Interesting, isn’t it? How quickly one piece of jewelry can alter the way people see you.
To loop back, do I consider nose rings cultural appropriation? I do, a little bit. I think, as with most things, it depends on your intentions. If you take it as an opportunity to educate yourself about another culture, because you spent time there and connected with the people or because you work in the community, then it’s different. If you want a nose ring because it looks cool, please at least take the time to learn a bit about a culture where it holds traditional significance. I can’t stop you from getting a piercing or make you take out one you already have, but if you admire one thing from a culture and want to borrow it, please at least take the time to learn the history and meaning of that thing.
Also, please stick with what we would wear on a daily basis. A big, elaborate gold hoop will just make us hate you as we would any oppressor, especially Western ones. Take a little time to learn the history and culture and you’ll understand why.