I am sitting in the living room with my family, passionately expressing my outrage at a series of culturally appropriative ‘Bollywood’ themed parties that have recently flooded my newsfeed. As a second-generation migrant immersed in the world of positive social justice discourse, the idea that cultural appropriation is bad is a truism. White people should obviously not be able to profiteer or entertain themselves using the cultural fabric of oppressed societies. Yet surprisingly, the adults in the room don’t give me the response I’m expecting, exchanging confused looks with each other instead.
“Isn’t this just a celebration of our culture?” they posit.
For many first-generation migrants cultural appropriation is seen as a long awaited acceptance of their culture. My Chinese-Australian friend tells me that for his mother, cultural appropriation is “a blending of culture, not an affront to traditional China”. In many instances, she believes it’s an example of “Australians loving Chinese culture.” Another parent articulates this by suggesting “When I see clothing in Myer influenced by our [Indian] culture, it feels like we’re having an impact on this country”.
It’s an attitude that confronts and frustrates me. Having viewed the practice through filters of racial taunts and shaming, cultural appropriation has always been a sensitive issue for me. How dare those who made fun of my name and taunted my dark skin cherry-pick elements of my culture for social advancement? Yet as I reflect on my attitude, I become more curious about the rationale for our parents’ perspective. What has caused such a radical shift in perceptions over a single generation? Perhaps there is a complex explanation for what strikes me as a facile outlook.
It is all too common for second-generation people of colour to dismiss their parents’ thinking as ignorant. One of my best friends, an Indian Australian, accounts for his parents’ perceived obliviousness by claiming “my parents … don’t really follow the media at all and that’s sort of a basis for learning about [cultural appropriation theory]”. In fact, as I attempted to organise interviews, many of my friends were reluctant to start discussions with their parents, speculatively pre-empting their attitudes towards cultural appropriation. However, as I began to speak to my friends’ parents, it became apparent that such a view of our parents was reductive.
Among the first-generation migrants I spoke to, the primary reason for moving to Australia was to find better opportunities for work and lead a better life. Although there is obviously no all-encompassing narrative of immigration, overwhelmingly, those I interviewed described a will for survival and economic success in Australia as central to their experience. In this world, the frontier for battles of race lay not in the distant symbolic harms of cultural appropriation, but the very real experiences of institutionalised discrimination and the racist anti-immigrant stances of Pauline Hanson and her ilk.
Sold on the belief that hard work would allow them to prosper, our parents’ generation dedicated themselves to their careers and families — in many instances leading to the internalisation of racist norms. My Chinese friend’s mother, for example, suggested that, having learnt English as a second language, it was natural that she would lose out to native English speakers when vying for jobs. Comments like these perhaps reflect a preference to accept one’s lot in life rather than protesting racism — something seen as likely to only cause further ostracism.
After all, it’s important to remember that our parents came to an Australia that was vastly different to the one we see today. Despite the existence of many tight-knit migrant communities, Asian immigrants accounted for less than 5 per cent of the total population in 1990. “It was very white,” a parent tells me; “they just weren’t willing to interact”. In such an Anglo-Australian-dominated society, many of the immigrants I talked to suggested that being overly critical of subtle forms of racism simply was not feasible. When the central aspect of the migrant’s experience was survival, the best way to ‘make it’ in this foreign land was to accept the hegemonic influences on one’s life and avoid the social exclusion that was concomitant with calling out racist practices.
After having an open discussion with first generation immigrants, I can now begin to understand their perspective on cultural appropriation. It emerges from an experience of a whiter Australia than I have ever witnessed; a painful path to success that I may never need to walk and a struggle for survival I will likely never know. When they see white teenagers in kimonos, it’s a symbol not of cultural othering, but of recognition, a final realisation that they exist and that their culture has been put on the map.
Perhaps my mother sums it up better than I can. She says, “I remember when I took my oath, they asked me to integrate into Australian society… seeing my white co-workers in kurtas makes me feel like my people finally exist.”