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A row of saris Photo: Kevin Clogstoun/Getty Images

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Can You Appropriate Your Own Culture?

Mixed race people often have to question if we will ever be “enough” for either side.

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On a trip to India six years before I got married, I bought a wedding sari. My grandparents and I visited a sari factory just outside of Chennai, and as I watched a woman weave gold flowers into bright red silk, I decided that I should buy one, just in case. I had thought about getting married in vague and hypothetical ways, and who knows, by the time my wedding day came, I might want to forgo the white wedding dress and do it the way my Indian grandparents had.

I did get married, and the sari stayed neatly folded in my bottom drawer. It was beautiful, but not right. This wasn’t just because we weren’t doing a Hindu ceremony, or because I absolutely loved my gold wedding dress covered in sequins. It was because I worried that, in a sari, I’d look like I was wearing a costume. (Never mind that a wedding dress is a costume all its own.) Who was I, this half-white woman who’d been to India twice in her life, to wear this?

It seemed like an obvious conclusion, a recognition that I was inherently not Indian enough, and thus could not wear the sari. I set the same boundaries with myself when it came to doing wedding mehndi, the decorative henna patterns dyed onto the hands of new brides. Though I wore Indian gold jewelry on my wedding day, including the traditional Bengali tikli, mehndi seemed like too much. I would be crossing the line between acknowledging my culture and being a white girl playing dress-up with things she didn’t understand.

The conversation about cultural appropriation is an important one, but limiting in scope, especially when it comes to mixed race people. Because while it may be easy to say a person of a dominant, colonialist culture shouldn’t wear the clothing of an oppressed one, well, what if you’re both? Mixed race people often have to straddle two or more cultures, figuring out where we fit in, and questioning if we will ever be “enough” for either side. And when it comes to fashion, it can easily feel like we’re appropriating ourselves.

Clothing and beauty are ways in which many cultures outwardly signal who they are, and mixed race people can struggle with feeling not quite attached to signifiers that monoracial people may have been raised with. Thalia, 24, is of Japanese and Russian-Jewish heritage, and her family has lived in America for multiple generations. She grew up coveting her parents’ and grandparents’ kimonos but lacking the cultural knowledge that would have made the garment hold meaning. “If I were to wear the kimono out of my house... I know it would feel like a costume,” she says. “For now, the kimono and the other parts of Japanese culture... that I try on feel just like that — something I am trying but that doesn't quite belong to me.”

Some of the worry about appearing to play dress-up certainly comes from outside judgment. Allison Rodriguez, 26, is Cuban and white, and she struggled with how her looks conflicted with her heritage. “My mom and dad were always adamant about [me and my siblings] feeling connected to our Latina heritage and status as first-generation Americans,” she says, “but we are all easily able to pass as white, me especially out of the three of us.” Growing up in Southern California, she says she either had to settle for being perceived as white or getting accused of “trying too hard” if she wore clothing or accessories associated with her Cuban heritage (in one instance, it was hoop earrings). The thing is, signaling your background does amount to “trying” for many mixed race people. Knowing she could be perceived as white “makes me simultaneously want to look more ‘ethnic’ so as not be swallowed into the white fold and want to punch myself in the face for even thinking something like that.”

“Trying too hard,” or being told “you’re not [X] enough,” are common accusations mixed race people get when trying to embrace one side of themselves. However, now that signifiers like hoop earrings are fashionable in the mainstream, the reactions Rodriguez gets are different. “What's changed is that white girls are doing it now, too, and so we aren't as worried about being ‘raced’ by those style choices.” How mixed race people are perceived is typically through a white lens.

I remember feeling the same way the first time I saw Gwen Stefani wear a bindi. I was too young to understand that it wasn’t hers to wear, that culture ran deeper than what your family decided to stick on your forehead every time you came over. But at the same time, a cool and famous person whose band I liked was wearing a bindi, just like I did sometimes. It was exciting, but also complicated. If I wore one, would people accept this part of me more easily now that they had seen it on the red carpet? Or would people assume I was another white girl trying to be like Gwen?

When judgments don’t come from classmates and relatives, they come from inside. Molly Applejohn’s father is Red River Cree (though she recently learned “our family line comes from the Little Shell Chippewa tribe in Montana, who were arbitrarily decreed to be Cree”). However, her short, light hair and tattoos mean most people read her as white. “I am heavily tattooed and none of my work features Metis, or Cree designs, because when I see white women with their trendy little dreamcatchers and moccasins, I am enraged,” says Applejohn, who worries that if she were tattooed with Cree designs, she’d be perceived not as a Native woman celebrating her heritage, but a white woman stealing it. It’s frustrating not just because white culture influences her fashion and body choices, but because connecting to her ancestry has been systematically denied. “I do not have my culture because it was violently ripped away from my family, and in way more recent history than most people realize,” says Applejohn.

While many mixed race people with white backgrounds worry about being perceived as white, mixed race people with no white ancestry also struggle with which aspects of themselves they want to embrace. Pilot Viruet, 27, is Black and Latinx, and says wearing “basically anything Latinx feels like I’m an impostor.” Alexis Nedd, 25, who is Black and Puerto Rican, echoes Viruet’s feelings, especially when it comes to hair.

“There are lots of hairstyles that I think look gorgeous but stay away from for myself — specifically cornrows and their variations,” says Nedd. But shying away from these styles is as much self-policing as it is not growing up with the culture. “No one ever told me those braided styles weren't for my hair, but my non-black parent did my hair growing up, and I feel like there's a whole education in black haircare and styling that I missed out on, and maybe I don't have a right to try this late in the game... If I jumped in with both feet now, I would feel appropriative.”

Nobody has a solution. Every time I wear Indian jewelry or clothing, I know there are people who will see me as Indian, people who will see me as wearing something I shouldn’t, and people who will say that even though I have Indian heritage, I’m treated differently for wearing a sari than someone who is “really Indian.” These things are all true, and they all exist at the same time.

People say race is a construct, but it’s one that influences everything we do. It’s also a construct that, no matter how many discrete boxes it attempts to create, bleeds together. Mixed race people worry about how our family will perceive us, how white people perceive us, if strangers who share our backgrounds or who don’t will know who we really are just by looking at us. Perhaps a shared experience for all mixed race people is deciding which perception we listen to on any given day.

I have never worn that red sari. My Indian family doesn’t throw many formal events, and I’m not planning on having another wedding. But I tell myself I still deserve to have it, even if I don’t always believe it.


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