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Celebrating diversity mindfully

May 31, 2022

Can a saree fit into a Carnival celebration? Does donning a dirndl irk Bavarians? DW's Brenda Haas, from Malaysia, looks at the fine lines between cultural appropriation and appreciation.

Picture of laughing people at a spiritual wedding in India
A couple celebrates a spiritual wedding in Goa, IndiaImage: Vicki Couchman/Design Pics/picture alliance

Six years ago, when my husband and I set up home in the city of Bonn in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), we did what we've done wherever we moved: We attempted to assimilate.

And we discovered that one of the high points of predominantly Catholic NRW's social calendar is the season of Carnival, which hits fever pitch the week before Ash Wednesday, that marks the start of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter. And dressing up in costume is part of this pre-Lenten revelry.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I can never pass up the opportunity to dress up and so we went to a local costume shop to check out its offerings. It boasted a vast selection catering to every taste: gaudy disco-era dresses to silver space suits, sexy nurse uniforms to nuns' habits, kangaroos to squirrels and … sarees.

My culture, your costume

Sarees? I did a double-take.

Because hanging there wasn't just six yards of fabric; it was an outfit I identified with as a first-generation Malaysian of Indian descent.

More specifically though, sarees remind me of my late Mum, for whom it was daily wear. Whether beating clothes on a washing board, collecting eggs from the chicken coop or mixing spices on a grinding stone, she'd go about her daily chores in airy cotton sarees that were suitable for Malaysia's tropical climate. Her fancier, sumptuous silks were saved for weddings, special occasions, and Sunday Mass.

Hence, seeing sarees being sold as "costumes" for "playing the fool" — as Carnival festivities are often described — was somewhat unsettling. Just as I once found it unsettling watching singer Gwen Stefani, who fronted No Doubt in the 90s, perform with a forehead full of bindis — that "dot" worn between the eyebrows by Indian girls and women, which bears deeper cultural and religious significance.

Brenda Haas, a woman smiling in a garden, wearing a saree in the colors of the German flag.
DW's Brenda Haas wearing her 'German saree'Image: Brenda Haas/DW

Live and let live

Note though, I picked the term "unsettling," but I was not offended.

Perhaps it's because I am admittedly a "special occasion" saree draper myself: I wear them to weddings, cultural festivities or intercultural functions. My daily wear is what is often referred to as "Western" in the East — skirts, dresses, jeans and t-shirts.

Or perhaps my "live and let live" attitude stems from having grown up in a multicultural society, where we've long borrowed elements of each other's cultures, be it customs, food or fashion. 

It's even considered a sign of respect to don outfits of different Malaysian ethnic groups when observing significant cultural or religious festivals together. 

This also perhaps explained my initial enthusiasm to get a dirndl when I first moved to Germany, only to have my husband wryly remark, "We are not Bavarians." He comes from the German state of Hessen.

It did give me pause for thought: What would a Bavarian think of me cavorting round in a dirndl?

A woman trying on a Lederhosen costume for Carnival.
German traditional outfits are also among popular Carnival costumesImage: DW/Jan Bruck

Does my discomfort bother you?

This brings us to the multi-layered issue of cultural appropriation defined by Oxford dictionary as the "unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society."

In the area of fashion, famous brands and personalities have been accused of using symbols, patterns, jewelry or garments from other cultures.

In 2020, Mexican Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero wrote an open letter to French fashion designer Isabel Marant. Referring to her Etoile Fall-Winter 2020-21 collection that featured designs belonging to the Purepecha people in Mexico's Michoacan region, Guerrero wrote: "Some symbols that you took have a profound meaning for this culture … These symbols are very old and have been conserved thanks to the memory of the artisans. I ask you, Ms. Isabel Marant, to publicly explain on what grounds you privatize a collective property … and how its use benefits the creator communities." Marant later apologized.

A woman weaving while two others sit behind her, smiling.
Designs by Indigenous women weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico have been copied by international fashion companiesImage: Wolf-Dieter Vogel/DW

In 2021, luxury fashion brand, Louis Vuitton, received flak for selling a stole featuring a checkered pattern inspired by the keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. It eventually pulled the $705 scarf from its online store.

At the 2018 MTV Movie and TV Awards, Kim Kardashian was accused of appropriating Black culture for styling her hair in Fulani braids.

Defending her action as more cultural inspiration than appropriation, Kardashian had said, "Sometimes I think maybe if you don't communicate where you got the inspiration from — and I've done that in the past — then people might not understand it. But yeah, I think as long as it comes from a place of love and you're getting inspired, then it is okay."

Last year, Gwen Stefani addressed cultural appropriation accusations not just for her bindi and saree-wearing, but also for profiting off Japanese street fashion by dressing and having backup Japanese-American dancers called the "Harajuku Girls" when she began her solo career in the early 2000s. Stefani said she was inspired by the unique fashion of Tokyo's Harajuku district when she toured Japan in the 90s.

Instead, she argued that social media impedes the freedom to appreciate cultures. "I think that we grew up in a time where we didn't have so many rules. We didn't have to follow a narrative that was being edited for us through social media, we just had so much more freedom."

Celebrating diversity mindfully

Cultural sensitivity bodies and educational institutions offer insight into how to distinguish between appropriation and appreciation.

I like the pithy explanation on the University of British Columbia's website. It says that you appreciate another culture when you make an effort to broaden perspectives and connect with others cross-culturally, "while appropriation is taking one aspect of a culture that is not our own, such as culturally distinct items, aesthetics, or spiritual practices, and mimicking it — without consent, permission, or any cultural context or relationship to that item or practice — solely for personal interest, to make money, gain popularity, or because you like the way it looks."

 A woman wearing Native American headdress
The Native American feather headdress has been appropriated by music festival-goers as novelty fashionImage: Matt Cowan/Getty Images for Coachella

Thus, returning to my saree example, I generally take no issue with people draping the saree if they are mindful of its cultural significance or make efforts to learn more from the people themselves.

I don't find it amusing though when someone drapes a saree and then speaks to me in an exaggerated singsong manner while waggling their heads. Or if my wearing it affects my advancement say, at the workplace, while no one bats an eyelid when others do it for the novelty. 

And since celebrating Carnival is the local culture here in Bonn and is also very popular among children, maybe this presents a fantastic opportunity to start introducing them to other cultures and practices that they might otherwise not know much about.

Mindful appreciation of diversity. Now that's a practice worth appropriating, no?


Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Brenda Haas | Porträt
Brenda Haas Writer and editor for DW Culture