Accusations of cultural appropriation have been especially prevalent recently. The depiction of Jeff Bezos as Vishnu on the cover of Fortune magazine elicited complaints from some people who identify with Hinduism, as did the Krewe of Galatea parading their court as Hindu deities during Mardi Gras festivities. The recent Coldplay/Beyoncé music video release “Hymn for the Weekend” also has generated complaints about its depiction of India and the ways some artists profit off of these images.
Images of India have been used for decades, from the 007 film Octopussy to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the complaints that they have spawned have basis in the colonialism and neocolonialism of India and the global inequality that such images — in their construction of India as some place totally different — reinforce. One critique of the Coldplay/Beyoncé music video expressed concern for artists profiting from images of Indians always throwing colors, as if everyday was Holi. However, the author’s own discussion actually suggests one limitation of claims of cultural appropriation.
Just understand that in the age of Twitter and think pieces, the days in which white musicians could use black and brown people as props without expecting widespread scrutiny, mockery or pushback are rapidly drawing to a close.
The problem, as many comments on the commentary noted, is that the artists involved were not simply “white people,” as Beyoncé, with her mixed race heritage (Louisiana Creole and African-American), is seldom labeled “white.” While including a person of color does not give a video producer freedom to do anything that they want, the commentary either constructs Beyoncé as white or writes her out of the artistry and production of the video, making her just another “prop,” with the resultant issues of gender and ethnic diminution.
This idiosyncratic application of the label “white” reminds us of the malleable nature of such labels that are not fixed, natural categories. Even in more typical usage, the labels, whether ethnic, cultural, national, or religious, overwrite the diverse nature of any grouping, making them into an “imagined community,” to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase. Accusations of cultural appropriation, though, rely on a generalized unity of those who become identified with a culture, however that is defined.
Along with his critique of the use of the category “ethnicity,” Brubaker in his book Ethnicity Without Groups employs the label “entrepreneur” for various actors, including “ethnopolitical entrepreneurs” and “memory entrepreneurs.” The term references people who create/manage ethnicity or memory to gain access to resources. Brubaker asserts “Reifying groups is precisely what ethnopolitical entrepreneurs are in the business of doing. When they are successful, the political fiction of the unified group can be momentarily yet powerfully realized in practice.” And their constructions enable these entrepreneurs to “live ‘off’ as well as ‘for’ ethnicity.”
So, in addition to those appropriating cultures to make money, “cultural entrepreneurs” can refer to those who use claims of cultural appropriation to reinforce their own position. Rajan Zed, who has produced press releases decrying various appropriations of what he identifies with Hinduism, also requests donations to support his mission to protect Hinduism. His position and funding rely on a construction of a unified Hindu culture that needs protection from (other) cultural entrepreneurs like those behind Fortune magazine or the music video. Of course, it is a competitive field, as the Hindu America Foundation has rejected the critique of this video, preferring to focus attention on the “theft” of yoga. Various sets of entrepreneurs live “off” culture in different ways that overgeneralize and reify the unity and image of any single cultural designation.
So, take a look at the Coldplay/Beyoncé “Hymn for the Weekend” and consider both how it constructs an exotic India and how those who critique it for appropriating their culture also construct a generalizable unity of Indianness that connects them with the people and places depicted.
Image credit: screenshot from Coldplay “Hymn for the Weekend“