Celebrate Diversity – With Vigilance | culture | DW

Six years ago, my husband and I moved to Bonn in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. We did what we always did when we came into a new environment: we tried to integrate. We soon found out that one of the highlights of the Rhine Catholic calendar is the Carnival. It reaches its boiling point the week before Ash Wednesday, which in turn marks the start of Christian Lent, 40 days before Easter. Getting dressed is an important part of this fun.

Anyone who knows me knows I never miss an opportunity to dress up. So we went to the Carnival store to see what they had. There was something for everyone: brightly colored disco outfits, silver spacesuits, from sexy nurses to nuns costumes, from kangaroos to squirrels and… sari.

A young woman tries on a pair of shorts at a carnival store in Cologne

My culture, your outfit

sari? I had to look twice. For there was not just a piece of cloth hanging there; It was a dress that I consider to be Malaysian of Indian origin. More specifically, the saree reminds me of my late mother who wore it every day. Whether she was removing clothes on the washboard, fetching eggs from the chicken coop or grinding spices in the mortar – she was always doing her housework in airy cotton saris suited to the tropical climate of our home. She kept her elegant and most lush silk saris for weddings, special occasions, and Sunday masses.

So it was somewhat disconcerting to see the sari as a fashion designed to be ‘foolish’, as carnival festivities are often described. Just as it bothered me in the ’90s to see Gwen Stefani with a forehead covered in pindis – the Indian “dots” between her eyebrows wear a deeper cultural and religious meaning.

DW reporter Brenda Haas in Surrey smiles for the camera

DW reporter Brenda Haas wears a saree in the colors of the German flag

Live and let live

Although I chose the term ‘disturbed’, I was not offended. Probably because I like to wear the sari myself on special occasions. I wear them to weddings, cultural festivals and intercultural events. My everyday clothes are what’s known in the East as “Western” – skirts, dresses, jeans, and shirts.

The ‘live and let live’ mentality also probably comes from growing up in a multicultural society where we have always been ‘borrowing’ items from each other from our different cultures – be it in customs, in the kitchen or in fashion.

It is even seen as a sign of respect to wear clothes from different Malaysian ethnic groups at a cultural or religious event. This might also explain my initial enthusiasm for a Dirndl when I came to Germany – just to look at my husband’s sarcastic comment: “We’re not Bavarians.”

It gave me food for thought: What would a Bavarian think of me if I jumped in a Dirndl?

Do you mind my discomfort?

This brings us to the complex issue of cultural appropriation. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the unconscious or inappropriate adoption of the habits, practices, ideas, etc., of a people or community by members of another, often more dominant, community.” In the fashion sector, well-known brands and personalities are often criticized for using symbols, patterns, jewelry or clothing from other cultures.

Indigenous weavers in Mexico: Three women are sitting on chairs, one of them weaving a large piece of cloth

Native weavers of Mexico

In 2020, the Mexican Minister of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, wrote an open letter to French fashion designer Isabel Marant. Regarding her Autumn-Winter 2020/21 collection, which used designs typical of the Purépecha culture from Mexico’s Michoacan region, Guerrero wrote: “Some of the symbols I used have great meaning for this culture (…). These symbols are very old and have been preserved thanks to the artisans’ memory. I ask you what your right is to privatize community property. (…) and how this helps the communities you’ve created.” Marant later apologized.

In 2021, luxury brand Louis Vuitton came under fire for launching a heist featuring a pattern inspired by the keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian identity. Then Louis Vuitton removed the scarf from its online store.

After the 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards, Kim Kardashian was accused of adopting African American culture. Fulani braids, associated with the West African peoples of the same name, were worn at the award ceremony. Kardashian has defended her hair accessories as cultural “inspiration” rather than own. She said, “(…) if you don’t reveal the source of the inspiration—and you’ve done that in the past—people can get it wrong. But yes, as long as it’s out of love and inspiration, it’s okay.”

In 2021, Gwen Stefani also addressed the allegations against her – not only in relation to her bunnies, but also for wearing sari and using Japanese-American dancers, the “Harajuku Girls”, when she began her solo career. She is accused of taking advantage of Japanese street fashion. Stephanie said she was inspired by the unique fashion of Tokyo’s Harajuku area while touring Japan in the 1990s.

Stephanie argues that social media limits the freedom to appreciate other cultures. “We grew up in a time when we didn’t have a lot of rules. We didn’t have to follow a narrative set by social media, we were much freer.”

Gwen Stefani Among the Dancers

Gwen Stefani at a Hollywood fashion event in 2005

Diversity with the brain

Cultural and educational institutions provide tools to distinguish between possession and appreciation. I like the detailed explanation of the University of British Columbia website. She says that when you make an effort to expand your horizons and connect with others across cultures, you value other cultures. Appropriation, on the other hand, takes an aspect of another culture, such as a uniquely identifiable cultural object, an aesthetic or spiritual practice, and imitates it—without consent, permission, or any cultural context or relationship to that object or practice. Only with personal interests: to make money or popularity or because you like it from the outside.”

woman in profile with indian hair ornament

A visitor to the Coachella Music Festival with a Native American hair accessory

Going back to my sari example, I am generally not bothered by people who wear a sari as long as they are aware of its cultural significance or make an effort to learn more about people whose culture comes from. However, I don’t find it funny at all when someone is wearing a sari and talking exaggeratedly and shaking their head. Or when wearing a saree hinders my career progression, while nobody bats an eyelid when others do it for fun.

Since carnival is part of the local culture here in Bonn and is so popular with children, it can be a great way to introduce them to other cultures and practices that they wouldn’t learn about otherwise.

Conscious appreciation for diversity – that would be something to gain, right?

Diversity Theme Day: On Tuesday, May 31, 2022, from 08:00 UTC, the German TV program will tackle the topic of ‘Diversity’.

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