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Wear My Skin, Then We’ll Talk: On Cultural Appropriation
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Wear My Skin, Then We’ll Talk: On Cultural Appropriation

by Aishwarya AdaikalarajApril 18, 2018

A lot of people are angry with the recent controversy surrounding Datuk Rizalman’s recent fashion line of heavily traditional Indian attire but principally modelled by Izara Aishah. And a lot of people also don’t understand the anger surrounding this issue.

What’s wrong with sharing your culture with us? We’re a multiracial country that’s learnt to make peace with one another. So why all this fuss?

Aren’t you the racist ones now?

I have heard this argument be made time and time again. I am part of a community that has constantly been asked to take responsibility for a life trapped in institutional racism. I needed to be strong every time I was called a ‘keling’ by the other children at school. I needed to be better and carry the mistakes of an entire race, every time someone told me of a young Indian man who was sent to jail. I needed to complain less, as I watched my parents rest their weary heads on the table whenever they lost another contract because their company didn’t have a Bumiputera shareholder.

Izara Aishah’s Twitter response to the backlash is that she is half-Pakistani, half-Malay while her family speaks Urdu. While there is a logic to this, there is a long-standing tradition within Malaysian society where people only claim an Indian heritage when they can take a slice of whatever they want from it. Because why else would it be so difficult to at the very least, acknowledge giving the job to an Indian model? What’s wrong with this particular brand of cultural appropriation isn’t just that they have stolen the best parts of a culture and turned a profit from it where an Indian designer wouldn’t receive even the same level of recognition. It’s that we as an ethnic group, are told to sit pretty as others decide to adopt the best parts of our way of life, disregarding everything else that comes with wearing the skin of an Indian. So, allow me to tell you the stories about this skin I wear. Because if you really wanted to “embrace” our culture, you’re going to start learning about what it’s like to be an Indian in Malaysia.

What Does My Skin Feel Like?

A paper on ‘India’s Diaspora Policy: A Case Study of Indians in Malaysia’ remarked how since the 1969 racial riots, Malaysia’s development policies have been geared toward affirmative action in favour of Malays. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was a solution to the intense poverty of the 1960-1970s and was the most workable answer at the time. And in the next 60 years, the emergence of the Malay middle class quickly gained the most political power from the middle-class support of a government that protected their Bumiputera status. As the wealthy elite of Malays grew in metropolitan areas, the Indian community were reduced to a ‘political inconsequence’ as a result of their loss of political power.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to present day Malaysia where according to Tridib Chakaborti (2004), the social and political situation of Malaysian Indians have been drastically overshadowed by the ethnic conflicts between the politically-dominant Malays and the economically-dominant Chinese. So where does that leave Indians?

It leaves us in the role that has long been ascribed for us by everyone else – that of the poor, the uneducated, the malnourished, the criminals, the ones who are trapped in a cycle of poverty and government neglect. Among all the races, income inequality is highest among Indians with 81% having only three months’ savings at most while making up only 4% of university entries between 2014 and 2015. And promises made by Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2013 to increase economic equity of Indians to 3% were not kept, and we have remained at 1.3% ever since. But all that’s just politics, right?


Yes, there remains a lot that can be done by our government, in terms of increasing entry of Indian students to universities as well as vocational and technical centres – a solution that could be achieved more easily if we opened up MARA to Chinese and Indian students under the poverty line. But there’s an underlying problem we need to acknowledge if there’s even a hope of moving forward.

Here’s the issue: a lot of people don’t want us. You don’t want to represent us. You don’t want to talk about us. You don’t want to acknowledge colourism or appropriation or police brutality. You want to remain unchallenged in your belief that as long as everyone works hard enough, everyone will get their place they deserve in the spotlight. There is enough going around, Indian people just need to stop being lazy and work for it.

And sure, there is some truth to the idea that people should generally be working harder. But this kind of attitude is poison. It’s the same kind of poison that Watson’s thought they could get away with in their recent “brownface” advertisement and the same attitude that has homeowners get away with barring Indian and African tenants (http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/article/2127261/racism-malaysia-and-struggle-africans-and-south-asians-rent-kuala-lumpur). It’s the idea that our socioeconomic position is so wholly our fault that I still have friends that come up to me and ask me, “So why do Indians steal?” or have good friends of mine be told to shave their beards and “look less like an Indian” for fear of being racially profiled and mistreated by police officers. All of which let me tell you, have yet to work as effectively as they’re thought to.

So yes, I am part of a group that is miffed about what happened with the Datuk Rizalman issue. But I understand that it likely wasn’t malicious. What makes it worse are the people who justify it to the death, asking us why how we could be so racist and selfish with our lifestyle. The answer is, we would absolutely love to share it. There is nothing more beautiful than the feeling of being comfortable in your identity and having other love and embrace that identity alongside you. It’s a wonderful feeling, to be accepted. But you cannot accept the most exotic parts of what makes us Indian and ignore everything else that comes with the unique experience of being brown-skinned in Malaysia. These are nothing but hard facts and harder truths to swallow, for those who haven’t had to experience the feeling of children crossing the street to avoid you or police officers stopping you for being “suspicious-looking”. It’s a tough skin to have. So, maybe in this time of change and political turbulence, we could all do better in arguing less and listening more, to the people who’ve been quieted for too long.

Featured image source: Ashton Kutcher in a Popchips ad back in 2012. It garnered a lot of controversy and was condemened as “racist brownface”

EDITORIAL NOTE: The author of this article was originally cited as Zim Ahmadi. That is a mistake. The actual author is Aishwarya Adaikalraj.

About The Author
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Aishwarya Adaikalaraj
Arts & culture, corporate & government, lifestyle, health, non-fiction and fan-fiction - you name it, there's a story in all of them. Allow me to be the one to write it!
  • Geerthanaa
    April 18, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    Thank you for saying this. As a fellow Indian in Malaysia, I only want more understanding and opportunities.

  • Anon.
    April 19, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    Beautifully written and well said. Yes, I agree. There’s a lot of things that need to be done here. I’m neither a Malaysian-Indian or close to one, so I don’t think I have fully understood the conditions that they’re in and their struggles. We should talk about this more in Malaysia. Hope your voice gets heard.

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