I try very hard to be a tactful person. I pull reassurances out of my ass and put on my least aggressive face. I try to soften all of the edges when I make a point, so that my words don’t prick you on the outside, even when they cut me up on the inside. I hold myself back. Like a werewolf in a teenage drama, like the goddess Kali breathing fire, like a gun triggering the safety lock. I hold myself back, so that I don’t shatter the comfortable atmosphere. I tiptoe around the aggressor as though walking on eggshells. I say men but “not all men”; white people but “not all white people”; “you’re part of the problem, but here’s a chance to excuse yourself from all the acknowledgement and critique.”
I hold myself back. But God, I wish I didn’t have to.
Sometimes I imagine myself, claws sharp, teeth bared. I imagine myself standing in front of the girls who appropriate my culture, telling me how embarrassing it is to see an aunty wearing a sari while shopping at Countdown, while they wear bindis to Coachella and mehndi at sleepovers. I imagine myself, face hot, eyes seeing red, blood boiling loud enough under my skin for them to hear. This time, I don’t soften my edges. This time I don’t hold myself back.
What infuriates me the most about white girls wearing henna and accessorising with bindis and getting Om tattoos is that they don’t have any respect for the cultures they are taking from. They don’t understand that these aren’t just pretty things to enhance your beauty or show off your status as a spiritually connected individual. They don’t understand what these things mean to us.
These items are a marker of our culture. They’re flashing red signs on our foreheads that don’t come off at the end of the day. They are symbols that have been pressed into our bodies before we could even walk or talk. They are reminders that we come from somewhere else, signifiers of the fact that we are foreign here. They are traces of an identity we have to fight to keep with us.
These items are all we have left of the identities that were taken from us. Ripped away by the people who made us feel like it was stupid and embarrassing to have mehndi on your hands after your cousin’s wedding. The people who joked about drawing red dots on your forehead at school. The people who pointed lasers at their friends’ foreheads saying “HEY I HAVE A RED DOT HEY I HAVE A RED DOT.” The people who pointed their fingers at our religion, who compared our gods and goddesses to the movie Avatar because our deities seemed alien to them. The people who pulled at our necklaces made of black thread and protective sigils and snidely asked why we wore ‘the number 30’ around our necks. The people who laughed at the girls who wore thick braids to school and had coconut oil on their skin. The people who called us curry munchers, who asked if that Punjabi boy’s turban was dirty, who told us in so many words and actions that being Indian was shameful. That being Indian was a joke to them. That being Indian was humiliating. This time I don’t hold back. I look them right in the eyes. I tell them. Product of the great multicultural New Zealand, I tell them.
What angers me is that I believed it. What angers me is that I stopped begging my mum to buy me mehndi cones and Ramayana comics. That I stopped celebrating Diwali and started picking at the beads on my salwar kameez. That I lamented the sight of myself in the mirror for those nine days every Navratri, rubbing the chandhan tika off my forehead for fear that everyone who saw me would laugh. What angers me is that I wore jeans and an ‘ethnic’ printed shirt to school on “International day” because the only way I could represent my culture without feeling ashamed was by doing it the way a white person would.
What angers me is that I, a fucking Indian, cannot be openly appreciative of any aspect of my culture without feeling like an embarrassed 12 year old waiting for my white friend to tell me how lame I am. What angers me is that I never had any Indian friends growing up, because they could sense the shame radiating off a girl who doesn’t even pronounce her own name correctly when introducing herself. What angers me is that I am uncomfortable when a Bollywood song comes up on my iPod when I’m in public, even when I’m wearing headphones. What angers me is that I still rub the chandhan off my forehead before even setting foot outside the temple.
What angers me is that I am so afraid to have on the skin that you are wearing. What angers me is that you can take it off, and I can’t. But what angers me the most is that some tiny part of me still wishes I could.
This time I don’t hold back.
This time, you can see the blood and tears gushing from my body.
This time I tell them.
I look them right in the eyes
And I tell them
There is no respectful way to steal my culture:
You can’t wear my skin without ripping it off of me first.
This poem previously appeared in Signals, 2016.