Appropriate to Appropriate
I've taken to wearing Pakastani outfits (shalwar kameez) to work as they are considered acceptable work attire at this multicultural university. Granted, I may be the only white westerner male doing so, but I've decided to stay the course until given reason to stop.
Why this fashion change, you may wonder? Two reasons. First, I really like how they look, particulary in this wild Middle Eastern melting pot where they fit the vibe. Second, despite the fact that they function as dressy and respectful attire in Pakastani culture, they are the most comfortable outfits I've ever worn. Seriouslly. Even in heat, I stay cooler than in shorts and a tee-shirt (especially in the sun). This comfort is clutch on long teaching days. My suit jacket and tie can burn in eternal fire, which is how they already feel in August's 120F heat.
The shift to shalwar kameez outfits began the night my friend Sana took us out to "little Pakastan'" for dinner. After the scrumptious meal, we swung by her tailor, and I suddenly found myself trying stuff on. I asked her, "Am I going to look ridiculous in this? Like total cultural appropriation?"
She'd said, "Not at all! They don't care about that kind of stuff here in the same way as the U.S. In fact, you'll find that most people see it as a sign of your appreciation for different cultures."
I accepted this explanation and, since then, have found her predictions to be true. At first, my students seemed tickled and we had discussions on cultural appropriation with me listening more than offering ideas. Now, they don't seem to even notice. It's like Cheri says: wear a new hat long enough and people get used to it.
The other day, however, I passed a colleague who chuckeled and said something like, "A little cultural appropriation in action huh?" We were rushing past each other, so I didn't get a chance to ask if it was meant seriously or not.
Being Matt, I then becam anxious. I thought about a "traditional Native American sweat" I'd attended years ago that turned out to be led by wealthy white males who introduced themselves as "Eagle Warrior" and similar types of names. The whole experience felt artificial (like a plastic guitar) and disrespectful--not because we were participating in a sweat--'I've attended many that were spiritual and healing--but because it was facilitated by those who were not truly connected to the traditions and cultural histories despite their indirect claims that they were (e.g. referencing "our people" in relationship to specific tribes and traditions).
Yet, as I thought about this experience, it felt radically different than wearing Pakastani clothes to work in a country where there really is no such thing as the "common clothing." Yet, I am aware that power differentials exist, and I've been wearing clothing often worn by those performing much harder labor than myself.
In the end, I don't know if I have concrete answers other than the fact that asking these types of questions is a valuable practice. In the meantime, I'm going to continue celebrating the brilliance of a culture that combined dignity with comfort.