Oh, Urban Outfitters, why haven't you learned?
I'm not surprised. Instead, I am chronically disillusioned by their previous appropriation of culture (Native and Indigenous) and religion (Judaism and Hinduism). This time, they target a hegemonic understanding of South Asian culture by inviting employees to wear turbans, saris, and harem pants to a holiday party, as reported in theHuffington Post. This is ostensibly to Urban Outfitters not a big deal, rather another symptom of systemic, insidious racism.
Many South Asian folks will say, "I'm (insert South Asian identity) and I don't find that offensive!" These comments are not race-conscious and not critically informed. One person cannot speak on behalf of an entire community, nor can one person forgive all acts of historical exploitation. Prejudices and discrimination are racist if it is supported by systems of power (institutions like corporations, governments, etc.). Wearing a turban, sari, or harem pants to a holiday party for a major corporation supports systems that oppress South Asian people and is therefore racist.
As a Punjabi Sikh, when I wear traditional clothing, I am othered, ogled, and hyper-visible to the point of feeling uncomfortable and anxious (and no, this is not specific to my hometown). When non-Brown folks wear the same clothing, they are hip, "bohemian," or culturally aware. My family and community members who chose to keep their hair have had significant concerns when donning a dastaar, a Sikh turban, to work or school, concerned that they will be a target for physical or verbal violence, given the marginalization they've experienced when adopting a physical Sikh identity in their homeland, America. When non-Sikhs wear a turban in a party setting, they are appreciating the culture, expressing themselves, or just having fun.
There is a simultaneous push and pull. Sikhs, particularly those of Punjabi descent, are pushed to assimilate and conform to white, western beauty standards and dress. At the same time, cultural signifiers are pulled -- used by Urban Outfitters and others to make profit and minimized to a costume that one can simply take off at the end of the night. Those signifiers are often abstracted, sexualized, and only acceptable on white bodies. Our dress comes from a legacy of marginalization, generations of resistance, yet renders us targets of violence, as we saw in the 2012 shooting at a Sikh house of worship, a gurdwara, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. We lost six community members on that day.
Why then, should we care about Urban Outfitters hosting a racist, appropriative party when there is police brutality and racial profiling? Because this is another example of how racism manifests. This is not about demonizing Urban Outfitters. It is about refusing to support entities that actively engage in racism via cultural appropriation. It is about holding individuals, organizations, and systems accountable. It is about learning to apologize and correcting behavior. It is about respecting and acknowledging that at the end of the day, I cannot take off my brown skin. Cultural exchange is possible, but it requires engagement, humility, and respect, none of which are present in Urban Outfitters' party.