Desi for a Day: The Commercialization & Appropriation of Brown Culture in the US
Chai in India — good chai — is darker than my skin. It steeps in tea leaves and spices for ten minutes, boiling and cooling over and over again until the smell of star anise and clove singes your nose hairs and burns the bottom of your pot. Good chai calls you back twice, three times a day, making an addict out of anyone. A thick skin forms on top if you leave it out for even a second, so good chai is guzzled the moment it comes off the stove, burning your lips and staining your teeth. Leftover tea leaves at the bottom of your cup scratch your throat on their way down. Good chai is painful and perfect.
Every family’s chai recipe is different, and every desi family thinks their recipe is the best. Learning my mother’s felt like inheriting a family secret — a milk-to-water-to-tea leaf ratio whispered between ancestors with a smirk and a wink. When I know how much sugar to add by instinct, I can feel Nani’s hands on mine, guiding me through the same measurements she makes thousands of miles away. “Chai aati,” my mom proudly announces whenever my cousins ask about me on the phone. Chai comes to her naturally.
I’ve asked relatives if they’d like a cup of chai so often that the question is second nature, leaving my mouth just as quickly as Assalamualaikum. It’s the one Urdu sentence I know I won’t stumble over.
When my grandfather died, I watched helplessly as my father learned the news over the phone and froze. Stoic. Afraid to cry or move or breathe. How do you help someone grieve a life you barely knew? You don’t — so I made him a cup of chai instead.
Chai is how my family communicates; I’m sorry, I love you, and I care about you, all in one sip.
I remember feeling so happy when I first heard my friends talk about getting chai tea lattes from Starbucks. After years of being terrified to bring desi food to school, it felt like my classmates had finally matured past the days of cringing at my culture. Comments about the smell of my lunch, raised eyebrows at the hair on my arms, tugs at my hijab, and mockeries of my parents’ accents all felt like one bad dream.
So when I ordered my first chai latte from Starbucks, I was convinced I had been given the wrong order — that the milk-white, sugary, spiceless drink in my hands couldn’t possibly be chai. But as my white friends raved about their iced drinks, it became clear to me that my culture would only be acceptable in its most white-washed, diluted form. The mockery of my culture had not stopped. It had evolved.
In the last decade, white America has finally realized the value of brown culture and, predictably, found a way to profit from it. It has taken the values, symbols, and customs us desis were taught to suppress and has scrubbed them with bleach, stripping them of impurities like history and spirituality. White America says that, for once, I’m allowed to be brown — as long as I do it the better, whiter, more palatable way.
What’s most frustrating about White America’s newfound infatuation with desi culture is that we are already the most diluted versions of ourselves. Our success as the model minority has always hinged on one crucial skill: our ability to quietly assimilate. Years of colonization have taught us that as long as we keep our heads down and seem useful, we’ll be spared from the worst harm racism can do — so after 9/11, my mother traded her sarees for pencil skirts, my dad shaved his beard, and I stopped using my birth name. It’s hypocritical to claim that our sudden tokenization is “woke” and “culturally appreciative” because we have so little culture left to appreciate — in truth, tokenization today only reduces desi culture to the palatable aspects we curated, the ones we knew wouldn’t get us killed. It rewards a harmful coping mechanism. It encourages the ingrained desi-American mentality that we must be profitable to survive.
Indeed, profit is the most important aspect to take into account when analyzing cultural appropriation in a capitalistic society. Who profits when cafes sell golden chai lattes, when boutiques steal traditional Indian textile designs, when White-owned restaurants serve chicken tikka masala? Who reaps the benefits of our exoticization? If the recent string of anti-Asian hate crimes in the US has made anything clear, it’s that Asians have nothing to gain here and everything to lose.
While Vanessa Hudges wears a bindi to Coachella, the Jersey Dotbusters beat brown men to death with bricks just for living next door. While Rihanna poses nude in a Ganesha necklace and gets Arabic tattoos, temples and mosques are destroyed in conservative states. While Gucci dresses its white models in hijabs and turbans, dozens of Muslims are massacred in mosques and Sikh boys are brutalized in middle school locker rooms. While white women make millions from yoga videos and books on manifestation, Indian-Americans carry generational trauma from colonists who deemed those same practices uncivilized and demonic.
Towelhead, tech support, terrorist, when we do it. Exotic and exciting when they do it. How are we suddenly not good enough for our own skin?
When South Asians enter predominantly white spheres, we are constantly faced with choices as to how we must present ourselves. Do we ‘play the diversity card’ and strategically self-Orientalize, making ourselves out to be rare and oppressed? Do we lean into the model minority myth and emphasize our academics, our discipline? Or do we follow our parents’ lead and embody the whitest, most acceptable version of ourselves? Being our unadulterated selves is a privilege that we do not have — a risk that past precedence has taught us to never take.
My frustration stems from issues much more complex than a Starbucks chai latte. I’m mad about exoticization because it predicates my value on how well I stand out from the crowd, how exciting of a spectacle I am — differences I’ve been taught to fear my entire childhood. I’m mad because, every day, white people pretend to invent “new and improved” caricatures of my culture and are praised for it. I’m mad because my culture is only one of many that endure the same treatment in America. I’m mad because lives of color only seem to matter when white people have something to gain from them.
I hope you’re mad too.