An annual queer party in the South African city of Cape Town planned for December 17 has dropped its Bollywood theme following widespread protests arguing that it would be a form of cultural misappropriation and would be disrespectful towards a minority community.

Last week, Mother City Queer Project had announced its theme for their December party as “a Bollywood Production”. The choice led to a firestorm of opposition and a complaint being lodged with the country's Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.

Protestors said the event would misrepresent the Indian community and perpetuate stereotypes of a minority group that has very little real power. An online petition had also sought a change of theme, describing the Bollywood theme as “distasteful” and “problematic”.

On Wednesday, Mother City Queer Project announced that it would be changing the theme for the party – billed as “Africa’s biggest and longest running costume party” – to “Musicals”. The choice was made “after hearing public commentary on social media... and wanting to ensure that the 23rd spectacle is as inclusive as possible”, said a note on the group's Facebook page.

However, some said that though the theme was changed, no apology was offered or attempt made to respond to the racism non-white queer people face at such events.

'Offensive stereotypes'

Why did it matter so much for a group of people to protest against a costume party theme that ostensibly merely sought to celebrate Hindi cinema culture?

Mohamed Mollagee, a digital marketing and social media specialist who identifies as gay and mixed race, was one of those who filed the complaint with the Commission. His reasons were clear.

“It is offensive to reduce and caricature complex cultures to offensive stereotypes,” he told via email. “The nature of this event is far removed from being able to honour any minority group. People of colour are notoriously excluded from decision making in major gay events in South Africa... Adding to this, the event is attended (largely due to financial and location based factors) by white men who [would] use elements of a marginalised community’s heritage for their capital gain, without making any concerted effort to assist this or any other minority groups substantially outside of ruthlessly stealing sacred based attire for a drunken party.”

Queer people of South Asian descent pointed to various reasons for their protest. “First, the party does not include/appreciate or centre the experiences of black/brown folk, second the party exoticises and fetishises – Indian culture and third, the event is likely to reproduce offensive stereotypes about India (and even the south Asian subcontinent),” said Gabriel Hoosain Khan, a Johannesburg-based activist who identifies as queer, Muslim and of South Asian descent, in an email.

He continued: “I guess the offense lies in the reductive stereotypes used in the event. Stereotypes which seem far from the lived realities of queer Indian South Africans, stereotypes which are hurtful and harmful to queer Indians here.”

'Party-store heritage'

Indians and those of South Asian descent comprise about 2.5% of the population. The community has been settled in South Africa for more than 100 years, first coming as indentured labourers and later as traders. White people form about 8% of the population.

Race relations continue to be fraught in South Africa, a country whose first democratic government was elected in 1994.

“Contemporary South Africa is still deeply scarred and influenced by our history of apartheid,” said Khan. “City space in South Africa is still deeply fragmented along race/class lines… This geography of separation also manifests in queer spaces – spaces which cater to the [queer] community are still predominantly white, gay and male – often excluding people of colour, women, trans people and gender non-conforming people.”

Before moving to change the theme, the MCQP page updated a fresh description of the party following the social media outrage, billing it as a “homage to highly successful Indian based movie production scene (and nothing more)”.

“MCQP is a costume party and takes ideas and inspiration from all over the world that sets the theme for the annual costumed event in December,” said Ian McMahon, director of MCQP in that statement. “This theme is just another celebration of cinematic success and excellence, not intended to be anything more.” The producers said they had enlisted the help of Indian wedding organiser and drag queen Lola Fine to ensure the event was appropriately conducted.

But the post itself betrayed poor understanding of the country, referring to steering “away from any religious Hindi component”, when it presumably meant Hindu.

Mollagee was unimpressed by the suggestion that such a production could be celebratory rather than derogatory.

“There is no way for this event not to be derogatory,” he said. “It’s a large gathering of party goers looking to have a good time – there is an enormous disconnect with what MCQP is promoting in their 'paying homage to' narrative. The party prides itself on being the biggest 'costume party in South Africa' – Bollywood and the cultures it is based on should not be involved in any of this frivolous party-store version of heritage.”

The online petition claimed that the promotional material for the event had shirtless white men dressed in turbans and Indian jewellery, which gave a white audience the opportunity for looking “cute or just getting lucky” with little regard for the cultural significance of such icons.

Khan said there were other, more meaningful ways of celebrating food and culture from India, and these had been seen on other occasions. “The problem is that the event (and queer spaces more generally) do not aim to meaningfully include people from South Asia – instead it uses offensive reductive ideas about India (associated entirely with curry, saris and head-bobbing),” he said.

Global debate

The debate around cultural appropriation has been front and centre this year, most prominently erupting into the global conversation shortly after American writer Lionel Shriver delivered a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Shriver lamented the rise of political over correctness and the dangers of identity politics in inhibiting free expression, leading to a series of rebuttals and counter thinkpieces (such as here and here) tearing into her argument and her understanding of power relations.

Shriver also happened to reference another event in her speech; that too was a theme party. In March, two student government members who attended a Mexican-themed party with tequila and sombreros in Bowdoin College in Maine in the US faced impeachment proceedings for a possible act of “ethnic stereotyping”.

There have been several other examples of debates around cultural appropriation; and not just connected with college campuses or theme parties. Actress Vanessa Hudgens got castigated for wearing a dreamcatcher in her hair and in the process appropriating Native American icons as has singer Katy Perry for some of her videos.