Zoe Saldana for Latina Magazine by Yu Tsai
A white girl wore a bindi at Coachella. And, then my social media feeds went berserk. Hashtagging the term “cultural appropriation” follows the outrage and seems to justify it at the same time. Except that it doesn’t.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of a specific part of one culture by another cultural group. As I (an Indian) sit here, eating my sushi dinner (Japanese) and drinking tea (Chinese), wearing denim jeans (American), and overhearing Brahm’s Lullaby (German) from the baby’s room, I can’t help but think what’s the big deal?
The big deal with cultural appropriation is when the new adoption is void of the significance that it was supposed to have — it strips the religious, historical and cultural context of something and makes it mass-marketable. That’s pretty offensive. The truth is, I wouldn’t be on this side of the debate if we were talking about Native American headdresses, or tattoos of Polynesian tribal iconography, Chinese characters or Celtic bands.
Why shouldn’t the bindi warrant the same kind of response as the other cultural symbols I’ve listed, you ask? Because most South Asians won’t be able to tell you the religious significance of a bindi. Of my informal survey of 50 Hindu women, not one could accurately explain it’s history, religious or spiritual significance. I had to Google it myself, and I’ve been wearing one since before I could walk.
We can’t accuse non-Hindus of turning the bindi into a fashion accessory with little religious meaning because, well, we’ve already done that. We did it long before Vanessa Hudgens in Coachella 2014, long before Selena Gomez at the MTV Awards in 2013, and even before Gwen Stefani in the mid-90s.
Indian statesman Rajan Zed justifies the opposing view as he explains, “[The bindi] is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol… It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory…” If us Indians had preserved the sanctity and holiness of the bindi, Zed’s argument for cultural appropriation would have been airtight. But, the reality is, we haven’t.
The 5,000 year old tradition of adorning my forehead with kumkum just doesn’t seem to align with the current bindi collection in my dresser — the 10-pack, crystal-encrusted, multi-colored stick-on bindis that have been designed to perfectly compliment my outfit. I didn’t happen to pick up these modern-day bindis at a hyper-hipster spot near my new home in California. No. This lot was brought from the motherland itself.
And, that’s just it. Culture evolves. Indians appreciated the beauty of a bindi and brought it into the world of fashion several decades ago. The single red dot that once was, transformed into a multitude of colors and shapes embellished with all the glitz and glamor that is inherent in Bollywood. I don’t recall an uproar when Indian actress Madhuri Dixit’s bindi was no longer a traditional one. Hindus accepted the evolution of this cultural symbol then. And, as the bindi makes it’s way to the foreheads of non-South Asians, we should accept — even celebrate — the continued evolution of this cultural symbol. Not only has it managed to transcend religion and class in a sea of one-billion brown faces, it will now adorn the faces of many more races. And that’s nothing short of amazing.
So, you won’t find this Hindu posting a flaming tweet accusing a white girl of #culturalappropriation. I will say that I’m glad you find this aspect of my culture beautiful. I do too.—
Why a Bindi Is NOT an Example of Culture Appropriation by Anjali Joshi
Look— I will admit at one point, I thought this too. When I first learned what cultural appropriation was, non-desi people wearing the bindi was the most oft repeated example of appropriation and I, like you, Anjali Joshi, struggled to understand why this was an issue— I wore the bindi only occasionally on nights that I dressed in full traditional Indian garb, usually at ethnic festivals, but I didn’t personally set any cultural or religious importance to the bindi itself. From my initial, limited understanding of cultural appropriation, I equated a sort of “purity” in cultural and religious values in order for me to be able to defend Indian culture. Who was I to accuse a non-desi of appropriation, when as an Indian American, I had never felt a true sense of ownership over either culture?
But that’s not how cultural appropriation works.
It’s true that the bindi as a religious symbol has been corrupted and commodified. But whose fault is that? Is it not the leech-like relationship between India and the West, starting first as parasitic colonialism and morphing then into a dangerous idealization that absorbed the classist and colorist values propagated by the former power structure? Indian culture still idolizes the West, to the point of near-erasure and destruction of its own traditions and culture. It’s no fault of its own— that’s what makes a profit, be it for Bollywood, shopkeepers, or individuals. But it’s this system that has allowed the bindi to slip into a sort of moral-material intermediate plane.
Perhaps Indians haven’t “preserved the sanctity and holiness” of the bindi, but that is an issue for India and Indians to grapple with themselves. Cultural appropriation stems from actions that, as repeated, erase the legacy and history of the peoples it so often claims to “celebrate.” When non-desi people wear the bindi, any cultural value it has is voided completely, regardless of what Indian individuals might think personally. The bindi becomes merely an aesthetic, simply a pack of “face gems” to apply during a concert.
It is not easy to be told you are doing something wrong, especially when you mean no harm. But complicit erasure of cultures is erasure, nonetheless. Maybe the reason this post has so many notes is because people don’t like being indicted for actions they don’t realize are harmful. But instead of listening to a voice that assures you that you’re right, try to understand that there is a reason so many people feel strongly about this issue.
"My best friend’s husband was a police officer who died in a shootout. For a few days, the media presented the story as a tragedy. Then I guess everyone got bored with that angle, because the story changed after a few days, and the media started reporting on the size of the insurance settlement my friend received. The story completely changed based on what they chose to focus on. I haven’t watched TV since."
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to pardon “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of federal drug inmates before leaving office. That number might not seem so big. But it’s historic in executive terms. In fact, reports indicate that the potential number will be well above the norm for an outgoing president and may even approach levels not seen since President Gerald Ford gave mass clemency to draft dodgers after the Vietnam War.
I had my boyfriend who smokes use matches for a few days instead of a lighter and record the date and time and whatever he was thinking about while smoking.
It’s funny that he quit smoking a few weeks after this project.