Friday, April 25, 2014

Cultural Appropriation and the Fight Over the Bindi

What better way to avoid the problems in our own lives than to focus on the perceived mistakes of others?

At least that's how it seems to me. Since the dawn of time people have been learning from and adapting to life based on what other people have done. Most of the population tend to be followers and there are very few 100 percent pioneers. We follow fashion trends set by people we don't know. We follow TV programs so that we can escape our daily lives for a short time. We follow other cars as they run through yellow lights to avoid the 2 minute wait for the stop light cycle to complete. Why would we be any different when it comes to cultures?

Cultural appropriation is commonly defined as taking a religious or historical symbol or element of a culture and using it in your own culture. Typically people argue that appropriation of a cultural element is okay if you have some connection to that culture or if you appreciate it properly. From what I've seen, it's the white Americans fighting over these issues and NOT the host culture with which the item was taken from. I find this baffling. It's as if they have nothing better to fuss about. There's no serious social ills in the world so let's all gang up on each other (the white community in general).

*I'm emphasizing the white community because I have not seen this in a single Blindian group I'm in, I've never seen it amongst my non-white friend groups and almost every article I've found online was written by a jilted white woman. If this affects any other community, I have no place to write about it as I'm white. I would never be so ignorant as to think I could represent another culture because of my white skin. I can only represent the things in my own life and experiences.

Since the bindi has been the prime focus of many cultural appropriation debates in the last year or so, I'm specifically mentioning the bindi. However, cultural appropriation can apply to any item from any culture. 

The entire cultural appropriation debate seems to hinge on whether or not a culture owns all the rights to any specific item. Additionally it hinges on whether or not the host culture places religious, historical or strict cultural influence on the item. The bindi is not such an item. Yes, many Hindu's wear a red dot bindi as a symbol of marriage. But that's not the bindi being supposedly appropriated.

The bindi worn by celebrities is the fashionable bindi first promoted by Indians themselves as an accessory to wear to parties, social events, etc. It is worn by almost everyone and is meant as a glamorous item to add beauty to the person wearing it. To say that this particular bindi can only be worn by Indians is racist. To say that variations of it are inappropriate for anyone not associated with India is ridiculous. Is it feasible to think that Indians design a fashion accessory and the rest of the world is not allowed to engage in it's beauty? I don't think so.

Of course that's just my opinion. I'm not asking anyone to agree with it. I do think people should think about what they're fighting over before they get their panties in a twist. Millions of unmarried Indian girls wear the bindi styles in question. It's been seen on small babies and children as an accessory. Here's a prime example of one such image.


Isn't she precious? Would you pitch the same fit over her, an unmarried female, wearing a marriage symbol??? Clearly not. By not fussing at that little angel, you're making a racist argument anytime you complain that a non-married white woman wears a bindi. Oh wait. I'm wrong. She's not wearing the red dot that is historically a form of tilak, a symbol of the third eye. Oops. Sorry. Oh wait, you didn't know that a bindi is a symbol of the third eye? Hope you haven't been wearing one either then or you just appropriated a cultural element without truly appreciating what is was worn for.

In the Hindu tradition and history, a tilak bindi is worn as a symbol of protection, a sort of homage to the third eye. It is not a strict marriage symbol and has nothing to do with sparkles, fancy shapes and designs or colors. It is not strictly for women. Hence, this photo below is NOT cultural appropriation by any standard. Shes not wearing tilak or a representation of it AT ALL.

Additionally, I don't feel like anyone here can possibly know the true reasoning behind why Selena Gomez wore a bindi. Or why it's now become a fashion statement among other celebrites. Last I checked there weren't many true mind readers alive and writing online articles. Either way, I think India should be proud that their fashion trend has now become a worldwide sensation. According to some recent news articles in Mumbai, it would seem that some Indians are proud.


Now this is ONLY MY EXPERIENCE but, the people I've heard complaining don't know the history of the bindi themselves. They're almost all white. *ooooh...look at me be racist toward my own kind.* The bindi worn by Selena Gomez is not a Hindu religious symbol. It is not a cultural marriage symbol in India. It is not of historical significance. It is a fashion trend that happens to have been started in India. Please don't label it cultural appropriation.

This is why Indians are not raising hell about Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani, Naomi Campbell or any of the celebrities at Coachella. They know this. What place does any white person have defining something as being an Indian cultural tradition? It's racist. Plain and simple you've degraded the Indian culture by your own misunderstanding of it. You've put them beneath yourself and even though I'm white and I probably have no place pitching a fit of my own, I am Hindu and I find it repulsive that so many white women have tried to use their own skin color to represent what is and is not Indian. It's not your place and you're robbing Indians everywhere of their right to define themselves. You can have your opinions but don't try to make it law or shove it down anyone's throat.

For those who argue that appropriation is when a dominant culture takes on an element of a minority culture, I have to ask, is Hinduism not a larger and more dominant culture than Hollywood? Hinduism has historically influenced every major religion in existence. Hinduism is the largest religion in India. It is the THIRD largest religion in the WORLD. It doesn't meet the definition of a minority culture. So you're still on the wrong track when it comes to the bindi.

Weigh in, how do you feel about the bindi?
How do you define cultural appropriation?

Here's some articles to help you see the many sides of this debate:

Religion Facts: Bindi

Written by Indians
About.com: Bindi: The Great Indian Forehead Art 
Huffington Post: Why a Bindi is NOT an Example of Cultural Appropriation
I love India: Bindi
Sulekha: Red Mark on the Forehead

Written by Non-Indians:
Pardesi Fashions: History and Significance of Bindi
Cultural Corner of Society: Only Indians with the Bindi - Cultural Significance

Here's some articles on cultural appropriation if you want to read them:
Everyday Feminism: The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation
Policy Mic: Cultural Appropriation Isn't an American Problem

44 comments:

  1. Right on! Living in India I see a lot more articles praising the desi fashion items on the international scene than I see some condemning it. Each time I broach the topic with Indian friends over here in India, and how some abroad are offended by the cultural appropriation of Indian elements in the west they do not really understand why people would crib about it. All are actually proud to hear that people in the west are discovering Ayurveda, yoga, wear kurti with jeans and experiment with nose rings and bindi in the fashion world. A few of my friends even pointed out that Indians ape the West, take elements of western culture and twist them to appropriate them in India just the same, so that it would be ridiculously hypocrite to condemn the west for doing something Indians are doing themselves.

    The only Indians I read cribbing about this issues are interestingly NRIs or children of Indians that are just of Indian origin but have no real life, everyday experience of what today's modern India is like in the middle class segment of cities. Like all expats and children of emigrants they have a less up to date grasp of the cultural evolution that took place in their country of origin. This is one of the reason why I am not teaching a lot of things about Switzerland myself to my daughter, my knowledge of everyday life and culture in Switzerland was frozen 10 years ago. Heaps have changed from what I hear from my family, and I can't grasp these changes me living outside them, so I don't even try. The day my daughter wants to know Switzerland, she can figure it out on her own, not through values and ideals that will be outdated.

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  2. I think this is a subject that many don't realize they are getting completely wrong. I think a lot of people are quick to jump on the news trends but in reality, India is not the country to start with. It's not a minority culture at all. It's degrading to assume so.It doesn't matter if you're Indian or not.

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  3. i also find it extremely arrogant to declare American culture a majority or superior group. the moment one group decide they have a duty to pick what should be offensive for a group they themselves declare a minority or less dominant we have a case of racism.

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  4. I agree. It's not good to look downward at other cultures.

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  5. I admit I don't know much about this issue, but there is one thing I can definitely agree with you on: people argue over the strangest things. Why is anyone upset about what someone else chooses to wear?


    I don't think the issue is exclusive to white people, though. I imagine there are busy bodies across every race. Although it does seem that Caucasian Americans are quick to get up in arms on behalf of other cultures without ever even stopping to find out if that culture is even angry. It's kind of degrading, to act like "oh, we don't think you're capable of speaking or thinking for yourself, so we'll get mad for you." Does that make sense?

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  6. I think it's awesome that Selina Gomez wore a Bindi. She doesn't have to explain it to anyone, either. Maybe she just really likes the look of them and good for her for wearing what she likes.

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  7. Thanks for the info. I have not formed an opinion as I really did not know anything about it

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  8. Among followers, Hinduism is considered a way of life, not a religion. It's too diverse and does not have a specific set of rules like most religions tend to. However, that being said, it is listed as a religion quite often. I think it's possibly confusing to most everyone.

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  9. Thank you! That is exactly the point I was trying to convey. There's actually a whole school of thought among white communities that their skin color allows them to speak on behalf of minority cultures. That's why I specifically mentioned it that way. There's a specific speaker who states this and now he has a massive following of mindless groupies who think he's great...because he's white and speaking on behalf of minorities! It's absurd!

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  10. Bindi's are a beautiful fashion accessory. She can wear them all she wants. :)

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  11. Very interesting-- and I knew so little about it that I had to look up bindi...but I see nothing wrong with anyone wearing it, it's just jewelry, something to add a little bling.

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  12. Interesting I will have re read this and think on it. Very informative.

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  13. Who knows, its might be like someone in dire need of finding some fault out of dislike or just for the sake of arguing. Bindi does make women look beautiful though :-)

    On a completely unrelated note, in my class whenever somebody tries his/her luck speaking english for the first time, they are often ridiculed and given expert tips by the lot, who are, strangely enough, themselves novices :-).

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  14. We were taught in college that Hinduism is a philosophy and not a religion.

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  15. Very interesting. I did not know that there was an argument over people who are not from India wearing the bindi.

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  16. Lol. You know, I think a lot of people like to give advice when they don't know much more themselves. They shouldn't ridicule each other though.

    I think you're right on the arguing point. Some people just look for reasons to fuss.

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  17. I think what causes most of the confusion is that Hinduism is put on forms for work, hospitals, etc. under the religion column. Or at least it used to be. My guess is that they didn't know how else to classify it when it comes to important decisions (like last rites) and placing it under religion was probably convenient.

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  18. Sadly there is. There's been a bunch of articles and blogs about it over the last year and I think it's just such a silly thing to fight over. Especially when many of those articles have the wrong impression about what a bindi (the religiously significant one) is.

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  19. That's why I don't bother much with religious things; too much arguing for my taste and maybe it's that I don't care or I'm just incredibly ignorant, which I can accept about myself. :D

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  20. I try to stay away from most religions if not all, just because of the judgement that falls from within and outside the religion. In today's world we are all so worried about what other people are doing, and really we just need to get over ourselves and pay attention to far more important things. I did however learn a lot about the Bindi in this post! Thank you for that. I had no idea or opinion on the matter before!

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  21. There is always controversy with everything it seems. Amber N.

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  22. I am not sure how to respond to this to be honest. Being white, female and American I think I am going to keep all my statements regarding this to myself to be nice.

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  23. This is interesting. I wonder if the celebrities research such fashion items to make sure they're not crossing a line (better safe than sorry).

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  24. I don't know where to draw the line between appropriation and appreciation, but I'm pretty sure there is one. For me (and I say this as a white American woman), I feel like appropriation comes when the dominant culture claims the thing as their own. Like people who say that Elvis and Buddy Holly invented rock-n-roll.

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  25. This is a very interesting post and I'm not really sure why it would be such a subject of debate. I am of the belief that as an individual I can wear what I want whenever I want without knowing the origins of it. But then again there are exceptions to this, which makes it difficult to really have an opinion about this.

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  26. Goodness! I'll be completely honest, I had no idea there was such controversy over this. I've always thought that bindis were beautiful, though!

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  27. I had no idea that people who were not in India wore a bindi. This is very interesting- you learn something new everyday.

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  28. I have seen a bunch of females on Instagram wearing the bindi. I had no clue it caused a controversy.

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  29. I beg to differ. Hinduism is very much a religion, it just happens to be more pervasive in terms of its reach and affect on Indian society. Why is it that so many westerners think that if a religion is not mono-theistic, then it can't be a religion? I get this all the time with Buddhism. Anything that involves spiritual beliefs is a religion.

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  30. Firmly disagree with you on this. Yes there are specific rules in Hinduism, but there is variation in how they are practiced, same like the variations in Christianity.

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  31. Onica {MommyFactor}April 27, 2014 at 7:46 AM

    Controversy will always be there when one culture takes something from another culture and uses it. Such is life.

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  32. I know how you feel. So many things I just don't bother with. It's only when I keep hearing the same thing over and over and I know it's blatantly wrong that I get a little irritated and hence blog. :P

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  33. I'm glad you learned something. I try quite hard to focus more on building a better me and doing my part to make the world better than I do on religion - normally.

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  34. That's a very good question! I'm not sure if they do. I would hope they at least have some idea but given other things I've seen in fashion, I don't think all the designers are culturally sensitive.

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  35. That's a good way to look at it. It's a much more level-headed view than those I keep hearing lately. I wish more people would think this through before mislabeling everything and causing hate and discontent.

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  36. There are definitely religious elements of it, that can't be disputed. But even many Hindu's don't refer to it as a religion. I'm not nearly advanced enough in my studies to form my own conclusion based on beliefs. I go by what I've seen thus far and it's referred to as a 'way of life' more than a religion in most of what I've seen.

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  37. I've noticed that. I still find Hindiusm somewhat confusing BUT that's probably because most of my studies are self led and I only have a few aunties and uncles to remind me how wrong I am when I mention something I learned from a book. I'm not sure who's right or wrong lol. If I had to form my own opinion on this, I would absolutely say that the deities are strikingly similar to the Christian denominations. I stated that to an Indian once (who had no experience with Christianity) only to be lectured on how wrong I was and how his deity was the Supreme Reality which doesn't even mirror what Hinduism teaches. LOL. What's a new convert to believe hahaha.

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  38. Hinduism is both a religion and a culture. It's more akin to Judaism in this respect. Which is why you can have atheists who are still Hindus by culture. Just like you have atheist Jews who are still part of the larger culture.

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  39. Alexandra MadhavanApril 28, 2014 at 4:59 PM

    Excellent post! I have wanted to write about this for some time but I wonder if it is even worth it, because "cultural appropriation" is so ridiculous to me. I find it very small minded. I hate that it's even in the media and scaring people into how to or not to dress.
    Similarly, Kevin Spacey just dressed up in a lungi (South Indian) - and none of the "cultural appropriation police" ever came after him. Why? Because he's a man of course!!! And as we all know, moral policing and dress policing is unfortunately reserved to women!
    I have grown up in the fashion industry, and I am still in it. Fashion designers are artists - just like any other artists - they have inspirations which are always drawn from travels, and other art. You can't say to an artist that they can't be inspired by something. Fashion is like art, like photography, like music. We each get inspiration from each other and that's a beautiful thing.
    Not to mention, every season I watch the Lakme runway shows and so many fashions are inspired by the West. Nobody has any problem with that.
    It is ridiculous for people to say "stick to your culture" when many people live in multicultural homes that is not identifiable by the way the look.
    I have faced this nonsense myself, as I am a great lover of the saree. 99% of the time I get praise, but there are a few ABCDs who have gotten offended by how great I look. Like, sorry, if I know "your" culture more than you...LOL.
    I also would like to note that I have never worn jeans in my entire life.
    Great post and thanks for writing. You are a leading voice for all of us :)

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  40. I think you should write. I would be interested in what you have to say. It makes me a bit sad to see women finding new ways to hate each other but you're right, this does seem to be limited to women. My main argument against cultural appropriation is that IF we all came from the same 2 people originally, then we are collectively one culture anyway and it's no different than borrowing your sister's favorite shirt.

    I also think the "stick to your culture" ideal is the same thing as "if you don't like this country, go home." It's horrible!

    I hate jeans myself. I do wear them on rare occasions but I really don't like them. I would much rather wear more skin-friendly fabrics like cotton or bamboo.

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  41. I think the issue is not whether a white person can wear it or not but when a non Desi wears it they don't get weird looks and criticized but when a Desi wears it or Indian clothes we get criticized and get told to go back where we came from. Some people find that unfair that Desi's celebrate their culture and get criticized but when someone else does it its cool.

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    1. I can understand that point of view. We do get stares and noticed when we wear them though. It's not always fun and happiness coming from people who see us wear them. I heard horror stories from white women wearing sindoor and bindi's who were taunted over it. The problem is not in who's wearing the icon IMO, it's the ignorance of those who don't wear it who don't know it's meaning and tend to associate it with wild concepts and ideals. I'm glad I don't understand their ignorance though to be honest. It makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever to look down on a fashion piece or a symbol of marriage. There should be no negative connotations associated with a bindi. It baffles me how people can turn such a tiny item into something so scandalous!

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