You stop by the grocery store on your way home from work, quickly jaunting between aisles to expedite the trip as much as possible. You grab the last item on your list, throw it in your basket, and turn to walk towards the registers. Out of the corner of your eye, you see her: a twenty-something white girl wearing a big red dot in the middle of her forehead – a bindi. You do a gigantic mental eye roll because, who is this girl? She’s not even Indian, and we’re at the grocery store for Christ’s sake. Get over yourself, Coachella happened months ago.With all the discussion around cultural appropriation these days, this is a harsh yet undoubtedly common reaction. The rhetoric of this topic can be difficult to navigate, with a muddy definition and a slew of varying viewpoints. We still haven’t totally figured out what’s okay and what’s not okay in the realm of cultural representation. Of course there are the obvious offenders, but outside of that, things aren’t always as clear-cut. But one thing seems to ring true through all the haze: we don’t like to see white people wearing things from other cultures.
But why is that? White privilege, that’s why. This article does a great job of explaining what white privilege is, but essentially it is a systemic bias favoring whites that often goes unnoticed and is taken for granted, thereby allowing white people to walk through life free of the prejudice, social inequality, and hardships that plague other ethnic groups. Example: products that boast being “flesh-toned” are typically only tailored to a certain flesh color – white.
White privilege can sound like a pretty sweet perk for white people, and why wouldn’t it? It’s basically like being born with a silver spoon in your mouth: not having to experience any of life’s true hardships and easily turning a blind eye if you choose (but this article explains why you shouldn’t!). That is some privilege if you ask me.
It’s extremely important to recognize and understand white privilege because as soon as you do, cultural appropriation starts to make a lot more sense. A white person can easily wear a symbol of another culture, then at the end of the day take it off and not deal with any of the prejudice and hardships that someone from that culture faces on a daily basis. They’re not a minority, and they don’t have to deal with the implications of being one.
The bindi is an especially poignant symbol in the cultural appropriation landscape: a small ornament of various shapes and colors that is traditionally worn on the forehead of Hindu women. Yet in recent years, many non-Indian women – both white and non-white – have opted to wear the bindi as a fashion accessory to events such as music festivals and awards ceremonies.
For celebrities like Vanessa Hudgens, Kendall Jenner, and countless other women, bindis are part of the “music festival scene”, with Coachella seeming to be the biggest bindi binge. Selena Gomez donned one repeatedly for performances of her song “Come and Get It”, and was less than apologetic when she was called out for it. Gwen Stefani has been spotted on red carpets and in music videos with them since the ’90s. These women aren’t all white, but they are celebrities, and that affords them a different kind of privilege through wealth, notoriety, and influential power.
Seeing celebrities don symbols from other cultures typically doesn’t go over very well, and understandably so. Seen through a critical lens, celebrities are essentially in the business of putting on costumes and “pretending”. This, in turn, creates representation that feels more like a costume than an homage, and can cheapen the cultural symbol that they are (hopefully) trying to honor. This is further exacerbated by the fact that celebrities are rarely given (or rarely take?) the opportunity to explain the symbol they’re wearing and the context it’s meant to be used in, or any personal connection they may have to it. Without this context, the public comes to understand these symbols simply as items, void of meaning and open for the taking.
But do we care about the meaning? Everything has a history, an origin, a root, but is this information important to us? Perhaps not, because we don’t even seem to recognize its absence. We fail to ask the questions and have the discussions.
Speaking from a white American perspective, perhaps it’s because our national history is only a few hundred years old, whereas the history of many other nations can range into the thousands. Perhaps it’s because our European ancestors’ cultures, instead of being uniquely preserved and celebrated, melted together to create the larger culture of “America”. Do we fail to appreciate a long and rich history because we ourselves don’t have one? Do we disregard appropriation because we ourselves don’t have a culture to appropriate?
Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to these questions. But I do have an opinion: there was a time when we truly cared about history, where things came from, and the meanings attached to them. But unfortunately, that time has passed.My grandfather on my dad’s side worked for Pan Am from the 1940s to the 1970s. He and my grandmother lived a life of luxury, jet-setting around the globe at their will. The world truly was their oyster: they made homes in places like Lebanon, England, Hawaii, and Hong Kong (which at that time was still a British Colony), and traveled far beyond. Throughout their travels they collected artwork, clothing, and knick-knacks. They bought these items from the source and worked with local merchants and salespeople. Each item had a clear origin and story to accompany it, which my grandparents carried with them.
My grandparents are an example that in those days, wearing something from another culture meant you had either been there – seen the landscape and architecture, tasted the food, walked alongside the locals, heard the sounds and smelled the smells – or you knew someone who had been there and brought it back for you, undoubtedly with a complete retelling of their experiences. There was a level of appreciation and solidarity, because you had personally experienced life – real life, not the plastic tourist “life” so easily found today – in that culture to some degree or another.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the Internet has completely changed the ball game. It has opened up the whole world for us to peruse from the comfort of our desk/couch/bed/local coffee shop. In order to buy a Japanese kimono, you don’t need to travel to Japan, have a personal connection, or even know the first thing about the country; just hop on to eBay – or perhaps a curated online boutique if you’re picky – and have it shipped to your doorstep. Pair that with generations being raised on mass production and a “Made in ____” culture, and you’ve got a hefty disconnect between items bought and the meaning they hold.
From here, it’s easy to see how issues of cultural representation arise. The lack of personal connection and understanding gives a false impression that cultural items are simply consumable items – somehow “modernized” and less tied to their culture, the meanings behind them are a thing of the past. It’s the idea that, “If I can buy it online, how special can it be?” This of course is not true, yet the idea pervades our society and hinders us from fully appreciating and accurately representing the cultures in question. We don’t question what we see or wear, we just wear it because it’s pretty, because it’s unique, and because we can.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way. Let’s be better than this.
If you’re inspired by another culture, there are so many ways you can engage with it that are more respectful, impactful, and educational than wearing its cultural symbols. Examples: eat at a restaurant, take a cooking class, volunteer at an affiliated charity, go to a cultural performance or festival, take a dance class, go to an art exhibit, research its history and social issues, have conversations with people from that culture, and – if you’re fortunate enough to have the option – travel there. Make a personal connection to that culture, and then think about representing it. There really is no need to dress like a culture you know next-to-nothing about.
This brings me to…
Request No 1: Let’s make cultural representation personal again. Let’s be responsible and educated about what we put on our bodies. Let’s stop wearing things just because we can, and start wearing things because they’re meaningful to us.
I sincerely believe if each of us made more of an effort to learn about and build connections with other cultures, the world would be a much better place. Very cupcakes-and-roses, I know.
But it wouldn’t be fair to place the responsibility of cultural representation solely on the consumer. We should also look to retailers to do their due diligence.
These days, going to the mall or any big-box store often yields an ambiguous “global” feel. While the Internet boasts the option of authentic pieces, the Mainstream West is busy commercializing “tribal” items that are a mishmash of batik prints, Native American patterns, and other uncredited traditional designs from around the world. The designs are from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
I once went to a store at the Mall of America called Uptown MN. Like most boutiques, they carried a variety of jewelry, clothing, and artwork from artisans in the Uptown, MN area. What I loved was that each display was set up with a little “about the artist”, and each purchase came with a take-home informational card that allowed customers to understand where their products came from, and to contact or share the artist if they were inspired by the work.
Why don’t we see this kind of solidarity more often, and on a larger scale? How great would it be for retailers to credit the sources of their designs, or even use accurate terms like boteh instead of “paisley”, maang tikka instead of “headwrap”, and Navajo-inspired instead of “Southwestern-patterned” so that consumers can educate themselves more effectively? Why don’t retailers invest in clothing tags that reference the designs present in the piece? Or if not a tag, perhaps a sign or information card? Why not properly cite these origins on their websites?
Perhaps the answer to this is money. Not the money involved in adding a garment tag, or altering online product description pages; I’m talking about royalties.
Using ambiguous terms like “tribal” and “Southwestern” allows retailers to sell designs that don’t have a designated “source”, because oftentimes sources require royalties. (This is no new concept in the Halloween costume world.)
While this certainly saves a few bucks, it also perpetuates the idea that it doesn’t matter where something is from – it’s just exotic. It also allows for more design autonomy to alter (and potentially desecrate) an ethnic art form.
Most “Southwestern” designs draw inspiration from designs by the Navajo Tribe, which is widely renowned for its craftsmanship. But if retailers were to refer to something as “Navajo-inspired” or even “Native American-inspired”, they would likely be required to pay a royalty fee, as well as consult with the tribe to understand what is reasonable creative license and what is going too far. (I personally think it could be highly beneficial to both parties and society as a whole to draw more mainstream notoriety to Native American arts and culture.)
However, royalties may not even come into play for citing other designs – it’s harder to pin down with a more general source. (Who gets the royalties for calling it a maang tikka versus a “headwrap”?) For places like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters where “tribal” is a staple, it seems that the goal is for more creative license rather than to dodge the Royalty Police. Their marketing technique seems to feed off of the blissful ignorance of their consumers – case in point: Urban Outfitters’ “Festival Shop”, which circles right back to the appropriation seen at Coachella.
If you ask me, it’s in a retailer’s best interest to shell out and start paying their dues (literally and figuratively), because who really wants to shop at a store that doesn’t demonstrate respect for other cultures? I mean, who do they think is shopping at their stores? Certainly some people from those slighted cultures. Plus it might also prompt them to evaluate the cultures and styles they’re representing and more effectively diversify.
Being accountable for the designs they create is one thing, but retailers should also be accountable to the inspiration they draw from. I don’t think anyone’s head would explode if a retailer admitted to combining more than one type of “tribal” pattern – it might even spark an educational dialogue.
One particular retailer that has done a great job of preserving cultural design roots is The Little Market. Founded by Lauren Conrad and Hannah Skvarla, the online store sells handmade goods from female artisans around the world. Each item description page showcases the artisan who creates it, the type of handicraft employed, and the area it is from.
We should have more stores like The Little Market and Uptown MN. But it’s only going to happen if we push for it. And so…
Request No 2: Let’s encourage retailers to be better global denizens by celebrating and retaining the origins of designs and styles, rather than muddling and obscuring them to save a buck.
I realize that these are big asks, but I am passionate about them because I feel that things need to change. The world is only getting more diverse, and we need to be smart about how we deal with that so we can maintain the integrity of so many beautiful cultures and traditions around the world.
That’s why we also need to broaden the way we discuss cultural appropriation.
The current rhetoric perpetuates a binary argument featuring those born into (or descending from) a culture versus those that wear its symbols for fashion/costume. Some articles argue against it at all costs (the #reclaimthebindi movement adopts an “it’s my culture, not yours” stance), while others see it as appreciation rather than appropriation if done right.
But it’s 2016, and I assure you that there is more to it than that. The world is much more complex than just black and white, “us” and “them”. What about the people that are somewhere in the middle?
Let’s go back to the white girl at the grocery store with the bindi. That girl is me. In fact, I’m the white girl with the bindi no matter where I go. I wear a bindi every single day (unless I haven’t showered*), and brace myself for the stares and double-takes that are bound to happen as soon as I walk out the door.
Each time I catch someone staring at me – and it happens a lot, from all types of people – it reminds me that I am an embodiment of this complex social issue, and the reactions that people will have are equally as complex.
But why do I wear a bindi? Actually there are a few reasons, and I can assure you that none of them is because I’m trying to look “exotic”.
The first time I wore a bindi was for a Bollywood play I was in during the summer of 2014, where I played a white girl who traveled to India and was eager to understand and be immersed in the culture. Wearing a bindi was part of the costume.
Later, I wore a bindi when I would attend a dressy Indian event, such as a Diwali celebration or birthday party where Indian attire was expected.
But it wasn’t until I married my husband in Punjab, India in April of 2015 that I began to wear a bindi on a daily basis. He comes from a Hindu family where it is traditional for married women to wear a bindi when they go outside. Bindis in general can mean a variety of different things and don’t necessarily indicate marital status, but this is the custom in my husband’s family.
Even though I am a white American, this is a tradition that I have chosen to uphold as a matter of respect to my family and their culture. It reminds me every day of the unique and blessed life that I lead, and makes me feel closer to my in-laws that are half a world away. My husband is thankful that I am as accepting of his culture as he is of mine.
Another often-overlooked marking that I wear daily (after showering*) is sindoor. It is a deep red powder (mine is actually a gel) that is applied in the middle of the head around the hairline. This marking does symbolize marital status, so if you know what to look for (and my thick hair isn’t obscuring it), you will realize that I must be married to a South Asian (since sindoor is not exclusive to India). This is why many Indian women I see in public will see my bindi, see my sindoor, then smile at me because we have something in common – ties to South Asian culture.
*The reason I specify showering is because bathing symbolizes purifying oneself. In India, we do not go to temple, eat, or do many other things without bathing first. Since my bindi and sindoor are important symbols in my husband’s culture, I do not wear them unless my body is clean.
If you had seen me last summer, you would have noticed the gold, rhinestone, and vermillion-colored bangles that nearly covered each of my forearms. These are called chooda, and they symbolize that a woman is newlywed. The bride puts them on the day before her wedding, and wears them continuously for up to a year afterwards – customs vary by region and family. They are said to promote prosperity for the wife and her husband in their new life together.
When I was at the Taj Mahal after my wedding, I was posing for a picture when I heard two girls whispering and listing off my marriage markers: “Bindi…sindoor…chooda…” It made me feel good that I was fully embracing my husband’s culture and representing my status as a newlywed – not just wearing what I thought was cool or comfortable.
Let me be clear: I would never expect someone who is not South Asian to understand these markers and assess me accordingly. But what I would expect is for that same person to see me, a white person with a bindi, and assume that I have a legitimate reason for wearing it and that I understand the meaning behind it.
But that doesn’t happen, because people like me don’t exist in the discussion surrounding cultural appropriation. People like me are lumped in with the festival-goers and teens in search of their identity. The irony lies in the fact that the people who judge me this way do so because they themselves do not understand the symbols I wear. Their knowledge stems from oversimplified soundbites on social media, rather than a critical view of the world and its complexities. For all I know, there’s a blog somewhere out there about me and my bindi and the culture I’m “appropriating”. I understand why this happens, but that doesn’t make it right.
As I said, it’s 2016. We are only going to become increasingly multicultural, and the number of people like me will only grow with time. We seem to forget that involvement in another culture can – and does – happen for many reasons: marriage, religion, travel, and more. It would benefit us to remember this, and consider that the person wearing cultural items outside their own might be more tied to that culture than we realize. Perhaps they were just part of a cultural performance, perhaps they used to live there. Or perhaps they are doing their honest-to-goodness best to represent a culture that inspires them, and what they’re doing is slightly offensive. Whatever the case, this mentality allows more room for conversation, education, and growth for everyone involved.
Request No. 3: Let’s all stop trying to be “right” about cultural appropriation and realize it’s a complex issue with no clear-cut answer. Let’s focus on assuming the best rather than assuming the worst. Let’s ask questions rather than playing the blame game.
Let’s pull a John Lennon and just Imagine if all these things could be true in our society. Imagine walking into your closet and seeing articles that hold a special meaning or memory, rather than a cheap global explosion. Imagine a mainstream retailer with various signs featuring a new traditional art form being expressed in their designs. Imagine running into a white girl with a bindi at the grocery store, and thinking, “huh, I bet she has an interesting story”, or better yet, nothing at all.
In a world like this, perhaps artists like Katy Perry and Selena Gomez and retailers like Victoria’s Secret and Urban Outfitters would partner with people from their cultural muses for a joint performance or a more authentic, inspired work. Or better yet, perhaps we would have enough representation from these appropriated cultures so that these artists wouldn’t need to use them as costumes in order to stand out.
In a world like this, perhaps stars like Priyanka Chopra would feel empowered to represent Indian fashion on the Red Carpet – perhaps “modern” could mean more than just “Western”.
It’s a tall order. But in our fast-paced and ever-changing world, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.