A few months ago, I viewed the shitshow called the called the MTV movie awards, and as an Indian woman, I couldn’t help but cringe when I saw this. Lately, there has been a lot of backlash on Miley Cyrus for her appropriation of African Americans, and she rightfully deserves to be called out on it.
However, when Selena Gomez appropriates Indian culture in her music videos, in order to be “exotic,” and fails to even understand WHAT culture she is exploiting, she is given a free pass, because there appears to be the notion that her half-hispanic blood signifies that she cannot other-ize another culture. This is the same logic that was used in the case of the Zimmerman trial, when people assumed that the issue was “not about race” because Zimmerman was part Hispanic.
In interviews, she explains her song to be “Middle Eastern” and “tribal.” As a person who has studied Indian music, I am familiar with it, and the Tabla instrumentation she is using is clearly Indian. And what does she mean by tribal, anyway? Is it the appropriation of Native American headdresses what makes your song tribal? Is it the dancing around a fire in torn clothing that makes your song “tribal?” Native Americans are already given the bulk and horror of racism, and the “innate savageness” that some associate with Native Americans is likely what she meant by “tribal,” and grouping of colonized bodies together (Indians!=Native Americans) is another aspect that makes this extremely problematic. I cannot speak for Native Americans, but I know that their culture is most commonly used as a commodity in the fashion world, and it is not okay to ignore any representation of this appropriation.
In addition to the music, Selena also appropriates a very important part of my culture, and religion: the bindi. The bindi is somehow low-hanging fruit for artists that are trying to make themselves seem “exotic” (Gwen Stefani and Madonna, anyone?) but the bindi and its originations signify so much more than just a fashion statement. What’s worse about Selena and her backup dancers using it is that she doesn’t even know that it is Indian. This is not entirely her fault, though. Retail chains like Urban Outfitters eagerly market the bindi and even tapestries of Hindu gods and goddesses to unsuspecting white girls who read books like “Eat, Love, Pray” and want to be exotic and “bohemian.”
However, when an actual Indian woman wants to wear the bindi and traditional Indian outfit in public, American xenophobia emerges, and that woman becomes a “FOB,” and is instantly otherized. I know from personal experiences, that this is not acceptable in professional environments and people see it as an inability to assimilate.
There are ways that Selena, Madonna, and Gwen Stefani could have used the Indian culture, to show appreciation for it instead of tokenizing and exploiting it. For example, if she otherized herself, in an Indian context, this would have been okay.
The appropriation of Indian culture in American media is unbelievable and laughable at best. The people who do make it to Hollywood, MTV, etc, are Indians who have to change their name, adopt another persona, or become the token Indian person (Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, anyone?). It’s not even that they haven’t expressed this frustration; it is a struggle that they have, to simply be taken seriously as another capable comedian or actress. Ben Kingsley putting on brown-face to play Gandhi in Gandi, was essentially the moment I decided that I was never going to even try Hollywood.
Shakira is another artist of color that has appropriated other cultures, and nobody has called her out on it either. She uses Asian cultures to appropriate as well, and has become famous for a dancing style that isn’t even hers to begin with, when there are plenty of singers from those cultures who are just as capable, if not more.
Cultural Appropriation is not okay from anyone. It is not okay when Miley does it, or when Selena, Shakira, Gwen, or Madonna do it. It is slowly becoming a part of our culture—by those who think it is part of a “melting pot,” or integration of cultures. However, the truth is that these cultures that are being appropriated, are otherized, and by exotifying them, we are not making them more accessible, but in turn making them a commodity. Artists like Selena and Miley have every right to explore their sexuality through their music and performances. They do not, however, have the right to exploit other cultures. Think twice when you see someone using another culture to advance their career.