The term “cultural appropriation” has creeped it’s way into our vocabulary and this week it’s been used to discuss the celebrities who wore bindis at Coachella. Vanessa Hudgens, the Kardashian-Jenner sisters, Selena Gomez and many others have adorned it, making a fashion as well as cultural statement. I first heard about this in the Huffington post article, “Why a Bindi Is NOT an Example of Cultural Appropriation” and after reading Jezebel’s “Take That Dot Off Your Forehead and Quit Trying to Make Bindis Happen.” I was torn about which way I leaned on the discussion, but after really thinking about it and drinking some masala chai, I decided I’m actually OK with it.
As an Indian-American born in India, I’ve worn the bindi even before I could crawl. My parents have always made sure that any trip to the temple or an Indian event where I wore a sari or salwar came with a bright bindi. I knew what the bindi represented and the respect I had towards my religion and culture. The reality is the use of the bindi has changed through the years and its modern use is as jewelry and for decorative purposes. The bindi no longer only signifies age, marital status, or religious background but is now also a style statement. If we, the Indian community, did not want it to symbolize this then we shouldn’t have made it a fashion accessory in the first place. Traditionally it was a round, red dot made of vermilion powder. Since then we have made it an adhesive sticker, changed the shape, added color, and bedazzled it. Bollywood actresses wear it while dancing to raunchy music; if it’s not wrong there, why is it wrong here? Do we not get Chinese symbols tattooed on ourselves or set up henna stalls at fairs? Do we stop people from learning yoga because they’re not South Asian? Hell, I have a bigger problem with the images of Hindu gods on bracelet charms and T-shirts at Urban Outfitters. It is not in line with Hindu teaching to stop anyone from learning about our culture or anyone who wants to experience part of it. Thousands of non-Asian people go on pilgrimages to India, appreciate the food, and even begin the practice of meditation. Is it not in our benefit to educate people about the symbolism of wearing a bindi? If I told you it is the the sixth chakra, the seat of “concealed wisdom” and said to retain energy, would you not want to reap its benefits? Perhaps the issue is more with the venue being Coachella than the actual bindi?
There is something wrong if a symbol is taken and twisted by another culture. For example, if the Kardashian’s had taken traditional red bindis and placed it on their chest or lined their lower back with them, then that would call for outrage. But they are wearing it in the same way I do. I see more of a mistake in not educating people about the significance of it. Maybe every pack should come with a note about the history and a message to only place it in the middle of the forehead out of respect? I don’t see a problem with adopting and using an aspect of another culture in the same way they do but there is an issue if it is taken out of context and twisted only for the enjoyment of western culture.