24 June, 2014

Bindis: Cultural Appropriation or Not?


Meet my friend Adam. Whenever he comes over, he always cuddles Wilhelmina, and he never leaves without a bindi adorning his forehead. Why? For one, he is fascinated by India and Indian culture, and secondly because I slap it on before he can say no!

I know the bindi's caused a little bit of controversy lately with the whole 'Cultural Appropriation' thing emanating from a bunch of celebrities wearing them at a music festival I'd never heard of (called Coachella, which sounds like a s**t name anyway) and from being sold at Topshop and Miss Selfridge amongst others. I have to say, when I first heard of this I too, was outraged. How DARE they?! Taking parts of my culture, using it to their advantage. You can't simply pick and choose parts of my culture, you haven't tasted our struggle.

There was an uproar on my Twitter feed, people from all over the world commenting on how this was 'Cultural Appropriation' and there was me joining the mob of the oppressed rising up to strike against our oppressors, bashing them for insulting Mother India, Hinduism and using our culture as a throwaway trend.

I was really, really mad. But I stepped back from the cauldron and began to think about this. Why was I so angry? Was this really an example of Cultural Appropriation? I've seen the photos of white people wearing the Native American head dress, which is quite blatantly insulting. The ancestors of foreign invaders rubbing the noses of the natives right in it. "Hey look at me, my great-great-great-great grandad stole your land and now I'm stealing your traditions too!".

But is the wearing of the bindi on the same level as that? Really? The bindi does have a deep religious significance to Hindus of course - representing concealed wisdom, but does the wearing of a decorative, ornamental version of it by uninformed non-hindu people pose a threat to or insult Hindus or Hinduism, the religion of 1.1 billion people? I'm not so sure about that.

 I'm actually growing quite concerned that the quest to seek out such 'Cultural Appropriation' and vociferously shout it down is in danger of becoming too judgemental. How do you know that the person you are bashing from behind your screen has no appreciation of the culture they've borrowed from? How could you possibly know? Did you ask? What did they say? 

Just by way of example, there's a photo of my white other half standing by himself wearing traditional Nepalese dress with a tikka on his forehead. If I were to post that in isolation (and if he were famous), we'd both get berated. But the fact is, it was taken at his friend's wedding who asked him to wear the clothes, and an elderly Brahmin priest came up and offered the tikka. What's he supposed to do? Say: "No I'm sorry, that'll offend you and your entire culture."

 We are seeing genuinely harmless things attract huge volumes of scorn, I mean who really cares if a semi-talented singer gets a Chinese tattoo, wears a sari or a bindi when there are some really damaging acts of cultural appropriation out there. Why the need to focus on Vanessa Hudgens instead of Israel for example, a country that in an attempt to wipe out Palestinian culture and history has taken to adopting traditional Palestinian cuisine as its own. THAT is cultural appropriation, and that is worthy of anger and scorn.

And going back to Bindis, it's ironic that a significant number of people complaining, myself included at one point, are actually Muslim and therefore lay no claim to the cultural significance of a bindi anyway. When you go to a Muslim wedding and you see the bride wearing a sari, a bindi and traditional hindu-styled jewellery, do you run up to the bride and tear it all off in protest at this cultural appropriation? Bollocks.

I see Asians complain with their left hand about the bindi yet in their right hand they listen to hip hop and immerse themselves in Black culture. Certainly nothing wrong with that from my point of view, but by your own definition, are you not belittling the everyday struggles of the Black community by appropriating their culture?

In my opinion, cultural appropriation is most definitely a thing, but if you want to get angry about it, you best not be doing it yourself to someone else's culture and you'd better be directing your anger at actual appropriation, instead of using it as a way of channelling your frustration that semi-talented people can end up so mega-rich.

So yeah, whenever my friends are over, it's now become a tradition that you don't leave my gaff without a bindi on. LaaLaa Monroe can vouch for this, ha!


  1. I CAN!!! - and I've got myself a whole load of bindi's now.

    Yet I totally agree with this, you can complain about someone 'stealing your culture' but you do it yourself so blatantly and open. It's very two faced and it just shows your talking for the sake of talking.

    There's nothing wrong with appreciating other cultures, you never know the reason behind why someone is doing something. If someone is obviously disrespecting or being racist then yes but otherwise until proven otherwise what can we say?

    There's a lot of things that have influenced other cultures and even 'trends' that we can look back on and a great deal of us would never even know - the Skinheads for one!

    We can all respect and embrace one another's culture - It's makes for a more open minded world & being XO

    1. I think that's important, you actually appreciate the culture and you're not trying to be 'cool' or 'edgy' by wearing a bindi. It's no bad thing as far as I can see.... xo

  2. In my opinion, if you wear some ethnic/cultural clothes/jewellry etc and you do it because you like it (or for whatever reason) and you mean no disrespect then it's ok. I didn't understood that whole uproar with headbands and such - it seemed to me that people nowadays get offended by literally everything.

    1. There are some cases where I agree that it is not ok, but for me it's a delicate balance. I guess I just don't like the hypocrisy of those who call out against it the loudest, drowning out genuinely offensive things. xo

  3. I have worn Bindi's before and so has my daughter and it was never meant to offend or belittle anyone, to be honest I didn't really think it would - I guess I am a little naive. But then I will wear a crucifix necklace sometimes, again not thinking of how important it is to others. I hate to think that someone would be offended but I guess your post has made me see how they would be. I see it as appreciation for the style, nothing more nothing less. I hope that doesn't sound terrible.

  4. What a really insightful article! I can definitely see where you're coming from.

    While I can understand some things may be upsetting, I also see a lot of the people who create the uproar around "cultural appropriation" aren't even part of the supposedly slandered culture. I read this article on XOJane about that whole "Hello Kitty" song from Avril Lavigne and how it was offensive to the Japanese (which is entirely untrue of Japanese in Japan who actually really love her music) . Personally, I think the song is stupid, but the article on XOJane was talking about how racist it was and then I researched the author to find out she's a Taiwanese blogger - wtf? She had expressed how upset she was that "white people" always clumped all Asian nationalities together as just "Asians," but then she was speaking for the Japanese? I understand her feeling, but then to go and speak for another Asian nationality and in that same thought, say you don't want to be or consider yourself a part of the same group doesn't really make sense to me.

    And nobody ever talks about the fact that people clump "white people" together all the time. I could say I'm Italian/Sicilian and Dutch Irish all day long, but I'll get the reply "oh so you're white" nearly every time. But can I say anything? Of course not - because I'm "white" and my great-great-great-etc ancestor burned down your house or something. Not to say that it's not true and it's not history - because it is - but is every "white" person from now until the end of time to take responsibility for that? Anyhow, I got off track LOL. Sorry for ranting, but it is really frustrating.

    And one last thing - if culture is something that's being shared with others, why are there conditions to it? Yes, eat our food, but don't wear our clothes. Wear our clothes, but don't listen to our music. When all of the art and beauty of culture is being shared - why is there such a backlash? I do think said person should understand the meaning of what they are wearing and act appropriately, but at the same time, we can't control the entire world. Now, I'm not someone who goes around wearing a bindi with a Native American headdress, but I've worn henna in the past as a way of celebration or with friends who also love henna art. I don't think that makes me a cultural criminal, but everyone has a right to their own opinion you know?

    1. Totally agree with you! So well put that I don't have to write my comment below :)

    2. Wow, thanks for such a well thought out reply! It's such a complex issue, and you've raised other ones too. The reason they're complex is because the issues affect people's emotions and it really isn't for anyone else to tell people to stop being upset, particularly if they have a genuine reason. But, I think what I'm trying to get out in this post is there are so many people who use Cultural Appropriation without understanding the culture being appropriated or even listening to the views of a wide sepctrum of people within that culture.

      The loudest shouters on this issue (as with any) tend to be particularly clueless which is sad, because we may ignore genuine cases of cultural appropriation because we're so fed up of hearing it. That's why I mentioned Israel, because so few people actually talk about it and attempting to wipe out the history of an entire nation and people is far worse than wearing a bindi!

  5. You basically just wrote an entire blog post defending the appropriation of bindis.
    While I definitely agree that the anger raised online about this issue is always annoying, overreactive, etc. I think this is a really important discussion to have, and I have some things to say:
    It doesn't matter if you think it's appropriation or not; not everyone is cool with it. You don't speak on behalf of all desis nor people of color.
    This blog post just shows a complete lack of understanding as to why cultural appropriation is a problem. It doesn't matter if you're not trying to hurt anyone, it doesn't matter if someone "thinks it's pretty" and they want to appreciate the culture. The fact of the matter is that wearing a bindi or any cultural item like that in a setting where it is removed from it's cultural context (as a fashion statement, etc), fetishizes the culture and REMOVES THE HISTORY associated with it. When white people wear a bindi or any Desi clothing, it's seen as cool, fashionable, unique. Your post COMPLETELY IGNORES the history of race, colonialism, and white privilege. But think of how our parents are treated when they go out in public in full traditional dress with a bindi and speak English with a foreign accent and how many are scorned and judged for their appearance without consideration as to what they contribute to their communities. So people can't just take a part of a culture that they like and everything is hunky-dory - we do not get to choose the color of our skin and keep all the pretty jewelry and clothes. Everything comes together. Thus, a bindi is cultural appropriation because you hijack the item, divorce it from its meaning, and wear it around with privilege without having to deal with the struggle that comes with being from that background and wearing it. Feel me?
    Don't get me wrong, I think it's fine for people to wear "cultural clothing" or items in an event where those items would be worn anyway: for example wearing an Indian suit in a Sikh temple for a sikh wedding. Because in those situations, the items are not DIVORCED FROM THEIR MEANING. On someone else, it's a unique fashion look. But on a Desi, it's a symbol of a refusal to assimilate into the majority culture. Appropriating the bindi has "an aura of cool that a desi woman simply can’t compete with, often with the privilege of automatic acceptance in a society when many non-white women must fight for it."
    I hope this makes sense.
    As for the Palestine/Israel comment, your argument is exactly the same argument that Zionists use to divert attention away from Israeli Apartheid. "If you really care about people, you should be discussing Syria! Palestinians don't need aid, send the boats to Pakistan!" First of all, people are not single-issue activists. Secondly these are two completely different discussions to be had, as Israeli cultural appropriation is something that is systematic and comes from the Israeli political establishment itself. And yes, while the problems Palestinians face and the usurp of their culture is definitely serious, it doesn't make this any less of an issue. Using that argument only gives you comfort in knowing that you are defending a practice that many people find offensive. If there's enough uproar about it from Desis, then JUST. DON'T. DO. IT. I don't understand what's so difficult about that. You're essentially encouraging your friends to appropriate cultures. It doesn't matter if you're a person of color saying it or not - like I said you are not the sole authoritative voice on the issue.

    1. I have to say 'Anon' that I'm more than just a little disappointed that you chose to post this comment anonymously. I've stuck my neck out on a pretty sensitive topic in order to start some debate and get some dialog going, and anonymous commenting isn't really conducive to that. If you were afraid of being picked on or something, my followers are not of that ilk and you could have just emailed me.
      That aside, you do raise some good points but you've completely overlooked the points I've made and instead read my post through the lens of a very angry person. For example, your comments on my argument being similar to that of Zionists is actually quite outrageous. I feel I made a genuine point, that Palestinian culture is being obliterated and the only time anyone cares is when Israel is bombing it, otherwise the usual 'Cultural Appropriation' bandwagon hoppers completely ignore it, they direct their focus upon much more trivial matters.
      Also you've overlooked that a great majority of Indian people use the bindi outside of its own cultural context, choosing to abandon the traditional red or black and adopting bejewelled precious metals instead, making it into a fashion statement in India too. If people were wandering around music festivals with red or black painted dots then I would argue that is Cultural appropriation, but given so many Indians now see it as an accessory too, it's very hard to justify that claim.
      Finally, who are all these Desis opposing it? What makes these angry desis the sole authority on cultural appropriation then? I certainly would never claim to be that, I was merely giving my opinion as that’s what my blog is for. I’m glad that some readers have disagreed with me, because I want to understand this issue far better than I currently do. Overall, I found your reply unhelpful and in fact much more in line with Zionist tactics than my own post. It seems you want to shut down debate at source.

  6. I never realised that there was such an uproar about this, but it is interesting to hear the debate about it.
    Oh, and I would love to go to Cochella!

  7. Just reading from the above comments, your post definitely touched a nerve. Being from Far East Asia but growing up in a North America, I can certainly relate to the side of those who are somewhat angered when a cultural symbol is misused. At the same time, I do think there's too much political correctness one has to be aware of now that you can't really say anything anymore. I guess this issue will continue as long as there are different races all living together in a certain geographic location.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts:)

    1. It appears I have touched a nerve, and that's good because it's surely a good thing that this issue is being talked about by people who otherwise didn't even know it was an issue. I agree with you, there is a balance to be found. I think it's terribly judgemental of someone to call out a person for Cultural Appropriation without understanding the reasoning. Who are we to judge the actions of others without giving them the right to reply? xo

  8. You've made a very good point here. The only thing I can relate to with this is with Christianity. Everyone and their mum are wearing crucifixes. Literally, they are on leggings, necklaces and earrings. Everything. And although, I make a conscious effort not to wear those items, there is something I just don't feel comfortable about wearing a religious symbol like that... I don't slate my friends or celebs for it. I kinda try and see it in the way that people wear these items as they think in some way, it's beautiful. Of course, in someways people do it disrespectfully but I think the majority don't mean it to insult. Also, some people learn about the meanings of them before wearing them, like you said. So no, great post and great point. I like how you've been on both sides of the argument, it gives a more balanced view. I hope my points made sense and didn't confuse:)

  9. this is the best post (and the most sensible one) I have read on this whole bindi controversy! I was sick of this misplaced outrage. I was also quite tired of white bloggers defending their stance, since I knew these white bloggers are nice people, irrespective of the fact how much they really know about the Indian culture. They were not doing this out of disrespect. and it is a fashion accessory for god's sake at the end of the day! and even if it was a religious version - what if a white traveler to India posts a photo of him with a tika on fb, after visiting some temple..this outrage is misplaced and misguided.

  10. It is great to read this from your point of view, being that is your religion.
    Great post.


  11. never realized there was such a calamity over this and i suppose i've just come to be so accustomed with all the "edgy" girls wearing bindis that i never thought of it that much.. good post, though! i think it can be difficult to know where the line goes for cultural appropriation. but i also think, that often it can be people whose culture it isn't judging others instead of those who supposedly were to be offended by e.g. people wearing bindis. but i think it's ok as long as one appreciates the culture and understands its meaning:-) xx

  12. I have seen loads of people/ bloggers posting photos with bindis on Instagram and other social medias. I think this world is turning to be too much marketing thingy because sometimes my culture also applied on fashion like this too. However, as long as people don't make fun of it, then it's good but if they do I would be really mad as well.

    ps. I'm mixed with Indian race too :) can't wait to see you lovely! xx

  13. This was a very interesting read and so were all the comments. I think there are some different levels to cultural appropriation and when people argue we tend to get into the points that are most easy to to defend on each side. Like it's easy to argue that cultures are always mixing and wearing a kimono-style jacket is just adapting an idea. On the other hand it is easy to argue that there is a real history of white people appropriating cultures that means things like wearing a headdress are totally inappropriate. Things like that can't just be a fashion statement. The difficulty is navigating the space in between. And not being afraid to ask. I quit reading a blog a while back because she was a white woman doing a 'Chinese-theme' outfit in Chinatown. The problem was that she then wrote underneath that some people might see it as cultural appropriation but she wasn't going to listen to the PC brigade because she meant no harm to it. I thought the attitude that she was above criticism was just as problematic as the outfit. And that's why I think whatever we wear we have to be open to accepting that it may be offensive, and be open to changing ourselves.
    Those are my thoughts!

  14. I'm indian and I think it is cultural appropriation. first of all if I wore a bindi walking outside right now I would probably get stares and people would think I'm a freshie and look down on me and people who wear it to Coachella and all that get compliments and people say omg you look so cool so hippy blah blah blah. well you know what that's MY CULTURE NOT A FASHION STATEMENT. a bindi is a traditional cultural religous symbol and i think its disrespectful. many people have been racist to me my whole life just because I'm indian we get stereotyped as people who get married to people without seeing them or always smelling like curry and looked at funny because many Indians live with their parents until they are 30 even longer. but yet many find it ok to wear a bindi because you think its edgy when you don't even know that those indian women who wore those bindis went through so much crap.
    yes some people now are going to say wearing a bindi is embracing indian culture and there is nothing wrong with other people wearing it but you know what its more than just that. for example inpunjab many guys wear turbans and in topshop they are selling head accessories called turbans is that not cultural apporpiation. therefore be it a bindi or a turban its cultural appropation. also its not just the indian culture I have seen many people who are not black wear cornrows, is that not cultural appropriation? therefore you cant just take things from different cultures and start calling it a trend.
    I don't care what anyone says by taking a piece of someones culture that has so much history attached to it and so easily calling it a fasion statement when coloured people have fought for years to try and be accepted in the western world is so disrespectfull and disgusting.

    1. Thanks for commenting, my views have changed quite a lot since I wrote this piece almost two years ago so I totally agree with you. It can't be a fashion statement whilst the owners of that culture still go through bullshit on a daily basis.