by Akta Sehgal
When I was first taught about cultural appropriation, I learned about the examples of individuals adopting certain practices of Indigenous peoples while not fully understanding the implications. For example, people wearing Native American headdresses as a form of fashion accessory, or putting dream catchers in places not appropriate to Native American culture.
Examples of this are demonstrated through artists, musicians, models and incidents such as the Victoria’s Secret fashion show last year where model Karlie Kloss donned a Native American headpiece as a fashion statement. Another example would be musicians such as Ke$ha, Lana Del Ray or Nevershoutnever donning Indigenous headpieces and clothing.
These types of practices contribute to negative or at least inaccurate stereotypes about Native American culture and beliefs and the use of the symbols is not taken seriously even though they might have a serious meaning to Indigenous people.
For me, the issue of cultural appropriation popped up when I was sitting with my brother and watching the 2013 MTV Movie Awards (don’t judge, I was really bored). I came across Selena Gomez’s performance of her new song “Come and Get It”. She performs while wearing an Indian religious symbol, a bindi.
This affected me more personally, because as an Indian woman I felt it to be disrespectful for someone to wear the bindi just as an accessory with no understanding of the symbol.
When I was growing up, my mother would always attempt to get me to wear the bindi. She used to tell me to be proud to wear a bindi because it was beautiful and that it signified the third eye, which is important to the Indian culture.
So it confused me to see a pop singer like Selena Gomez wearing the bindi, having no idea why she was wearing it. To give her the benefit of the doubt, I did search up one of her interviews about the song and was astonished to see her talk about her new song having a “tribal, Middle Eastern feel to it”. This offended me even more because I can’t understand her ignorance of grouping people and cultures together. Middle Eastern culture and Indian culture are different from one another and for her to wear a bindi and claim that she wears it because her music has a “Middle Eastern” feel to it is just inappropriate.
I started to look up more about the Selena Gomez bindi controversy, and found thousands pictures and videos of celebrities and socialites wearing the bindi as a fashion statement. Clearly these individuals don’t understand the difference between being influenced by a culture and appropriating that culture.
For me it hurts because these individuals are taking context out of an Indian religious belief and trying to make the bindi mean something else in western culture by adopting it as a fashion accessory. It seems to always go back to the West attempting to colonize a particular object or religious artifact for their own purposes. White privilege exacerbates these tensions by making people feel entitled to Westernize non-white cultures.
This brings me back to the time when my mother made me wear bindis to parties. Although I was born and raised in Toronto, I was, unfortunately, embarrassed to wear the bindi to school and anywhere else for that matter, because I thought I would be seen as an immigrant who isn’t assimilating properly into this white-privileged society.
I was so scared at a young age to embrace my culture and be proud of wearing the bindi. I was shamed by others and often received looks because I didn’t conform to society’s understanding. I was made to feel like I didn’t belong and that continuously haunts me. It frustrates me when pop stars and celebrities wear bindis and are regarded as fashion idols who are always one step ahead of trends, whereas I, an Indian woman would be looked down upon while wearing something from my own culture.
This cultural appropriation isn’t something that I only think about occasionally;it follows me around to where I shop and surf the net. I think about it looking at fashion blogs such as LookBook, where white models wear bindis as the latest fashion piece and are commended for it. Meanwhile stores such as Urban Outfitters sell and profit it by selling bindis, or as they put it: “fashion gems”.
Overall I guess I’m just angry, frustrated and disappointed in the ignorance of our society. I’ve learned to embrace my culture as-is and to not be ashamed in wearing the bindi out and about even though, let’s face it, while wearing a bindi I will always be viewed as an immigrant and potentially shamed. Sometimes it’s just better to be loud and proud.