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Bindi Wearing White Girls

Written by Leila Malik.

Cultural appropriation is a scary term you definitely don’t want to be associated with. It’s something that evokes an intense emotional response, from both the people pained by its existence and the people denying its problematic implications. From what I’ve found, it’s something no two people have the exact same opinion on. 


 In your desperate attempt to understand the term, you might have learned about the difference between ‘appropriation’ and ‘appreciation’, referring to the difference between the incentive of profit and the understanding admiration of an aesthetic tradition. White people might have told you that ‘the Vikings had dreadlocks’ and how ‘an old Indian lady on the train said she loved the bindi they bought from Accessorize in 2014’. 


 You might have looked at the rings in your white friend’s noses and wondered if it makes you feel weird or if it makes you feel like it should make you feel weird. Is that the same as making you feel weird?! Fuck – you aren’t sure. 


 You might go and ask some other South Asian people what they think cos really you just don’t know. Some of them say ‘No why would I care it’s just a bit of metal’ and others say  ‘Yeah it’s fine as long as the cultural origins are acknowledged’ and others say ‘No it’s messed up my mum was bullied for her nose ring in school’ and then others say ‘well the nose piercing originated in multiple places across the globe and no one culture can claim ownership over it’. 


 AHH!! Why can’t someone just tell you what to think and how to feel?! It sadly doesn’t work like that, kiddo. 


 What’s really going on here? I’ll be perfectly honest with you, as someone whose main experience with cultural appropriation is feeling intense irrational hatred towards the white girls who wear bindis they bought from Accessorize in 2014, I’m not sure if I’m qualified to have an opinion. But then I don’t know what qualifies someone to have an opinion on a topic like this and to be completely honest I’m not even sure what my opinion actually is. All I’ve got are some vague thoughts on the issue so please, just roll with me here.


 My observations. My observations are that generally speaking, the people who are most upset by cultural appropriation are those from the diaspora. From what I’ve observed, people who still live ‘back home’ are more likely to somehow think it’s cool that white girls are wearing bindis, that it’s nice to see our culture being celebrated and enjoyed, that they’re glad to share the beauty of our traditions with others.1 So why do so many of us have such an instinctual hatred of it? 


 My current working theory is that those of us from the diaspora tend to be more protective of our culture than those in the homeland. It makes logical sense, right? We’re the ones who have been called weird for eating curry at lunch, teased for wearing salwar kameez, laughed at for having oil in our hair; whereas our cousins ‘back home’ did all these things and never once thought of them as weird. In the diaspora, these aspects of culture – especially the hyper-visible ones – have to be fiercely protected for the fear that they might eat themselves in shame and disappear. 


 In our teenage and young adult years, many of us will have come to the conclusion that the best way to survive is by taking back ownership of the things we were teased for. You might now take pride in your giant gold nose stud, your delicious fucking food, your cascades of hand-me-down saris and the colour of your skin. These things might feel like hard-earned badges of honour, something we had to fight to feel proud of. 


 So when someone who never had to fight, or struggle, or suffer wears that bindi or those jhumkas with such fucking flippant ease, without any understanding of what we went through to wear them, it hurts. Maybe more than it should. 

 

Okay like for example (and this may just be me): I know it’s completely insane and wrong for me to feel irritated if a white person makes really good Punjabi food. Like, I know that is unfair and insane. I don’t have ownership of an entire fucking cuisine; I myself cook from different cuisines all the time. So then I obviously come to the appropriate conclusion that I’m just being a jealous bitch, but the initial gut feeling of ‘grrr’ at their perfect aloo gobi is still there. 


Let me stress that this is based on a general observation and not hard data so please take this information with a pinch of salt. If anyone’s got the data then send it my way.


 Where exactly am I going with this? I think nowhere in particular. There is no final point on which to end because it’s not a discussion that has an end. It would be so much easier if there was, but ultimately there is no single rule you can apply to the ethics of a person from one culture wearing, using, or doing something that traditionally belongs to another


 So all I’m really saying is that I think it’s important for us to chew on why we feel the way we do about these things, however it is that we feel. And also to acknowledge that the upset we feel won’t be solved by ripping the bindis off certain foreheads at festivals (tempting though it is), and that most of the time the people engaging in cultural appropriation have literally no idea what they’re doing or may even have been told by someone else from that culture that it’s okay. The best thing we can do is kindly explain the cultural significance to them, and hope they care enough to listen. 


 In conclusion, to all the Bindi Wearing White Girls, I think it’s safe to assume you probably weren’t purposely trying to steal my culture and erase my suffering. I apologise for hating you and bitching about you in 2014 (and sorry if I instinctively roll my eyes when I  see you in public – I promise I’m working on it). And to all the rest of us I hope we can keep having these discussions without fear of our opinions being labelled ‘wrong’ – they probably are wrong, and that’s alright. What’s important is that we keep discussing.


 

This article was published in Volume 002, The New Generation. For more content check out our print magazine now!





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