Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I’m Indian. Like a bunch of other people from where I’m from, I live in America. I’m the ‘dot’ kind of Indian - you know, the people who sometimes wear drawn on or adhesive marks on their forehead, in between their eyebrows.
And that brings me to what I want to talk about today.
Bindis. That mark on our foreheads that so many of us wear, often – but not always – with religious connotations.
Bindis have been having a moment in Western culture since Gwen Stefani in the 90s. Selena Gomez caught some flak for wearing one in 2013. Bindis are a controversial Coachella accessory, and the argument against non-Indian women wearing bindis follows a pattern now familiar in popular culture - that it is cultural appropriation, it is using religious symbols as ornamentation, and only Indians that understand its true religious and cultural significance are allowed to sport a bindi.
As an immigrant - and as someone who has lived outside of India for a lot of her formative life - I am well aware of the lack of awareness of my culture and its traditions outside of my home. I have watched countless misrepresentations of South Asia in films, television, and books. I’ve had people ask me multiple times if I speak ‘Hindu’ (which is literally like asking if I speak Christian. Hindi is the language). Compliment my English (thank our colonial masters for that one). Ask if I’m mixed because my skin tone is not as dark as some of my compatriots’ (think chai, not chocolate. But I digress).
And so I understand the outrage.
We live in an imperfect society still reeling from the effects of colonialism. That means that pretty much all of our cultural mores are impacted, for better or worse, by that legacy - a legacy that considered people of my race, my skin tone, and from any part of the world that wasn’t theirs inferior.
From our bright colours to our religious practices to the food we ate to, yes, the bindis we wore, all was considered savage. And while today India stands independent, we - like much of the colonised world - are still struggling to lose the conditioning that centuries of servitude ingrained in us.
Needless to say, this struggle is not India’s alone. Much of the colonised world suffers similarly. It is why Westerners forget that Africa is a continent, for instance. And the engrained, internalised hatred many of us have for who we are and what we represent pulls us to imitate the West in all sorts of deeply upsetting ways.
There are some silly arguments that need to be put to bed. For my first-generation fam that, unlike me, was not born in India – rest assured that you are not appropriating when you wear that bindi outside of our shores. Being brown is not something that just washes off with a generation or two abroad, and the world needs bindi references beyond Western celebrities rockin ‘em. While brown bodies wearing bindis outside of India can be feel akin to activism, it can simultaneously – gasp – be because we claim the right to enjoy the way they look on us.
Likewise, there is truly no such thing as reverse cultural appropriation. We speak English not to appropriate but because that is one of the legacies of forced colonialism. In the world we live today, the West still represents the ascendant, dominant culture. That culture is what we centre today, what we - unfortunately - peg as the standard against which we measure others. As fucked up as that is, it is true.
So in many ways, it isn’t a bad thing for us to take a stand for what we consider ours. “That bindi is ours,” we say. “Our culture isn’t yours to mine, when a bindi is savage and backward on my brown forehead and a delightful fashion accessory on yours.”
It is difficult to argue with that reasoning.
And yet. Culture is complicated. Cultural appropriation is complicated.
In a world where our identities have been erased or defined as inferior, it is wonderfully heartening to see my fellow Indians rising up with pride in who we are. But as an Indian person, I know that our identity is not straightforward. I’m Bengali, with Bangladeshi roots. Indian-ness, in India, has been a challenge to define in a country as diverse as ours. So within India, as a Bengali, if I go to Kerala and wear a South Indian-style sari, am I culturally appropriating? What if I enjoy Indo-Chinese food? And what if I, who did not grow up wearing a bindi every day, put one on my forehead simply as a bejewelled accessory, not to symbolise my third eye or as religious accoutrement?
Zadie Smith once wrote that "Art is a traffic in symbols and images, it has never been politically or historically neutral, and I do not find discussions on appropriation and representation to be in any way trivial. Each individual example has to be thought through, and we have every right to include such considerations in our evaluations of art (and also to point out the often dubious neutrality of supposedly pure aesthetic criteria). But when arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated than antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity." Should attire, like art, follow suit?
In fact, the very idea of cultural appropriation is not quite Indian. I know that when my non-Indian friends show up to an Indian wedding, it is a matter of pride for us to dress them in our clothes, have them wear saris and lehengas, and, yes, bindis.
So am I nonplussed when I hear a white woman wearing tight ‘yoga’ pants call herself a garbled Sanskrit name? Of course. But I do wonder whether the best way to combat cultural appropriation is to police what white people are doing, and therefore continue to centre whiteness and western-ness in our world. In a society where the world has become smaller, it is inevitable that what is dominant culture today will become decentred the next day. And as messy as it is, mixing and borrowing and yes, appropriation, will occur.
It is the right thing to do to understand the systemic forces behind cultural appropriation, and to consider each situation in its appropriate context. But, perhaps, we owe situations more nuance than our colonisers did.
The idea of nuance can be frustrating, but we cannot afford not to be critical. In a way, nuance is what brings us power, what truly centres us in our own world. We cannot keep looking to the people who colonised us to be the moral centre of our universes. We need to be the kings and queens of our own narratives. We need be the ones to share our own culture, to tell our own stories. And I cannot think of a better way to combat appropriation than to decentre that appropriating voice, and instead, make our own voice dominant. That means renewing our security in who we are, and in remembering that who we are will not be so easily erased just because a non-Indian person eats our food, does our yoga, or wears our clothing.
And inevitably, that means that sometimes, a bindi is just a bindi.