It’s easy for people to think that it is okay to appropriate sacred religious symbols such as the bindi. A traditional decoration worn by women (and some men) in South Asia, the bindi is worn in the middle of the forehead and is either a small jewel or a dot of maroon or red color, signifying the location of the sixth chakra, anja. It has deep roots in traditional Hindi culture. It’s a small, unobtrusive mark, to be sure, making it easy to incorporate into the nightly get-up.
It might make it even easier to think it’s okay by seeing celebrities like Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, Katy Perry and Madonna wearing bindis. The bindi is as much a cultural sign-post of the early 21st century at this point as it is a symbol of traditional Hindi religion.
But it’s not okay.
The bindi might look beautiful, and that’s because it is, just as many religiously associated traditions of South Asia – like henna – are highly stylized and aesthetically beautiful. The Hindu religion might be fascinating and mysterious to some, but if that someone is not a practicing Hindu, they do not have the right to wear the bindi, or any makeshift bindi they might create on their own. You can very easily appreciate a culture without appropriating it. Western relations with South Asian people have never been good, and by continuously stealing sacred items from their cultures, we are adding salt to a long-festering wound. Wearing the bindi when you are not a practicing Hindu is stealing, and above that, racist. As Raisa Bhuiyan puts it in her article about the appropriation of the bindi:
“When a non-South Asian person wears the bindi, it is generally seen as edgy and cute. Fans and music media alike praise these celebrities for their bold “fashion” choices. But when someone like me or my mom wears the bindi out in public, we are either stared down with dirty looks, told to go back to where we came from, or exotified as having magical qualities.”
A few weeks agp, I attended a show at Higher Ground. The band was Emancipator, which is a chilled-out, instrumental band that takes cues both from the post-rock and EDM genres. I expected to see the normal scene of new-age hippies and hardcore electronic music fans. I really do not mind these groups, besides them being a little overzealous about music I do not much care for, but there was one thing that really stuck out for me. Since moving to Vermont, I’ve seen countless girls with flowers woven into their hair and faces painted with stars and abstract rainbow lines. I don’t get it, but I’m okay with it. What I’m not okay with is non-South Asian, or more specifically, white girls, wearing bindis.
I use the term bindi lightly, because most of the time the gems placed on the middle of their forehead are not bindis at all. I imagine they are scrapbooking jewels purchased from the Michael’s up the road. Once and a while, I’ll come across a girl with a bindi that might actually be a bindi, but I’m not really sure that’s much better.
Friday was only the start to my rage that produced this rant. My best friend and I walked into a party Saturday night only to come face to face with a girl who happened to be wearing a bindi. My friend was already way too drunk and harbored the same contempt for cultural appropriation that I did. I knew that this would not end well.
“Hey! Can you fucking take that bindi off your head because you’re not Hindu and you look stupid!”
The girl looked at us puzzled and turned to her friend, “Why is this girl yelling at me?”
“Because you’re racist!” My best friend screamed back at her.
I knew at this point I had to get the both of us out of there, because this party was not the platform for schooling ignorant white girls about the harms of their accessory choices.
This essay is.
I have been told countless times not to call people out on doing this, because I have acquaintances, and even friends, who wear the bindi when I know they have no right to. This isn’t about being bitchy or superior – this is about recognizing the burden of shame that entitled, western, white people have in relation to people around the world – especially those who have been colonized and oppressed. While cultural hybridizing is – in some cases – a great a wonderful thing, the appropriation of sacred symbols runs the very real risk of denigrating religious belief. By assuming some aspects of South Asian culture as ‘cute’ or ‘edgy,’ we (and by we I mean educated, white Americans) culturally colonize yet another aspect of a people. We don’t have a particularly good track record of that sort of thing.
These are the same students – smart, interesting and thoughtful people – who speak out against the burka as a symbol of oppression. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but it certainly isn’t for me – a non-Muslim westerner – to force my beliefs on a culture that I neither belong to nor fully understand.