Why a Bindi Is NOT an Example
of Cultural Appropriation
A white girl wore a bindi at Coachella. And, then my social media feeds went
berserk. Hashtagging the term “cultural appropriation” follows the outrage and
seems to it at the same time. Except that it doesn’t.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of a specific part of one culture by
another cultural group. As I (an Indian) sit here, eating my sushi dinner
(Japanese) and drinking tea (Chinese), wearing denim jeans (American), and
overhearing Brahms’ Lullaby (German) from the baby’s room, I can’t help but
think what’s the big deal?
The big deal with cultural appropriation is when the new adoption is void of the
significance that it was supposed to have — it strips the religious, historical
and cultural context of something and makes it mass-marketable. That’s pretty
offensive. The truth is, I wouldn’t be on this side of the debate if we were
talking about Native American headdresses, or tattoos of Polynesian tribal
iconography, Chinese characters or Celtic bands.
Why shouldn’t the bindi warrant the same kind of response as the other cultural
symbols I’ve listed, you ask? Because most South Asians won’t be able to tell
you the religious significance of a bindi. Of my informal survey of 50 Hindu
women, not one could accurately explain it’s history, religious or spiritual
significance. I had to Google it myself, and I’ve been wearing one since before
I could walk.
We can’t accuse non-Hindus of turning the bindi into a fashion accessory with
little religious meaning because, well, we’ve already done that. We did it long
before Vanessa Hudgens in Coachella 2014, long before Selena Gomez at the MTV
Awards in 2013, and even before Gwen Stefani in the mid-90s.
Indian statesman Rajan Zed justifies the opposing view as he explains, “[The
bindi] is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol… It is not meant to be
thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory…” If us
Indians had preserved the sanctity and holiness of the bindi, Zed’s argument for
cultural appropriation would have been airtight. But, the reality is, we
The 5,000 year old tradition of adorning my forehead with kumkum just doesn’t
seem to align with the current bindi collection in my dresser — the 10-pack,
crystal-encrusted, multi-colored stick-on bindis that have been designed to
perfectly complement my outfit. I didn’t happen to pick up these modern-day
bindis at a hyper-hipster spot near my new home in California. No. This lot was
brought from the motherland itself.
And, that’s just it. Culture evolves. Indians appreciated the beauty of a bindi
and brought it into the world of fashion several decades ago. The single red dot
that once was, transformed into a multitude of colors and shapes embellished
with all the glitz and glamor that is inherent in Bollywood. I don’t recall an
uproar when Indian actress Madhuri Dixit‘s bindi was no longer a traditional
one. Hindus accepted the evolution of this cultural symbol then. And, as the
bindi makes it’s way to the foreheads of non-South Asians, we should accept —
even celebrate — the continued evolution of this cultural symbol. Not only has
it managed to transcend religion and class in a sea of one-billion brown faces,
it will now adorn the faces of many more races. And that’s nothing short of
So, you won’t find this Hindu posting a flaming tweet accusing a white girl of
#cultural appropriation. I will say that I’m glad you find this aspect of my
culture beautiful. I do too.