No, It’s Not a Fashion Statement: On Cultural Appropriation

I was born and raised in the Bay Area, a place that is considered very diverse. However, in the 80s, it was still the Indian and more specifically the Fijian-Indian community was very small, although growing. I can’t count the number of times I was called “Gandhi” (meant as a derogatory insult), made fun of for wearing “Gandhi dots” aka bindis, or asked if I really ate curry for every meal.

Indian culture was weird, and different, but suddenly one white girl in a punk/pop band puts on a bindi and she’s considered a trend-setter. One iconic white musician changes her look to include bindis, mehndi covered hands – oh sorry henna tattoos, and it’s the next big look. Naan and curry became the hot new dish, and everyone though Bikram yoga was the best workout. Yet my life, or my family’s life hasn’t gotten better from people suddenly “accepting” my culture.

The white girl walking down the street in Berkley, just minutes from where I grew up, doesn’t get ridiculed or stared at. The Indian store I went to in Oakland just this weekend with a white man behind the counter selling statues of Ganesh, Kali, and Shiva, and burning incense thinks it’s so cool, man. It doesn’t make me proud to see Iggy Azalea don a saree, bindi, mehndi, and have Bhangra dancers in her video. It makes me angry. It makes me angry that this person gets to wear that, or put a statue in their house because it’s so cool and different, and not suffer anything of it.

These are the very things that my family, my people have been repressed by; told to assimilate over. The pain, the hurt, the shame. The shame I felt when my mom would wear a red tikka to the store. The fear I felt when I was a young girl pushed by an older man in the middle of store for being a dirty Indian in my kameez. These are the very things that the “Dotbusters” of New Jersey killed Navroze Modi and Kaushal Saran over.

To see these people who have no idea what wearing a bindi means, what their henna tattoos, aka, mehndi covered hands represent angers me to the core. They have no right. It is not yours. The word that comes to mind? HYPOCRITE. You wear that and not take any of the repression that comes with it. Even today, if I wore a bindi, or a saree, people will look at me differently and think, “Oh she just came from India,” as opposed the that white girl who is making a fashion statement. What I’m saying is not don’t wear my culture’s items – what I am saying is wear it and stand for anti-racist justice. Wear it but understand what it is and what it means, and fight against cultural appropriation.

Additional reading: this piece by Raisa Bhuiyan about not wearing a bindi is great.

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