Last week, a wave of brown girls graced most social media platforms with their faces, posting selfies with bindis to counter the diminishment of importance from the symbolism behind the bindi. Bindis are sported as accessories in festivals such as Coachella by individuals who disregard its cultural usage and significance.
Because of this, the hashtag #ReclaimtheBindi was created by South Asian women to be shared and spread, becoming one of the highest trending tags on Twitter. Social media was filled with pictures of South Asian women sharing their stories when facing discrimination based on their racial and cultural identities.
Despite the fact that these selfies and hashtags explicitly focused on the bindi, it should go without saying that the bindi is not the point of this social media outrage. Cultural appropriation has often been regarded as the weakest kind of racism, with many claiming that focusing on appropriation takes away from other, larger issues that stem from institutionalized and systematic racism. I don’t agree. I think cultural appropriation is inextricably tied to institutional racism; it implies a disregard of cultural difference, a laziness when it comes to interacting with minorities.
I wrote an article last week discussing the difficulty in establishing the difference between interest and exotification of minority cultures (in particular, South Asian). The arguments surrounding cultural appropriation are equally nuanced. Where does one draw the line between appreciation and appropriation?
The #ReclaimtheBindi movement was built around the notion that an interest with the South Asian culture should not lead to a recognition of something culturally significant in a trivialized manner. Coachella does not warrant the use of the bindi, especially not by those who have never pondered its significance.
#ReclaimtheBindi was particularly phenomenal coming from a demographic rooted in the model minority myth. South Asian individuals — and women, in particular — are often regarded as meek and petite, made to passively assimilate into whiteness. Therefore, this large flux of protest was a refreshing form of activism coming from a group of folks often silenced by the hegemonic presence of white and male structures.
Post-9/11, the South Asian communities in the United States were subject to violence, racism, and fear. This is not to say that racism against South Asians didn’t exist before September of 2001, just that it was manifested differently. Racism has continuously evolved, and cultural appropriation is a current signifier of this. It hides behind the mask of tolerance to undermine minority cultures.
My culture is NOT a costume. #reclaimthebindipic.twitter.com/PBP1B5L1W2
The bindi is one example of this larger issue. A symbol of South Asian femininity, the real contention is not around who should wear it and why, but rather who decides who can wear it. Arguments that deem cultural appropriation a non-issue often bring up the point of infringement of freedom, as if telling someone they can’t do something inherently infringes on their freedom, and freedom, as we all know, is the Most Important American Value. As defined by the framework of the white, male, cis, class privileged America, freedom isn’t synonymous with liberation if it at the same time inhibits justice and equality of others. This is why, when South Asian women say you cannot wear bindis because it is theirs, they intend to reclaim not just the bindi, but a slice of justice.