The sound of the bass guitar riffs as the dulcet tones of an indie rock singer flutter in the air. Festival goers chant the melody of their favorite FKA Twigs song as the Singapore heat rages above. In the distance a haphazard silhouette of a white girl flailing her arms in intoxicated motion hobbles onto the floor. She is donned in a Native American headdress and that conspicuous colored dot on her forehead—a bindi. Ah, it’s festival season.
The biggest music bonanza of the year has arrived: Laneway. It’s the time when people can finally pretend that they’re at Coachella. We’ll see the annual arrival of hoity hipsters, flower crowns, only-here-for-the-camera individuals, drunk white girls and some good ol’ cultural appropriation.
So what exactly is cultural appropriation? We’ve heard the word tossed around a lot recently, but what does it actually mean?
Cultural appropriation literally means “one culture taking parts of another culture.” So why is that so bad? Sometimes it isn’t. But then sometimes it is. There’s a blurry line between appreciation and appropriation.
The main reason why cultural appropriation can be problematic is that it can lead to stereotyping other cultures as being “unusual” or “exotic.” These perceptions punctuate stereotypes of ethnic cultures, such as the mystical exoticism associated with Indian culture. I am Indian, and I don’t want my culture to be a Western fashion trend.
I wouldn’t consider myself someone who is deeply ingrained in my cultural roots. On Bollywood karaoke nights I’d awkwardly dance while trying to read the lips of the people singing fervently, attempting to recognize some semblance of a Hindi word. When watching a Hindi film I’d have my mother meticulously translate every sentence as I multitask the kabooms on the screen. The worst is when someone asks me something in a native Indian language and I’m left bewildered and incredibly embarrassed.
But even though I may lack the complete and/or proper ingredients of an ideal Indian individual, I do love my culture. I am proud of my culture and—more importantly—glad to say that I am Indian.
My culture is sacred to me and I do not want it to be diluted to a Western stereotypical portrayal. My culture is more than a caricature.
The West has forever appropriated aspects of ethnic culture but rarely assigns it to its original meaning or purpose. Instead, cultural artifacts are misrepresented in a racist dialogue that reassigns cultural aspects to fit into a white narrative. In regards to Indian culture, stereotypical images of mystical exoticism and “hipster-culture” are what pervert cultural artifacts from their original meaning. These implications further a notion that Indian culture is “cool” and can be objectified and subsequently monetized. Yup, that’s kind of problematic.
Oftentimes cultural appropriation occurs when a culture with more socio-economic power takes aspects of cultures with less socio-economic power. Interrupt Magazine notes how “the dangers of cultural appropriation go beyond offending people, appropriation continues patterns of disempowering groups that are already marginalized.” Over time, this “disempowering” of ethnic groups leads to a cultural erasure – a process where a cultural aspect is diluted to the extreme until the remnants of the original culture are practically non-existent.
You’re probably wondering: “How do I know if I’m culturally appropriating?” Here are some tips you can follow before you decide to use cultural artifacts, behaviors or words that aren’t your own:
1.) Make sure you understand, study and appreciate the essence of the culture or cultural artifact before you use aspects of it. In order to prevent ignorance and offense, you must immerse yourself in the culture before you can be the culture.
2.) Keep in mind that most ethnic cultures represented by mass media are caricatures of these cultures rather than an accurate representation. Cultures that are not your own are not strange, exotic or unusual.
3.) Ask yourself why you are wearing a cultural artifact that isn’t from your culture. Will it offend people of the original culture? Make sure you understand the significance of the artifact before you wear it as it may come across as offensive or mocking.
So back to the bindi. It’s not like the bindis have been devoid of any sort of capitalization in India. For decades, bindis have been commodified as a fashion accessory. People from all walks of life, religions, cultures wear bindis. So what’s the problem? There isn’t really. But….
It is a problem when bindis are used out of context to paint perceptions of corny exoticism, grunge, soft core or hipster norms.
In a world where cultural identity rapidly descends into commodity, my culture is something I want to salvage. So please, Laneway goers, don’t wear bindis this year.