Many of us have heard the term ‘cultural appropriation’. But what is it really? And what’s the difference between appropriation and appreciation? Cultural appreciation is when you seek to understand a culture and respect where the culture’s beliefs come from. On the other hand, cultural appropriation involves picking certain ideas to suit one’s own personal interests without caring about the cultural significance of those ideas and beliefs.
Of course, there is a fine line between the two but in some cases, it can be very obvious as to when you’re looking at appropriation versus appreciation. In my experience, there were many things I didn’t think much about when I was younger. But as I’ve grown older and started learning more about the world, I’ve come to realize just how much appropriation there is that goes unnoticed by many, specifically in Hindu culture.
One of the most common examples of Hindu cultural appropriation in fashion is wearing bindis. The bindi has deep cultural symbolism going back several decades, including indicating a woman’s marriage status. However, despite this significance, bindis have become a fashion statement. Especially among celebrities like Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani and the Kardashians, the bindi has been added as an accessory to an otherwise Western look without any emphasis on its importance or cultural background.
Many retailers, such as TopShop, even capitalize off of bindis, making them appear more modern and selling them online as “eye embellishments”. This is especially ironic, because when a brown person wears a bindi or Indian clothes, they are considered “backwards” and are often pitied but when a white person or famous celebrity wears them, they’re seen as “beautiful” and “stunning”.
Another one of the most frequent examples of cultural appropriation of Hinduism is the usage of Hindu deities and idols as decoration but in derogatory settings – and this is so much more common than you’d think. A London fashion designer created a form-fitting swimsuit with a giant design of the Goddess Durga across the front.
Rihanna recently posted a topless picture on Instagram where she was wearing a long necklace with Lord Ganesha in the center. Madonna performed a song in 1998 wearing a Vaishnava tilak, a symbol traditionally used for devotees of Lord Vishnu, in front of a backdrop of Hindu gods. The problem with these examples and many more, are that the deities and associated traditions in the Hindu religion are considered extremely sacred and are not meant to be used as ornamentation. When someone uses them in any sort of aesthetic manner, it portrays disrespect for the gods and the Hindu culture as a whole.
As I press on through my research of Hindu cultural appropriation in Western societies, I continue to be appalled at how many things have been taken from one culture and placed in the next, stripped of all context and meaning. It leaves me with an especially bitter feeling when I think of all the times that I’ve been picked on for being Indian and told that I wasn’t “American enough” when now, all those people that picked on me are the same people promoting turmeric and enjoying their goat yoga. I know this resonates with so many of my fellow brown people and we all have the same underlying message to those in Western society: my culture is not your aesthetic.