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Cultural Appropriation FAQs, Featuring Vanessa Hudgens And The Return Of The Celebrity Bindi

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Vanessa Hudgens / Instagram

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After yet another weekend of the dusty celebrity prom known as Coachella, Instagram feeds became a sea of bindis, as the likes of Vanessa Hudgens and the Jenners mindlessly adorned themselves with various cultural symbols. Now, since it appears that Hudgens et al. (and people commenting on articles about Hudgens et al.) continue to be confused over why wearing these sort of things is not okay, we bring you (and Katy Perry) another edition of cultural appropriation FAQs, this time with focus on the bindi.

You're overreacting. Vanessa and the Jenners probably don't even know what "cultural appropriation" means.
That's possible, but the issue here boils down to effect rather than intention. Let's start with a definition, though. In her book, "Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law," Susan Scafidi explains that cultural appropriation means "taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission." It's a fairly amorphous term, but that's a great understanding of it.

Ummmm, okay. WHOSE permission am I supposed to get? There are a lot of people in India, do I have to ask all of them if I can wear a bindi?
Relax with the attitude, guy. The idea is not specifically going up to Indian folks and having them sign a permission slip. Here, "permission" refers to an appreciation and respect for the bindi's significance. As Hindu statesman Rajan Zed explained after Selena Gomez wore a bindi for her performance of "Come and Get It," "The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance. It is also sometimes referred to as the third eye and the flame, and it is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol … It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed."

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While you were answering, I went and asked an Indian person and they said that sometimes they wear bindis as fun accessories.
You're being rude.

Just answer.
Well, that's true. The bindi has been incorporated into fashion and transformed into an accessory through the glamour of Bollywood. One might argue, as Anjali Joshi has in a piece for the Huffington Post, that non-South Asians wearing the bindi is just "the continued evolution of this cultural symbol." But, as Isha Aran notes at Jezebel, what this fails to recognize is the divide between "the exact fine line that separates appreciation and appropriation."

Who are you to decide if Vanessa Hudgens is thankful for bindis? She seems like she's a very grateful person!
"Appreciation" here does not mean "thankful." It refers to respecting the meaning of the symbol. The problem with Hudgens et al. wearing a bindi to Coachella lies in the fact that, as Aran says, "it doesn't take from Hindu culture on Hindu culture's terms. It takes from Hindu culture on American terms and negates the Hindu aspect through ignorance and exoticism of an 'alluring foreign culture.'" Wearing a Bindi frivolously (e.g. by purchasing one from TopShop or Claire's, as they are now available), is inevitably degrading.

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Can we really blame this on V.Hudg? I feel like all this whole bindi thing started when the Beatles got all spiritual in the '60s.
It's not about singling Hudgens et al. out so much as identifying the inappropriate use of the bindi as a trend. You're right, it definitely made a pop culture cameo in the 1960s. As Priya Elan writes at The Guardian, the current trend was probably initiated by the '90s fusion of Asian culture and dance music via the likes of Gwen Stefani, Björk and Siouxsie and the Banshees. But the bindi is an ancient symbol and its prevalence in the fashion world via Coachella is not worth talking about because it is "new," but because it is evidence of the Bindi being co-opted as a "disposable, shallow fad."

Wait, I'm still confused about something.
What?

I don't know, I mean, this is AMERICA! We're, like, the EPCOT of cultural inspiration! Why is it okay for people to take Christmas trees from German tradition? How is wearing lederhosen okay?
When have you ever seen someone wearing lederhosen? Anyway, yes, America is a grand old melting pot. There are plenty of times when celebrating other cultures can be acceptable and even a positive thing. But the key, as Scafidi notes, is that cultural appropriation occurs specifically when it involves "a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects." Cultural appropriation is especially problematic, when those or other cultural practices (specifically sacred ones) are divorced from their meaning.

Cool, cool. Just one more question: I eat with chopsticks sometimes, is that bad?
I can't help but feel that you've missed the point.

Everything Else You Need To Know:

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Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca

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