Top - American Apparel (hand-me-down from Brit), Skirt - thrifted, Shoes - Deena & Ozzy from Urban Outfitters, Cuff - c/o JFR.SE, Other Jewelry - random...
Let's talk about this whole bindi thing. A lot of people have been inquiring as to whether or not it is offensive for a white American woman to wear a bindi. I'll let you decide.
What is a bindi?
A bindi is a small forehead decoration typically worn between the eyes. There are many different kinds. Some are powder-application thumbprints (more traditional), others are ornate felt and gemstone fashion accessories. Bindis at one time held cultural (an indicator of marriage status or caste) or spiritual (a good luck symbol, increasing concentration) connotations in the regions of India where they were traditionally found, but tend to no longer hold connotations -- even in those areas. The crystal and highly-decorated adhesive bindis have become simply a fashion accessory in India, and other parts of the world, that evolved from a more traditional idea.
Why would it be offensive to wear a bindi?
A white woman wearing a bindi is a form of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is when one cultural group adopts something, anything, from another cultural group. Cultural appropriation connotatively becomes a bad thing when a dominant culture adopts something from a less powerful culture who has been marginalized and demeaned, especially something that is otherwise sacred. Acts of cultural appropriation can act as a "slap in the face" to a person who has been mistreated by a dominant culture for things inherent to their heritage and lifestyle, only to see elements of their heritage and lifestyle "cherrypicked" for acceptable use by the dominant culture.
Why would it not be offensive to wear a bindi?
Taking into account that bindis are now simply fashion accessories most of the time, lets remove the specificity of the term and look at the real issue. Is it offensive to wear a fashion item from one culture when you belong to another? On a daily basis, visual elements of international culture mix. In the US, we wear clogs, we wear kimonos, we wear turbans, we wear Tibetan jewelry, we wear silk, we wear plaid. Furthermore, non-visual elements of our culture mix. In the US, we eat sushi, we eat burritos, we eat bratwurst, we drink tea, we eat chocolate. In the US, we do yoga. It seems hypocritical to select one thing and deem it off limits when elements of our culture mix so thoroughly every day in myriad ways.
Personally, I wear things borrowed from others cultures in mass every single day. I find it telling that nobody is concerned about the Greek or Tibetan or Chinese influence in what I wear as a threat of "appropriation", but the bindi is called out instantly because people are not quite used to seeing it. In my opinion, this is demonstrative of the lack of rationale behind these inquiries. One cannot be conflicted about the wearing of a bindi, but be fine with the wearing of Tibetan earrings or of turbans. There is a disconnect in this thought process, and these inquiries very obviously come from a place of unfamiliarity and discomfort. The bindi is uncommon, and it makes people uncomfortable to see something with which they are unfamiliar.
Can culture mixing be good?
A lot of social and political bias stems from a very obvious we-they dichotomy. A lack of familiarity with other cultures frightens people. Racism is the manifestation of this fear. People can respond very negatively to things they do not understand. People become defensive when their securities are threatened, and aggression becomes a coping mechanism for a lack of comprehension that ultimately can translate into a lack of control over a situation. I firmly believe that culture mixing breeds familiarity and encourages international/intercultural respect, as long as we utilize these elements of other peoples' cultures in the same ways that their original developers would themselves utilize them, and otherwise treat all other cultures with respect and dignity.
What would happen if we did not culture-borrow?
I, personally, have a great deal of white/American guilt (my boyfriend makes fun of me for it constantly), and I make it a point to recognize my privileges every day. However, when the line of respectful consciousness is crossed we instead see an irrational "watch dog" approach to policing each others' activities. I understand disgust for colonialism (and its contemporary remnants) and contempt for white culture's lack of self-consciousness and critique. However, I often wonder how anyone thinks it is positive to in any way restrict people's aesthetic choices to their visual indicators of racial background. It enters territory that I find unsettling for its potential to be a dangerous reinforcement of the negative elements of patriotism and racial camaraderie that encourage xenophobia and racism. A world without culture mixing would mean that we would only have access to the things developed in our own country, or in countries that are dominant to ours. Does it, then, come down to an issue of dominant cultures being permitted to permeate all other cultures with their values, even to the extent that it becomes expectation for everyone to dress like them and look like them and speak their languages (how many traveling Americans expect every one in every other country to wear denim and speak English?) while smaller, less dominant countries or socially prohibited from achieving international visibility for elements of their culture (aesthetic or otherwise)? Bearing all of this in mind, dominant cultures failing to adopt any elements of smaller cultures would result in one of three things:
1. A world where we only experience what is immediately outside of our doors, and are largely unfamiliar with everything else. This is the most frightening prospect to me of all. Can you imagine how frightened, then, everyone would be of other cultures? How defensive would people feel and act? How much MORE would they hate someone else based on their perceived cultural background, on account of it seeming so alien? How much MORE easily racism (violent, hostile racism at that) and xenophobia would be bred?
2. A world where everyone borrows only from the dominant culture. Can you imagine if everyone everywhere just looked and dressed and ate and acted like white people? This seems to encourage colonial ideals even more.
3. A combination of both of the above elements, where people dwell in all things indigenous to their land, with the only exception being the spread of dominant western culture's trends and ideals and beliefs and values, which still reeks of colonialism to me.
To me, all of these are grim ideas. I prefer to think that the world should be a respectful exchange of ideas and aesthetics and experiences, and I believe that the steps towards shared global respect and the dissolution of racism lie in the integration of a variety of different vantage points and realities into the dominant scope's eye. The more we share and borrow form one another, the more we blur the lines between who "we" are and who "they" are, taking positive steps towards acceptance and coexistence.
When is culture mixing bad, and how do we keep the respect?
Culture-mixing becomes a bad thing when it is done without respect. How do we stay respectful when using elements of one anothers' cultures? I think that a good approach is what was already stated above: use these elements in the same way that the persons to whom the thing -- whatever it is -- is indigenous would use it. Don't wrap an obi around your dog. Don't use a turban as a toilet paper cozy. Don't take sacrament as a hangover remedy. Don't use a sculpture of the buddha as a tire-stop. Don't wear a sacred Native American ceremonial headdress to make yourself seem more interesting in your Facebook photos. Don't describe any textile that is non-white as "tribal" or generically "ethnic". Don't dress up as a "Gypsy" or an "Indian" for Halloween. Don't call traditionally non-white articles of clothing beautiful, but then represent beauty as though it had only a white face. Do watch foreign films, and try new foods, and embrace fashions made in other countries. As long as you aren't being condescending or inappropriate about it, embrace anything you see fit. Globally, this should be encouraged and appreciated as a means to lend a multicultural and non-white perspective to the idea of "beauty".
EDIT: Since this post is still getting attention around the interwebz, I want to take a moment to point out something that I thought was explicitly understood by people who agree with me, but apparently is not. Non-white cultures integrating white cultural practices into their daily lives is NOT the same as the reverse. There is no equivalent for nonwhite people wearing "white" clothing because white privilege dictates that there will never be an equivalent -- that's the entire principle behind privilege. My argument is not about equivalence, it is about visibility, appreciation, and cultural integration/multicultural acceptance. White privilege is a VERY real thing, of which all white people have an OBLIGATION to be conscious. However, my thoughts regarding "cultural appropriation" center around the notion that restricting the integration of nonwhite cultural elements into white culture further creates a hostile "we-they" dichotomy that encourages the spread of racism, while a respectful integration of non-white cultural elements works to diminish the prevalence of white privilege by increasing exposure to nonwhite cultures and denying that white cultural elements are superior or should be the social norm simply because they are white. This, obviously, needs to be done in tandem with increasing visibility for non-white persons in global society (and, while we're at, transgendered persons, queer persons, differently-abled persons, women, and other underrepresented groups) and adding to a conversation about overcoming privilege on the whole.