1.18.2012

150 - The Short and Long of It

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. 

47 comments:

  1. I don't really care... I just know that you look awesome in this outfit and bindi!!!

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  2. ah haha, that ^^^^^^^ comment!!

    You are so good at writing, Madeline. I agree with your thoughts on using a variety of cultural fashion "trends", but doing it appropriately. Thank you for your words of wisdom!!! <3

    (ps I love this outfit, it has gone beyond my wildest dreams)

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  3. Talking about the bindi..I'm Indian and my mother wears it sometimes to go with her traditional outfits but its more of a fashion accessory than anything religious(I'm Catholic).These days the bindi has almost vanished in the urban areas & you can only see women wearing bindis in villages.
    The issue about a white woman wearing the bindi is not new.Madonna & Gwen Stefani and so many other celebs have worn bindis or Mehendi(henna- which is worn by a bride before she gets married) in their music videos and even on the red carpet so its weird that the west isn't used to this idea.I personally think its no big deal.I sport tibetan jewelry,Mexican prints & rosaries purely for fashion and not for what the cultural or meaning they hold,as long as you're comfortable with what you wear :)

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  4. you are so gorgeous madeline! love the outfit and i love your writing style and reading your insights...awesome job :)

    CRYSTAL HEARTS VINTAGE

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  5. You're so intelligent on topics like this. I mean, I've wanted to wear one for ages now. But I don't want to offend anyone if this was significant. You know what I mean? Thank you though!


    littleivory.blogspot.com

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  6. Preach baby girl and rock that bindi! You are right and I'm glad you have addressed this since it's been brought up. I can't believe something so small as a bindi would be offensive to others and because you're a white woman. But I'm glad you explained all sides of the issue and pure very intelligent as everyone has said. Preach and keep on preaching!

    xx Jacqueline

    fngm.blogspot.com

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  7. I would never judge people for that! If it looks great, it looks great! And it does, I really like it on you :)

    x

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  8. this outfit is SPECTACULAR, probably my favorite yet of yours. I think you should absolutely be able to wear a bindi. I don't remember all this controversy when people started wearing turbans! And what about people calling things "tribal" or "ethnic"? That seems much more obviously offensive.

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  9. I really like what you put in the small print; I agree that just because something is a little unfamiliar, people usually jump straight to judging it in the wrong way. I think culture mixing, which is already happening/happened everywhere today isn't a bad thing at all and in fact I think if anything it helps cultures to understand more about each other, which hopefully will lead to less and less conflict. If people just try to understand each other more then more respect will be built. Such a thoughtful, concise and well written post as always, this is why you are one of my favorite blogs.

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  10. i am an indian living in india.i don't get people who are so super ass sensitive about something like a bindi.because as you said it is a fashion accessory now(thoug i should mention the original meanings are not obscure today.it is widely followed here even now.but that's just a part of our culture.)people hoenstly don't point out to the other cultures as you said because the bindi is also easily identifiable with the indian culture than the other things + it is not seen often on a white girl as you said.i haven't seen any black or asian girl wearing it either.
    i personally find it cool on you.

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  11. I find it really weird that the people criticizing you about the bindi aren't already used to it. It's been see so much in the media already and I can't see why it is an issue, maybe it's just the new generation that didn't grow up with Gwen Stefani as an idol.

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  12. It didn't even occur to me that wearing bindis in America would be considered offensive by some people. I know (white) people who wear them at my school, and I personally believe that they are a very intriguing and interesting addition to their outfits. Of course, there are plenty of people who criticize them for it and call them "artsy hipsters" for adopting an aspect of Indian culture, which I just don't understand. The ignorance of the youth of this country really worries me. And it's even worse, because I am part of that generation, and right at the heart of it, too. All those uneducated teenagers are making the rest of us culturally aware teens look bad. Your writing is fantastic, by the way. I always enjoy reading your posts; you never fail to discuss fascinating and new issues and topics.

    Odelia Kaly
    youreatulle.blogspot.com

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  13. Thank you for your blog post! I read it and immediately changed the titles of my listings to reflect this stance. Do you have any recommendations for online sellers who want their listings to be searchable without using these keywords? Unfortunately I think a lot of people search etsy or ebay using words like "ethnic". Again, thank you for an insightful and inspiring post.

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    1. Thank you so much for this comment! It's so cool that you are changing your listings. On my webstore, I stick to describing the physical attributes of the garment and approximating an era. For example, "woven 1970s purse". If you wanted a highly-searchable term, perhaps stick with the ever basic "boho".

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    2. Thanks for the advice, Madeline. Definitely, this post should be read by all.

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  14. really amazing entry. This should be published in print somewhere. agreed agreed agreed.
    Youre inspirational.

    come visit me!
    http://amandashangers.blogspot.com/

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  15. this is one of the most coherent, well-thought out piece of writing i have come across about cultural appropriation in quite a while. i understand why other people would be sensitive about things like these in this age of political correctness but you're not exactly wearing a bindi with only your skivvies on, are you, nor are you portraying yourself as some sort of 'hindu princess' (as some girls who wear native american headdresses for attention and playing dress up as an indian). i'm totally with you on this. bravo.

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  16. Can I just express my love for you right now?! This was amazingly well written, coherent, and got your point across. I agree with you, and as an Asian American, seeing the degradation of other cultures through labeling really annoys the fuck out of me.

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  17. amazing fotos :--)
    ♡ nellilove.blogspot.com

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  18. always appreciate it so much whenever you call out issues like these. you're an amazing influential woman, and i hope you'll continue to be so! love ya, madeline!

    xxx Jackie

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  19. Interesting topic, I like your poit of view. Respect :)

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  20. "Don't wear a sacred Native American ceremonial headdress to make yourself seem more interesting in your Facebook photos."

    so good

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  21. "...because apparently, it is acceptable for dominant cultures like the US to export our fashion trends, like jeans, to the world, but it is not okay for a country like India to export its fashion trends, like bindis, to the rest of the world."

    THANK. YOU. Back last summer I was being harrassed for cultural appropriation for a screened shirt I wore over the internet, and I made the point that it's cultural appropriation for non-Americans to wear denim, and they swore up and down that 'it's not the same'. Sure, denim is simply a fabric native to the US, and a bindi is an accessory with old religious and social connotations, but...it is the same point, because it has to do with culture.

    I have seen so many people play the 'cultural appropriation' card with the excuse of respecting the culture/society/race being discussed, but all it ever looks like is unprompted xenophobia, which ends up looking completely backwards.

    And to be honest, I've been approached by native Americans with offers to be involved in their pow-wows and wear their garments, on multiple occasions, when I was younger. I've yet to see any arguments online resembling, "I'm so tired of white people borrowing my cultural staples as fashion accessories!" I'm sure that there are people in the world who have said things like this, I only ever see people of white American or European decent ever rant and rave about how it's 'inappropriate' for 'us' to wear graments and accessories from other cultures.

    This post is 100% pure brilliance. I was actually considering writing an article like this for Chictopia about the bindi, but I honestly could not hold a candle to this, no matter how hard I tried. You are so amazing, Madeline. ♥

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  22. I really enjoyed this post. I have always loved your outfits but what I appreciate most about your blog is the things you write. Your posts are eye opening and well researched. It is so refreshing! Thank you for working so hard to keep the internet community honest. <3

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  23. I think it is completely fine to wear a bindi. I guess it's just sort of shocking for some people because it's not very common. You made a good point about how we do yoga and eat ethnic foods. They're one in the same in my opinion. Anyways, thanks for all of the info! I really REALLY love that velvet skirt. I can't wait for spring to roll around so I can try out a maxi skirt with a crop top. I think that look a lot. I think it shows just the right amount of skin. I also love all of your jewellery. I always do. These are great shots. Thank you for following me on twitter! I though that was very kind of you.

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  24. thank you for this excellent discussion! i find it especially annoying when people use blanket terms like "ethnic" and "tribal" to describe anything fashionable that doesn't originate in western culture, and i think you addresses that point perfectly.

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  25. This is a really interesting issue, thanks for bringing it up. I liked reading your thoughts. The world would be a pretty dull place if different cultures didn't mix, that's for sure. I really like your outfit.. oh and your blog, I'm going to follow you on bloglovin' now :)

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  26. I think it looks great on a lot of women of different skins. That's all. :D

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  27. This is a great look. I love the velvet skirt.

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  28. Very well written and applause worthy!

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  29. the outfit is stunning, and I love your tattoos!
    I totally agree with you about the bindi thing! xx

    http://coffeebooksandcitylights.blogspot.com/

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  30. you have great style!

    ---
    http://eosaurore.com/

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  31. Incredibly informed post. I give you a vote on behalf of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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  32. Three things: This is possibly my favourite of all of your outfits. This post is super well written. It is written from an north american perspective, in the sense that mixing cultures seems to still be a pretty big deal and not something that is totally normal and appreciated

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  33. Love that skirt!

    Kisses Anne
    http://annenobody.blogspot.com/

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  34. I LOVE THIS OUTFIT. So 90s fucking awesometron.

    Thanks so much for addressing cultural appropriation, I've always found I have the same stance as you on the subject but some people get very, very serious about EVERYTHING being offensive and culturally appropriated. I can totally understand not wearing things that are sacred or have a specific purpose when you don't know shit about it, but for things that have become a fashion item in their own culture, it should be able to be exported and integrated into other cultures. I think there can be lot of grey areas on some things though.

    You look fucking great with a bindi.

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  35. Well said, I think it's beautiful that you mix different cultures into your every day life, while also teaching others to do the same. You're inspirational and I have endless appreciation for people like you! Also you look stunning!
    <3

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  36. this was a brilliant read, and i am an indian and i have adopted and somewhat embraced the current maximilism trend but i havn't worn a bindi, one because as a boy it would seem 'wierd' and that some people would assume it would be part of my indian culture. but this is very interesting and i think ill wear a bindi soon since my mum have so many going to waste in her jewelry boxes, and if people assume or dictate its wrong, ill just tell them what i've read :) thankyou xxx
    you are absoloutly insightful and beautiful <3

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  37. Thank you for this, this issue has been bugging me for ages especially after taking anthropology in school i've become more culturally aware of things and issues like that pop up in my mind often.....I love the section on keeping respect for cultures. Thanks once again!

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  38. wearing bindis is just like non christians wearing crosses. you never see anyone making a fuss about that, so why make a fuss about people wearing a bindi? they look great! you look great!

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