Conversations about cultural appropriation among South Asians on Tumblr and Twitter have spurred efforts for visibility and representation. I personally remember all the times I was mocked or bullied for wearing salwar kameezs to school or having mehndi on my hands after Eid. My family members were mocked and ridiculed anytime we went out in public and I was always deeply embarrassed when my mom wore traditional clothes.
While being brown has never been or is cool, a lot of our cultural practices and adornments have. Bindis in particular have become all the rage among non-South Asian folks, most especially white women. The new fall trends for this year don’t seem to be slowing down on the columbused kurta look with popular brands such as Forever 21 and Zara selling long shirts with slits on the side. Even “turbans” which really just look like stupid hats are popular while actual Sikh men who wear turbans for religious reasons are targets of vicious hate crimes. Most of the on trend jewelry, textiles and designs are all “inspired” by the various facets of cultural traditions originating in South Asia.
Reclaim the Bindi has emerged as a popular movement to counter this appropriation. Every couple of months, Reclaim the Bindi devotes a week encouraging South Asian folks to post pictures of themselves with bindis as well as other traditional adornments and clothes. The result is a beautiful array of testaments and images of South Asian diasporic folks who are shedding their past inhibitions and self-hate and embracing the pride they have in their identities and pushing back at the ugliness of cultural appropriation.
With everything comes nuance, and that is something lacking in these conversations about reclaiming the bindi, and by extension one’s identity. Being a part of the South Asian diaspora is a lot deeper than wearing a bindi or mehndi, and we are afraid to talk about it. Even the ever so “subtle” colorism, which is rooted in anti-blackness, that plays out with whose posts and photos get the most praise and compliments is never addressed. Classism, casteism, anti-blackness and respectability politics are just a few of the most pressing issues our communities are faced with but never dare to acknowledge. And ignoring these issues is destroying us.
The almost frightening fetishization of the homeland and dismal of South Asians living in the subcontinent has become common. Decolonizing our minds and coming to the realization that the colonial thinking about our culture, history and identity is wrong is important but cannot be one dimensional. The beloved homelands many of our family’s left behind are not havens of “decolonized tranquility”. In many ways, those of us in the diaspora are speaking over those who live in the subcontinent and are exercising an immense amount of privilege and lack of understanding. Benchmarks such as women elected to political bodies or presence of sprawling shopping malls are vapid and erase many really issues such as state sponsored genocide and terrorism, caste violence, female infanticide and lack of access to basic necessities. There is a fine line between defining the region lacking “civilization” and acknowledging the shortcomings and successes of postcolonial South Asia in a nuanced and transparent way.
The model minority myth encompasses the classism, casteism and anti-blackness that plague our communities in the subcontinent and the diaspora. While the popular narrative is that South Asians, along with most Asian Americans are generally well educated and well off beneficiaries of the American dream and a testament to its success. In reality most South Asian immigrants and South Asian Americans who fit that paradigm belong to a higher caste and/or come from families with wealth and access to education. Immigration policy in the United States over the years has made it possible for only a certain type of individual to be given a Visa. Being born into a family with wealth and/or of a high caste seals the fate of many for success abroad, while the vast majority of those who are poor and not born into privilege are not afforded the same opportunities. Many South Asians have resorted to other methods to chase the elusive American Dream, and as a result undocumented people live in the shadows of their immigration status and their communities’ unwillingness to acknowledge them.
Anti-blackness is another part of understanding why so many South Asians latch onto this respectable immigrant trope. The paradigm of South Asian immigrants is rooted in white supremacist thinking that not only dictates what is acceptable but also creates “us versus them” narrative. South Asians have overwhelmingly embraced this and are actively a part of the violent anti-blackness that allows us as a demographic to be considered more “successful” and “respectable.” We’ve all been there, at a family dinner or function where an uncle or aunty will go on a tangent along the lines of “look at us, we made it so no excuses.” Anti-blackness manifests itself in many different ways whether it’s through using AAVE in a caption for a reclaim the bindi post or derailing conversations about #BlackLivesMatter. There is little to no discussion about it and though there is some about race and whiteness, many of us rarely want to start a conversation about our own privilege and resort to hiding behind the mask of POC solidarity.
Our complacency is violence and we cannot honestly have a complete conversation about what it means to be South Asia without addressing anti-blackness.
Reclaiming our culture and our identities is extremely vital and many movements online to foster this process have been heartening and inspiring. But without self-critique and challenging our traditional notions of reclamation, what are we really accomplishing?
Yes, cultural appropriation is hurting us, but for many South Asians the most pressing issue is the economic and social oppression that they are faced with daily, from those outside and within their communities.
As a first generation American from a Kashmiri Muslim family, it’s been hard for me to relate to many discussions within the diasporic community. My father was undocumented when he arrived in the states as an idealistic teenager, neither of my parents had access to an education past middle school and they have suffered unimaginable oppression as Kashmiris, that still puts much of our family in harm’s way. In many ways the racism and othering I and many like me have battled were because of our own community’s inability to acknowledge our realities. Defining who we are solely through cultural appropriation, which by the way is about more than just the act of wearing something from another culture, we are reducing ourselves to the tropes we are attempting to escape.
Assuming that being South Asian is one type of experience is erasure. There is no monolithic language or identity that we share. It’s time to be honest about our experiences and struggles, both from outside and within our communities, and it’s time to use the power of platforms such as Reclaim the Bindi to begin this work.