This past week, both Beyoncé and Coldplay had a blast culturally appropriating Indian, Bollywood, and South Asian culture – leading to a discussion on colonialism, oppression, and Orientalism.
In honor of the critics who are doing a fine job of calling out these moguls on their orientalist ways, here are 7 things that you may not know are culturally appropriated – and if you don’t, you should stop wearing now that you do.
(If you need a quick rundown of what cultural appropriation is, check this out.)
Bindis have very specific cultural and spiritual meanings in South Asian culture and are worn throughout various countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc. In regards to married women, a simple red dot on the forehead symbolizes marriage, love, and prosperity while a black one signifies the death of the partner.
The bindi is placed between the eyebrows, the place of the sixth chakra (the seat of concealed wisdom). It also represents the third (inner) eye and functions as a reminder to Hindus of their religious obligations.
Perhaps Selena Gomez and Kylie Jenner didn’t get the memo that they’re essentially stealing parts of a religious tradition in order to appear fashionably stylish?
Although locs have been dated back centuries in Egypt, Africa, and India – specifically in religious contexts – in terms of modern history, they have largely been associated with the Rastafari Movement that emerged within Jamaica.
They gained huge popularity in Western culture through artists such as Bob Marley as Rasta style was culturally appropriated in the 70’s in order for fashion and beauty industries to capitalize upon.
Lost within this was the spiritual symbolism of dreadlocks – which represents the Lion of Judah and are inspired by the Nazarites within the Bible.
So yes, they’re more than just a hairstyle.
3. Native American Headdresses
Long serving as the go-to for music festivals, Halloween, and, more recently, Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, the Indian headdress – also known as a war bonnet – has been culturally appropriated for decades. Many will argue “but it’s just a cute headband with feathers and stuff that the Indians wear!”
What these misinformed masses don’t know is that it has very deep political and spiritual and political implications. Worn by the American Plains Indians and specifically reserved as ceremonial regalia to be worn only by chiefs and warriors, they are the highest mark of respect for someone who has displayed immense courage and service to his tribe.
Takeaway: so unless you’re a Plains Indian who has been honored with the Indian headdress, it’s probably better for you not to look like a racist with your fancy “headband”.
4. Henna (Mehndi)
Although the history of the use of henna dye is unclear at best, there is little doubt that the art of applying henna tattoos emerged within the Indian subcontinent.
Originally used for wedding and religious festivities by Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc., it spread to the Middle East as Arabs started applying it for the same cultural and religious reasons – thus adding an element of sacredness to it. In Pakistan, it also serves as an indication of the coming of age for a young woman. However, in Western fashion, henna and mehndi have been used as temporary tattoos to get at the beach or a music festival – with no connection to their roots.
There has been quite the debate on this hot issue. But when you slather henna all over your body with butterfly designs to make a “fashion statement” (instead of putting on henna while appreciating where it came from and what it means), it definitely is cultural appropriation.
5. The Hamsa/Evil Eye
The Hamsa hand – also known as the Hand of Fatima or Hand of Miriam – is a symbol found frequently in the Middle East, North Africa, and western South Asia – particularly in connection to the Islamic and Jewish faiths. Together, the hand, eye, and the number five are significant factors in the Arab and Berber traditions, and they are used to ward off the evil eye – a curse believed to be cast by a jealous and dangerous glare, thus resulting in injury or misfortune. Furthermore, the five fingers are said to represent the Five Pillars of Islam.
Today, the Hamsa is a widely popular charm that takes its form in jewelry, key chains, wall hangings, and other decor. However, as the Western fashion industry has taken over, the Hamsa has been appearing on various clothing, tattoos, and is worn by many who don’t know it’s significance.
Frankly, I’m not sure how much protection it’s gonna give you when someone glares at you for stealing their culture.
6. Day of the Dead
Although the tradition of honoring the dead has roots in various parts around the world, including Europe, the Philippines, and Latin America, the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos is continuously appropriated for fashion, Halloween, and other trends. Within this specific holiday, it is believed that the gates of heaven are opened on October 31, and the spirits of deceased loved ones reunite with their families. Those living prepare elaborate festivities, altars, gifts, and foodstuffs to share with their loved ones. Specific aspects, such as sugar skulls (the Calavera) and decor, have gained more popularity the past few years.
As one Mexican advocate has explicitly written, the tradition seems to be going through a “Cinco-de-Mayo-ization… in which white hipsters wear calaca face paint, stand amongst broken marigolds listening to white bands, and drink gentrified, holiday-themed micro-brews, without so much as a thought to what the true tradition is or means.”
Random fact: Disney even TRIED TO TRADEMARK DIA DE LOS MUERTOS. And they failed. Just like every other culture-stealing, sugar skull touting colonist does.
7. The Keffiyeh
The keffiyeh – or kufiya – is a traditional Middle Eastern scarf often used as a headdress – and has been used as such for over a century. Although it is Syrian in origin, the keffiyeh has a long history as a political and national symbol. In the 30’s, as the Arab revolt against the British Mandate and Zionist organizations in Palestine gained momentum, the keffiyeh became a resistance symbol to be worn in solidarity. By the 60’s, it was a clear symbol for the national movement of Palestine, made especially political due to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Over the years, Arab countries incorporated the keffiyeh as a significant symbol in many different ways. Since the 80’s, the keffiyeh has emerged and reemerged in Western fashion – most recently sold by retailers such as Top Shop and Urban Outfitters – and continuously bought by many who think it’s just a “chic” piece of clothing.
Sidenote: I wonder how many Islamophobes are rocking the keffiyeh with no idea about what it means… heh heh heh…
Remember, the next time you decide to wear one of these items, ask yourself this question: are you part of the culture? No? Then it’s best to step away and admire from afar.