Fashion Fiasco

By | May 2nd, 2015 | Uncategorized, Upfront

The commercialization of cultural objects

With the onset of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April, issues of cultural appropriation have caused public debates. Evidences of this can be found in the wearing of Native American headdresses, bindis and henna tattoos. Women and girls at these festivals can be found donning colorful bindis on their forehead, solely for the sake of trendiness and “modern fashion.”

This wearing of bindis has become a popular fashion trend in modern American culture, with girls donning the colorful beads upon their foreheads at concerts and music festivals. However, despite the presence of the bindi in fashion culture, this was not its intended purpose. The adoption of the bindi is only one example among many of cultural appropriation, which is defined as “the adoption of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards and behavior from one culture or subculture by another,” according to the online zine on culture, respect, allyship and racism, titled “Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?”

Social right activists on social networking sites have brought the conversation regarding cultural appropriation to the forefront by raising awareness of racial inequalities between cultures. In response to the controversy surrounding the issue, social media movements such as “#ReclaimTheBindi” and “#CoachellaShutdown” have been gaining popularity to combat the cultural appropriation present at infamous festivals such as Coachella. The posts with these hashtags are dominated by selfies from South Asian women wearing bindis, a sign of pride and a way to maintain and protect the ownership of their culture.

The increased commercialization of cultural objects such as bindis in popular music festivals has prompted the rise in social justice blogs to increase awareness about the harmful effects and the general problem with cultural appropriation.

One such blog is Reclaim the Bindi, founded in October 2014 by a woman who requested to be referred to as “M.” The blog is dedicated to the empowerment of South Asian cultures and taking back their culture from the dominant hands of society. It was founded after seeing a “reclaim the bindi” post from a diasporic Desi style blog called Bangle Banger. While she had experienced instances of cultural appropriation throughout her life, M said she had been formally introduced to it about a year ago and started the blog primarily as an informational space.

“It just became an outlet to talk about these issues,” she said. “It became a safe space for other South Asians.”

Accompanied with this increased exposure are debates about where the line of acceptability lies between appreciation and appropriation. Examples of cultural appropriation can be blatant but subtle, depending on one’s awareness of the phenomenon. However, it is this gray area around cultural appropriation that makes it difficult for many to discern between what is acceptable in adapting or borrowing from another culture.

The offense in cultural appropriation lies within the borrowing of culturally significant practices, beliefs or objects, stripping them of their rich history and unintentionally turning them into mere objects of popular culture with a trivialized significance. The appropriation of different cultural practices can especially negatively impact the culture of origin if it is the dominant group taking or borrowing from a minority group.

This appropriation can be seen as another, subtler form of discrimination and yet another sign of the constant marginalization of certain cultural groups. The appropriation of a cultural practice or object can also be seen as a blatant disregard for that culture’s history and beliefs; it is taking an artifact or object of another culture, removing it of its symbolic meaning and turning into a marketable commodity.

The “Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?” zine named cultural appropriation as a by-product of imperialism, capitalism, oppression and assimilation.

“In the case of cultural appropriation, culture is treated as a ‘natural resource’ to extract from People of Color,” the zine said.

In regard to assimilation, cultural appropriation can be a catalyst by forcing the minority group to fold to the dominant ideology. Oftentimes this can have negative ramifications on said group by tearing them from their cultural heritage.

Despite the harm associated with cultural appropriation, the motivation — albeit unintentional — lies within the high marketability factor in cultural objects. Appropriation involves an envy of other cultures, which possess objects seen as more desirable than ones of the dominant culture. One of the controversies surrounding cultural appropriation is the argument of appreciation, or the concept of trying to learn more about a certain culture through partaking in their cultural practices. However, M said the line between the two lies in the invitation, in which individuals should only participate if invited.

“That invitation part is kind of hard to explain and for people to understand,” she said. “Definitely the invitation portion is something that people like to ignore. I think it’s easy to consider yourself appreciating something but you don’t realize you’re taking it out of context and that’s something that’s really important in this conversation. That context really matters.”

The increased awareness of cultural appropriation is parallel to the increased commercialization of bindis, Native American wear and other cultural practices. Their introduction and popularization by mainstream media is constantly perpetrated by celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and Vanessa Hudgens, who M said are portrayed as trendy and fashionable for appropriating other cultures. She said the one-sided viewpoint of cultural appropriation as the taking of something trendy suppresses its harmful effects on those who are being taken from.

“I think definitely the taking of things — that might stand out to someone as a trendy kind of thing, you know, ‘This looks really cool so why don’t I try it?’” she said. “The thing is the media doesn’t portray the flip side to it about how these things are harmful and how they do have so much meaning and significance, so since people are getting that one-sided kind of thing, it adds to that a lot.”

While cultural appropriation has recently been brought to the forefront of conversations on race relations, it has deep-running historical roots. During the mid-1900s, in a growing and industrialized America, the negative stigmas and continued racial discrimination of black musicians forced many record labels to employ white musicians to record black music. This disregard of the cultural and historical connection between black musicians and their music as a by-product of the oppression they experienced trivializes the injustices they often faced at the hands of the dominant culture.

The Tumblr blog, my culture is not a trend, is one outlet that has given the conversation about cultural appropriation some attention. The owner of the blog is a Native American who started the site after constantly seeing the dress and objects of her culture being appropriated by others who did not understand their cultural significance.

“Being a Native comes with a history of decidedly un-trendy events, such as the cultural genocide of an entire continent, residential schools, racism, stolen generations and the eradication of entire tribes of people and their cultural traditions,” she said in the blog’s description.

One of the damaging effects of cultural appropriation is the lack of understanding of its impact on minority cultures. Individuals falling under this category rely on arguments that race relations occur on a leveled playing field. However, this type of ideology ignores the continued existence of racism in modern society. To neglect the existence of racism and the systematic oppression of minority cultures counterproductively suppresses the status of these groups even further.

Despite the arguments defending the assimilation of the bindi and other cultural practices into mainstream culture, the cultural appropriation of ceremonies and objects can be seen as grossly disrespectful to the cultures from which they belong. It is important to recognize the cultural significance and value of cultural ceremonies, objects and practices. From the perspective of those whose cultures are becoming more commercialized, M said the casual appropriation of their cultural practices adds to modern-day racism and oppression.

“When we let these things kind of slide, they build up over time,” she said. “Thinking about the harassment that I and many other South Asians have faced for partaking in our cultures … and then when you put it on someone who is not of South Asian descent and how it suddenly becomes this new kind of exotic, trendy thing, it reinforces ideas of how much we’re forced to assimilate while suppressing our own cultural identities.”


Celisa Calacal is a freshman journalism major who will not be found wearing a bindi at Coachella. You can email her at ccalacal@ithaca.edu.

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