The bindi is a well-recognized symbol of Hinduism worn by women across the world. In Hindu tradition, the area between the eyebrows is considered the site of “concealed wisdom” and of the third eye, an important Hindu concept. In recent years, the bindi has become a fashion accessory outside of the Hindu community.
Many have come to critique the use of the bindi by non-Hindu individuals, saying that it is a form of cultural appropriation and is disrespectful to the original intent of the bindi. American pop artist Selena Gomez’s song Come and Get It features Indian drumming and background vocals. During Gomez’s live performance of the song at the 2013 MTV Awards, she and her background dancers donned bindis and ambiguous “ethnic” clothing consisting of long, billowy, tattered dresses and several gold necklaces. They performed pop-ified Bollywood dance moves. After her prominent borrowing from Hindu culture, Gomez was criticized widely and accused of appropriating Indian culture for her own benefit while disregarding the important cultural significance of her new “accessories” and background music. Essentially, arguments against Gomez’s adoption of elements from Hindu and Indian cultures point out that Gomez uses the exotic beauty of a cultural tradition she does not understand, respect or give proper weight to, to profit off of it in a very mainstream market.
Holding a different opinion than many of Gomez’s critics, Indian American writer Anjali Joshi argues in her article “Why a Bindi Is NOT an Example of Cultural Appropriation” that most Hindu women who wear bindis are not often completely and clearly aware of the original meaning of the bindi. Joshi says that therefore, no meaning is stripped from the bindi when non-Hindu individuals wear it outside of its traditional usage. She believes the adoption of the bindi into non-Hindu people’s wardrobe is part of the natural exchange that occurs when cultures interact.
Interesting to point out is the fact that Selena Gomez is half Mexican. She uses her Hispanic last name professionally, and because of the “one drop rule” that has permeated definitions of who is and who is not a person of color in the United States, the fact that she acknowledges her Mexican heritage publicly excludes her from mainstream definitions of whiteness. However, she has conformed to white popular music and creates music for the (largely white) mainstream American audience. In the United States, cultural appropriation occurs when elements of non-white culture (often from working class minority populations) are adapted into dominant white culture. When the culture of the majority economically advantaged population robs from the culture of the working class, it reproduces and reinforces the colonial values that have allowed white people to rob both physical resources and cultural traditions from non-white peoples for centuries. Selena Gomez presents an interesting case because she is not a white artist, but as a musical artist, she contributes primarily to white culture. She does not create Latin pop music, after all, and her music is not significantly influenced by Latino culture, nor does her music influence Latino music. Therefore, her adoption of Hindu and Bollywood cultural elements is indeed cultural appropriation and deserving of its criticism.