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The Racist Politics of Cultural Appropriation [Some Notes]

July 23, 2012

When the west appropriates culture from different people, it engages in a kind of racist dialogue that re-assigns meaning and context to suit one’s own personal needs, desires or performance. Colonialism and marginalization is inherent to the West’s racist culling of different cultures.

With India —- stereotypical and dusty ideas of exoticism, hipster notions of peace and groove, grunge, goth, hip, just plain weird — all of these implications are imposed onto the objects .  Well-established and familiar ideas are perverted from its original meaning and intent for the sake one’s own narrative image-making.


As anyone from India will tell you, bindis have long-ago been thoroughly commodified into a fashion accessory. Countless non-Hindu Indian people have been wearing bindis secularly with no spiritual intent for generations now.

So why is it a problem then for white people to do the same? Short answer — It’s not. Not really. Anyone can wear them —- Hindu and non-Hindu alike.


It is a problem when wearing a bindi becomes equated with racist ideas of exoticism, grunge, goth, “third-eye”-related awkwardness, hipster culture. Bindis, itself, get re-appropriated to symbolize the entireity of a culture that gets reduced to whatever the white narrative decides it is.

It is also a problem when bindis are worn for an aesthetic effect that is deliberately out-of-place, and re-appropriated. There is a sense in such usages that the way bindis are ordinarily used is not “cool” enough for the white forehead.

Tattoos, Clothing Apparel and Decorum

I am not invested in preserving the sanctity of Hinduism as a sacred purity that should remain untouched  —- especially since these ideas are rooted in perserving a certain upper caste privileged practice of Hinduism. (See this wonderful thread for further discussion, related to these pair of Ganesha-related shorts. My previous post on that thread here. )

However, the chaotic and awkward re-appropriation of Hindu images and symbols is jarring in the explosion of Hindu diety-related fashion and accessories. (This is very different from its cultural parallel related to bindis — which are a fashion commodity in India).

While Hindu iconography is commonplace and used pretty much everywhere, you will never see it imprinted on commonly used items such as t-shirts, pants, shirts or tattooed on bodies.

The context of religion, politics and history is erased completely —- only to be replaced by the vacuous and profitable hook found in the imagery of elephant-heads, multi-hands, multi-heads, and hanging tongues.  When Hindu iconography is reduced to its consumerist shock value in the West, it becomes a question of cultural neocolonialism.

All of this has little to do with spirituality and/or cultural appreciation, and everything to do with cultural looting for the sake of profit.

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