In April, pop star Selena Gomez affixed a bindi to her forehead for the Indian-flavored performance of her single “Come and Get It” at the MTV Movie Awards. Some tweeters criticized the bindi as inappropriate “cultural appropriation.” One Hindu leader stated that the religious adornment is “not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects as fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed.” The Aerogram’s Kishwer Vikaas panned the 20-year-old Latina’s performance as “That Awkward Moment When Selena Gomez Suddenly Decided She Was Indian.”
Well, if Gomez wants to be Indian, let’s welcome her to this fabulous, colorful party of over 1 billion! The world’s women vote with their fashion choices, and whenever they don a bindi or pull on a kurta-inspired top with heavily embroidered neckline, they’re casting their ballots for Team India.
More broadly, Americans’ adoption of South Asian cultural artifacts — from wearing a bindi to getting plastered in bright hues at Holi-inspired 5k Color Runs — shouldn’t be derided as “cultural expropriation.” Rather, it’s part of the great melting pot of America. You don’t have to be Irish or Catholic to dress in green and enjoy St. Patrick’s Day. You don’t have to be Mexican-American to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Plenty of non-Christian South Asians in the United States set up Christmas trees and crunch on candy canes every December. In fact, Christmas trees are actually pagan!
And so it is that Americans now twist themselves into eagle pose at yoga studios from Yonkers to Yakima and sip lassis at Indian restaurants from Louisville to Las Vegas.
Yes, the downsides are that authenticity is lost and ancient meanings get diluted. (No, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day, and it’s not even that widely observed in Mexico.) For those who take religion and tradition seriously, Buddha statues and posters of multi-armed Hindu gods aren’t mere home decorations you sprinkle throughout the house to look cool or hippy.
On balance, though, as more of India has seeped into America, Americans have become far more aware of the subcontinent and its culture. How many Americans even knew what a bindi was just 20 years ago? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Americans’ adoption of South Asian cultural artifacts shows the successful mainstreaming of immigrant traditions into the United States — a country that despite its missteps is one of the most accepting of people who are “different.” And the fact that the overwhelming majority of Indian-Americans remained calm and carried on after Selena Gomez’s Indian-flavored performance shows that yet another immigrant group feels secure in its place in America.
Preeti Aroon, a writer based in Washington, D.C., is copy chief at Foreign Policy and tweets at @pjaroonFP.