Writer Jaya Sundaresh sent The Aerogram the following response to yesterday’s Preeti Aroon piece “Wanna ‘Go Indian’? Welcome to the Party of 1 Billion+?
Preeti Aroon is right about one thing — South Asians have bigger things to worry about than pop stars wearing bindis. For example, we have to worry about Islamaphobia, racial profiling, race-based discrimination, and immigration rights issues. And even if we talk about the more benign instances of racism that most of us face — i.e. being exotified or being treated like a perpetual foreigner — bindis-as-fashion is still pretty low on the list of things to care about. There’s only so much you can rally against, in one day — frankly, I’m more bothered by the men who sexually exotify me, by the stereotypes that paint desi men as sexless nerds, and by the assumption that where I’m from isn’t here.
Here’s where Aroon lost me; when she argues that it’s not enough to just tolerate the bindi’s popularity — we should embrace its proliferation. She argues that we should celebrate it as an example of Indian culture positively influencing American culture. She asks us to view Gomez’s fashion choice as part of a broader moment of significance for the South Asian community, a moment that signals our acceptance into mainstream American society. This response glosses over the history of race and white privilege in American society.
The political context in which cultural symbols exist is important. Cultural appropriation happens — and the unquestioned sense of entitlement that white Americans display towards the artifacts and rituals of people of color exists too. All “appropriation” is not merely an example of cultural sharing, an exchange between friends that takes place on a level playing field.
Aroon acknowledges that extensive use of a cultural symbol will dilute its meaning. It is a problem when religious symbols become widespread and therefore lose their religious significance. But the fear of dilution isn’t really an issue here — the bindi has lost whatever religious significance it once had to Hindus some time ago, and is now used mostly for decoration. Madonna and Gwen Stefani didn’t turn the bindi into a fashion statement when they adopted it in the 90s — we desi women already did so years before that.
What makes the non-South Asian person’s use of the bindi problematic is the fact that a pop star like Selena Gomez wearing one is guaranteed to be better received than I would if I were to step out of the house rocking a dot on my forehead. On her, it’s a bold new look; on me, it’s a symbol of my failure to assimilate. On her, it’s unquestionably cool; on me, it’s yet another marker of my Otherness, another thing that makes me different from other American girls. If the use of the bindi by mainstream pop stars made it easier for South Asian women to wear it, I’d be all for its proliferation — but it doesn’t. They lend the bindi an aura of cool that a desi woman simply can’t compete with, often with the privilege of automatic acceptance in a society when many non-white women must fight for it.
I understand being a little flummoxed at the rage that the bindi issue inspires in our community. The anger always seems disproportionate to the crime. But will I celebrate the “mainstreaming” of a South Asian fashion item? Nope. Not when the mainstream doesn’t accept the people who created it.
Jaya Sundaresh is 24, and lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She grew up in various parts of the Northeast before deciding to study political science at McGill University. You can follow her on Twitter at @anedumacation.