In the past few years, cultural appropriation has been a widely discussed topic. Occasions like Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra’s wedding showed a very large audience only a glimpse of what’s involved in a typical Indian wedding. Nonetheless, Indian culture and the Hindu religion have gained more spotlight, especially in the United States. 80% of Indian-American weddings today are interracial or interfaith, so the chances are high that you’ll be introduced to a new culture at a wedding! Not being educated on a particular culture and the significance of its customs and traditions can easily put you in a box marked as cultural appropriation. Now everyone thinks big, fat, Indian weddings are all grandeur and glam, like Nick and Priyanka’s. But that’s not always the case, so it’s important to make sure that you are well informed before attending an Indian event. Especially in Hinduism, most festivities and celebrations have some sort of religious and cultural significance. Aunties will always talk, but you don’t want them whispering in the corner about your ignorance towards Indian culture!

What exactly is cultural appropriation?

Oxford Reference defines cultural appropriation as, “A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.” Connected to colonialism, cultural appropriation signifies Western exploitation and dominance on non-Western or non-white cultures. The aspects that are appropriated could include cultural clothing, music, art, religion, language, etc. By borrowing an aspect of a culture that you are uninformed about, you could be misrepresenting that particular culture and the significance behind its traditions and customs. 

Unfortunately, mass media has given us plenty of Indian cultural appropriation examples to discuss: 

  • Celebrities Vanessa Hudgens, Kylie Jenner, Selena Gomez, and Kendall Jenner have been photographed wearing Bindis at Coachella Music Festival 
    • The problem is that they were pairing Bindis with denim short cut-offs and bralettes in an attempt to look trendy and boho-chic on social media 
    • Their ignorance made it clear that they were not informed of the significance of the Bindi in Indian culture and, therefore, were disrespecting it 
  • Many t-shirts and throw pillows have the phrase “namaste in bed” printed across them, often targeted towards people who practice yoga. Namaste is a traditional greeting in Hindi, translating to “bowing to you”. It is said out of utmost respect when meeting someone
    • “Namaste in bed” not only uses the Hindi word out of context, but is also a play on words using the incorrect pronunciation of Namaste
    • This Westernized use of the Hindi language was clearly not researched and understood before being utilized as a quirky clothing graphic or home decoration 
  • The music video for Beyonce and Coldplay’s Hymn For the Weekend takes place in the slums of India. Beyonce is dressed as an exotic Indian bride of sorts - dupatta on her head, mehndi on her hands, and all 
    • This song itself holds no connection to Indian culture, and the artists received a lot of backlash for appropriating Indian culture while using India’s impoverished as a backdrop for their music

How can you avoid appropriating cultures? 

You may be thinking, “I’ve been invited to my friend’s Indian wedding, I want to look the part without it seeming like I’m appropriating Indian culture.” It all boils down to educating yourself and being respectful. For example, wearing a Bindi to Coachella? That can be seen as cultural appropriation. But researching the Bindi’s significance, understanding that it represents a woman’s “third eye”, which is meant to show strength and wisdom, and then choosing to wear a Bindi along with your Lengha or Sari to a Hindu wedding ceremony? That is respectfully participating in Indian culture, because you’ve taken the time and energy to understand traditional customs.  Or let’s talk about Mehndi. Also commonly known as Henna, it’s a custom that spans across South Asia. It’s easily accessible and many see it as a fun temporary tattoo that can be piped onto your skin. But traditionally, Mehndi paste was created for its medicinal properties. It looks beautiful, but it originally became an Indian wedding custom to relieve stress that the bride may be feeling! 

Indian culture is most definitely not the only culture that is subject to appropriation, and there is so much to discuss within the conversation of cultural appropriation. But it is important to understand that there is so much history and tradition intertwined into cultures all around the globe. There is a fine line between admiring a culture through participation and appropriating a culture, but being respectful and attentive to the importance of particular practices and traditions is crucial when stepping into a culture that may be new to you.

About the Author:

Sonali Surti is an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. She is currently pursuing a degree in Consumer Economics and Finance, but is passionate about marketing and fashion. She loves to dance, cook, and use fashion and cosmetics as expressive outlets.