The concept of “cultural appropriation” is a widely spoken about topic, and some agree and disagree with what can be classified as “appropriating a culture”. Let’s start off simple with just distinguishing the difference between “cultural appropriation” and “cultural appreciation”. Cultural appropriation means to adopt certain aspects of a culture or religion by people of another background, mostly for the pure aesthetic. A way to put it in the form of a metaphor is how @slytherinpunk said it on Twitter: “If u don’t understand cultural appropriation imagine working on a project and getting a F and then someone copies u and gets an A & credit.”
Cultural appreciation on the other hand is a different case; it means to learn about another culture with respect and courtesy. In an interview with Nylon, Zendaya Coleman, a popular actress (among other things), broke down the difference between the two. “You can go about it as cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation,” Coleman said. “You have to be very careful. Some things are really sacred and important to other cultures, so you have to be aware, politically, about those things before you just adopt them.” She also added how to appreciate a culture, you must learn the history of it. “I’m someone who feels uncomfortable with things unless I know [about them],” she stated. “I’m not going to try something unless I’ve taken the time and effort to learn about it. I just think with the Internet and the resources we have, you should do a little research.”
The most common case of cultural appropriation you will most likely hear is about people wearing bindis to music festival, raves, etc. Just for some background, a bindi is seen as a forehead decoration worn by women in Southeast Asia (particularly India, Pakistan, Nepal, etc). The bindi is also apart of East and North African culture. Many people just see it as a decoration, but the bindi holds a much more religiously significant meaning that many fail to recognize. The bindi is traditionally placed between the eyebrows, the area which is believed to be the sixth chakra (seat of concealed wisdom). The bindi is also said to retain energy and strengthen concentration. With these facts alone, you can understand the important meaning behind it and the religious and spiritual meaning it holds. Throughout my childhood and into my years as a teen, I have worn a bindi every time I have entered a temple or attended any kind of religious event to bring myself pride as a Hindu.
Here is the part which really brings in the concept of appropriation. Bindis picked up popularity as a purely aesthetic decoration when celebrities like Vanessa Hudgens wore them to Coachella, and Selena Gomez wore them when her hit “Come and Get It” released back in 2013. There are many more celebrities and well known people who picked up on the “trend” and began wearing them, which led to teen girls/young adults in particular follow them. In my opinion, if they were visiting a religious setting, I would have no problem with them wearing one because they were just trying to embrace their surroundings. In this case however, women are wearing bindis to music festivals and raves to “amp up their look” or just to “add some sparkle”. Bindis are not meant to be only an accessory to add some “pizzazz” to your look; they hold a religious meaning that people fail to see and understand. Women whose cultures embrace the bindi wear it during their weddings, to celebrations like Eid, Diwali, etc. Wearing the bindi to music festival does not appreciate their pure meaning and takes away from how it was meant to be expressed in the world.
Another common “trend” that has become popular is the concept of people wearing their hair in dreadlocks, cornrows, box braids, etc. This is another form of appropriation we can see being spread by celebrities, especially Miley Cyrus during the VMAs. The concept of dreadlocks dates back into the ancient times. In Hinduism, dreadlocks are more commonly known as Jata, and are worn by holy men and women (Sadhus and Sadhvis). They are considered sacred and considered a religious practice; it is an expression of disregarding temporal conceit. In Africa, dreadlocks are worn by many different groups of people. Like in India, locks are also worn by shamans, meaning spiritual men and women. The Maasai warriors are also famous for their long, thin, locks and some children are born with hair that naturally dreads, referring to the Yoruba children of Nigeria. Dreadlocks have a spiritual meaning and is the way some people’s hair naturally is and can be styled.
The issue at hand is while black people have been oppressed and insulted for their hair, others are praised when they do it. Zendaya Coleman wore her hair in dreads to the Oscars in February of 2015, but was criticized for it. As said by the E! host Giuliana Rancic, she assumed that Zendaya probably “smells like patchouli oil” or “weed”, and voiced her opinions. Coleman did stick up herself and respond to the assumptions by saying, “To say that an 18 year old young woman with locs must smell of patchouli oil or ‘weed’ is not only a large stereotype but outrageously offensive.” Rancic did receive some backlash for her comment from Coleman’s fans as well, which just shows how passionate they are about this topic.
If we fast forward to the VMAs which took place on August 30, we can see Miley Cyrus hosting the event wearing her hair in dreadlocks. Here is why that is cultural appropriation; in no form does Miley Cyrus come from a heritage that promotes this religious style, which is why she should not have been wearing her hair like that. Miley purely wore dreadlocks for the aesthetic appeal, not to honor the sacred meaning. According to an article by Mirror Online, they clearly were a fan of Miley’s hair, which is interpretable solely based on the title: “Miley Cyrus is rocking RAINBOW dreadlocks as she shows off latest wacky hairstyle on Instagram.” This article in no way critiques the fact that Cyrus was appropriating a culture and in fact said she “unveiled a brave and bold hairstyle.”
Why is it that white women are being praised for wearing dreadlocks, cornrows, etc., but black women are being criticized for embracing their culture? There have been women rejected from jobs because of their hair, children expelled from school, and for what? Expressing their culture and wanting to hold onto their heritage? Cultural appropriation is alive and prospering nowadays, and it seems to be that not many people care enough to make a big deal about it. Mehndi (henna), bindis, dreadlocks, chola culture and so much more are being extorted for their aesthetic appeal but not being respected and celebrated for their cultural meaning.