There is this joke that I always used to make – that Gwen Stefani made being Indian cool. Almost two decades before our “Big Bang”s and our “Mindy”s made brown faces matter outside of cab driver stereotypes, and shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” made Americans realize that why yes, making great television and having white faces be wholly superfluous aren’t mutually exclusive, it was Stefani who was wearing sari blouses, bindis, and proudly repping her Indian boyfriend who never tried to pass for anything but.
This was back in the days where non-white sidekick roles were generally reserved for African-Americans, and the occasional fetishized Asian, and Stefani parading Tony Kanal around publicly and proudly was far better optics than Indians had been receiving to date. We ceased being your Slurpee peddlers and became your rock stars, boyfriends and teenage crushes in one fell swoop. Sure it came at the hands of a white ally, but what is life if not a series of ends achieved by less than kosher means?
For context, I grew up in an area where Asian immigrants vastly outnumbered white faces. Homogeneity for me was eating kimchi at lunch; I never had to quickly fiddle with my iPod if a Bollywood track accidentally started playing in shuffle mode. Cool Asians weren’t a Tina Fey-penned high school trope I ever had to contend with – being Asian was the norm, so how cool or not cool you were was entirely personality driven. Our high school yearbook had an impressive number of Shahs in the index (though nowhere near the multiple pages of real estate Lees and Kims received), and at the time that I was an upperclassman, our South Asian club had been enjoying a near seven-year dominance in our annual talent show, after wrestling away the throne from the previously unchecked reign of the Filipino club.
Being Indian was both fucking fantastic and perfectly mundane where I grew up. This is perhaps why I didn’t realize giving Gwen Stefani credit for “making India, like, happen,” were words that would come back to haunt me in later days. Teen magazines may have been full of glossy white girls, but in the places where it mattered – the tiny orange halls of my high school – almond-shaped eyes and non-alabaster skin were the only social currency worth trafficking in, so feeling out of place never even came up.
But in the years since I left my Asian-skewed homogenized bubble of high school and college, so has my circle of Indian girlfriends expanded to include women who didn’t fit in as easily as I did. No longer am I surrounded by girls who grew up like me; products of model minority communities where they were the queens. In the time that I’ve left my bubble – a bubble in which my culture gave me strength – I’ve realized that there’s a rather marked difference in being proud of your culture, and having ownership over it. Both are important and necessary, but for 20-some odd years, my culture was something that happened to me, but only in the last seven years has it actually become mine.
This shift in how I’ve viewed my own Indian heritage is precisely why I feel so conflicted these days when I see non-Indian bohemian chic hipsters affixing bindis – the small Indian sticker-like forehead adornments – to their faces en masse. Part of me wants to not care at all; after all, how different is it from Gwen Stefani wearing them regularly and the bindi conversations with my prepubescent schoolmates shifting from “What’s that on your face?” to “Oh my god, so pretty, can I have one?!” But the other part of me is well aware that those innocent inquiries of my youth also came with something else: understanding of another culture. I may not have explicitly set out to teach, but the bindi conversation was generally accompanied by the larger Indian conversation as well: yes, bindis are a fairly de rigeur component of Indian outfits, but they also have a solid religious significance and cultural traditions tied to them as well. And yes, you can totally have one – here, don’t wear it so high up.
But now? Now we’re at peak bindi exotification, and that teaching and understanding has gone by the wayside in ways that even I cannot abide. They’ve become just another accessory for people to toss on to add to whatever aesthetic is in style right now, and I’m sorry, but last I checked, my culture was not an accessory, and it sure as hell isn’t a trend.
I’ll be the first to admit that when I wear a bindi, I very rarely am overwhelmed by the generations of religious significance that they do contain – I am generally more concerned with how tacky the glue on it is, how well it matches my sari, and whether there will be enough “cute” ones left in the packets my mom brought back from her most recent trip to India after my older sister loots the stash for the myriad Indian weddings she seems to be attending these days. But after years of growing up Indian, of loving the culture nine times out of 10 – being ashamed only one time out of 10 when someone jokes “Dot or feather?” – this lackadaisicalness is a victory that has been earned for me, both by birthright and years of finding my place in the world (and my world) as an Indian-American.
I’ve seen the conversations started by Indian women who feel even more strongly than I do, the many, many tweets surrounding #reclaimthebindi, documenting their stories of being teased for other aspects of their culture (or even the bindi aspect) growing up, who are now expected to be somehow okay with a cherry-picked part of their culture being misappropriated by their very oppressors of the past. They’re heartbreaking, because even in those tweets, I see my girls trying to educate and explain why they feel this way, because outright anger would get us nowhere.
And that’s really the bigger problem isn’t it? It’s not necessarily the girls wearing the bindis, even if they’re the catalyst. It’s how willfully we are told, often to our faces, sometimes by our own people, that this isn’t a big deal. When I commented to a white friend that the Coachella bindis she and another non-Indian friend were sporting in a recent Instagram were cute but made me sad at the misappropriation, her reply was, “Mine’s just a tri-chain headband! Standard gypsy fare.” When I tried to elaborate that what she had internalized as “standard gypsy fare” was actually modeled on the tika, a bindi-esque aspect of Indian bridal wear, the response in return was, “Nah girl, it’s modeled off the necklaces I used to drape over my locks as a child. I must have been secretly inspired by the tika.”
She’s a good friend and far more open to discourse than the willfully stupid white male who had the gall to comment to me, “People in India wear blue jeans, right? Are they racists?” but our back and forth still highlights the bigger issue, one that’s not endemic solely to South Asians. When people of minority cultures try to speak up to explain why we feel maligned, why these lesser noticed microaggressions chafe even when our brown brethren are being harassed in far more racist ways, we automatically have to defend our feelings. And if we’re defending our feelings, that inadvertently puts the co-opters of our culture in the position of power. You can’t be a challenger without acknowledging that there’s a status quo. And this is the entire crux of how gaslighting works: a victim is lead to believe by their abuser (or in this case, oppressor), that their abuser is in the right, and the victim should be doubting their own sanity, perceptions, and feelings.
I’m always tempted to buttress my arguments of why these microaggressions bother me with explanations of colonial theory, imperialism, and a detailed history of minority groups being subjugated for centuries upon centuries, but honestly, I shouldn’t have to. Just because a white man was bothered by a Facebook post I made that specifically addressed how painful it is to be told to my face by a non-Indian that their wearing of a bindi isn’t misappropriative, rather than a post solely about non-Indians wearing bindis at all, doesn’t mean I need to defend how I feel. It’s my culture, not his, and not any of the girls who wear bindis without being a part of my culture. Even when those people try to tell me that they’re not racist, that I’m making generalizations about white people, that #notallwhites … it’s laughable, isn’t it? I may have grown up just like them, in a world where my skin color was remarkable only in how it cemented my status at the top of the social heap, but I’m not them. I am an Indian, they are not. The bindi is mine, not theirs.
To be clear (and yes, I realize that I am hedging my way into the exact type of defense I just mentioned I didn’t want to be backed into), it’s not that I don’t want to share my culture. I have reveled far too often in the giddy joy of dressing up a non-Indian in alehnga, have secretly been okay with people begging for invitations to my hypothetical future wedding, while lamenting out loud that my wedding is not their carnival, but sure I’d see what I could do by way of headcount when the happy day was actually on the horizon. I don’t expect every packet of Forever 21 bindis to come with a history lesson on the back. But I want to share my culture with the nuance that it deserves, and the nuance that I was able to share with my friends growing up – even though I shouldn’t have had to be the teacher – back in the days when Gwen Stefani was making bindis cool.
Slapping a bindi on your forehead because it’s pretty and sparkly, even if it makes Indians inherently more popular and likable than our other immigrant counterparts, isn’t what I’m out here for. Being told that the popularization of bindis is not that big a deal is definitelynot what I’m out here for. It’s my culture, and I will not be gaslit into having to defend why it’s not yours.