Coachella: Stomping ground for cultural appropriation

By Kiana Tipton


First it was hip-hop; corn rows,Timbalands, twerking. Then the adolescent hipster club turned to a new offense: Native American headdresses.

But that wasn’t enough cultural appropriation, so the next year they switched to bindis, which became this year’s biggest fashion trend at Coachella.

You may be asking yourself, “What is wrong with a little borrowing of cultures?” Isn’t America supposed to be a melting pot of diverse cultures, ethnicities, races and religions?

Well, unfortunately, America has become known more as a salad bowl than a melting pot, because while there is immense diversity, we are not all treated equally. Not all skin colors, religions, cultures or ethnicities are represented equally in the media, perceived the same throughout society, or on the same social hierarchy as each other.

Before I get into the main offenses with cultural appropriation, I will start by giving a basic and well-agreed-upon definition — a dominant group that exploits the cultures of less privileged groups, often without an understanding of the histories, experiences and traditions of that same group.

While the problem isn’t so much the wearing of these traditional garments, it is the sexualization, comedic sport, disintegration of value, and lack of understanding that goes along with wearing items from another’s tradition. In the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority groups. Black music and dance, Native American and Asian fashions, and Hindu symbols, among others have fallen prey to cultural appropriation.

Isha Aran, writer and blogger on Jezebel, explains this exploitation of culture well in an article titled “Take That Dot Off Your Forehead and Quit Trying to Make Bindis Happen.”

“A bindi is not your music festival fashion accessory,” Aran writes. “Taking a symbol from a culture that is thousands of years old and divorcing it from its meaning — or even embracing its meaning for the express purpose of looking cool — does not lend you any cred — street, worldly, or otherwise.” Neither is wearing a Native American headdress. She continues, “and wearing a bindi is certainly not a genuine celebration of Hindu culture, so please don’t’ start with that.”

The whole idea of appropriation is to neutralize fragments of cultures and level them so they can be easily conformed. Most of the Coachella attendees sporting the trendy bindi do not know what the traditional meaning is, and therefore are not wearing it on Hindu culture’s terms, but rather on American terms. It takes a tradition and negates the Hindu aspect entirely through ignorance and exoticism. As Aran states in the article: “Bindi trend-sporters aren’t celebrating a cultural symbol. They’re celebrating themselves and the thought-of-it-first-appeal of disposable fashion.”

Taking a symbol, tradition or borrowing parts of culture that do not belong to you is unfair because the social consequences that often come with that culture are not something that can be tried on along with it. What I mean by this is that while bindis may look “pretty” and be trendy, the social consequences and stereotypes Hindu women receive in American society will not be reflected while young hipsters wear these same items. In addition to this, the Coachella bindi trend remains a way for American culture to fetishize a culture without understanding or appreciating it.

So why does Coachella seem to be a cesspool for celebrity and hipster cultural appropriation? Well, since cultural appropriating has roots in the entertainment industry, music and fashion specifically, and Coachella is the place where those two elements meet, it only makes sense for it to be a stomping ground for ignorance.

Let’s take a trip back to the ‘50’s, when white musicians “borrowed” the music stylings of their black counterparts due to the fact blacks were not yet widely accepted in society. Record executives chose to have white recording artists replicate the sound of black musicians leading to rock-n-roll being largely associated with whites, despite the fact black musicians created the art form. In addition to this robbing of identity, there were financial repercussions because black artists, who created the sound, never saw a dime for its success.

Now back to the 21st century, cultural appropriation is still relevant, and is still making it hard for people of color to hold onto their traditions and even harder to profit from them. Cultural appropriation remains a concern for several reasons. Firstly, this kind of borrowing is exploitative because it robs minority groups of the credit they deserve. Secondly, as a result of the dominant group being associated with the art form, symbol or tradition of the minority group, the dominant group is considered trendy and innovative while disadvantaged minority groups continue to face negative stereotypes from their own art forms. This can include that minority groups lack intelligence because they speak with slang (the same slang white suburban teens use to look cool), lack creativity, are ghetto, or weird because they do not assimilate enough to American culture. And thirdly, when the dominant group borrows from these cultures, they often reinforce stereotypes of people of color without actually being affected by them themselves.

Cultural appropriation is a constant reminder of the inequalities and social hierarchy that still takes place in today’s society. There is a history of genocide and colonialism in this nation that still benefits white Americans and hinders people of color and immigrants. Even with this system of white supremacy that we live in, apparently it’s not enough; people of color’s cultures are being exploited on top of that. Hip-hop is being stolen by the white mainstream, robbing it of its roots which come off the tail end of the civil rights movement to showcase African American creativity and give them a voice, and turning it into the Iggy Azaela and Macklemore show of privilege, removing all credit of who started the movement in the first place. Bindis are being worn as fashion statements, robbing them of their value within Hinduism, and stereotypes are being reinforced, but only affecting those who are already at a disadvantage.

So next time you want to mimic your favorite celebrity by donning a bindi or Native American headdress, remember it is not a costume, and some people cannot try on parts of their culture at convenience. They have to take on all that comes along with it, including negative stereotypes, a history of being inferior, and present-day dealing with people who think their culture is nothing more than a fashion statement.


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