This is what i got given by my brother for my eighteenth birthday (absolutely all credit for this amazing scrapbook goes to him), it will probably always be relevant – in fact I hope it will be. Its title: ’18 things I wish I knew before I was 18′. I’m sharing it because although it is personal, it is in equal parts universally applicable (I think….maybe don’t hold me to that). But most people I show it to want to cry in a good way for some reason and urge me to share it with others. Anyway, below is the best gift I ever got:
Title: But how can my bindhi be hurting anyone?
“There are two fundamental questions to answer when it comes to cultural appropriation.
1) When do I know when I’m appropriating?
2) Why is it bad if I do?
I’m gonna do my best to answer the second.
I’d like to thank Nandini for inviting me to speak. I wouldn’t say I’m some sort of authority on this issue in so far as; I’ve done no “empirical research” or official theorizing about this. But I can attest to the fact that the issue of race, aesthetics & cultural appropriation – as Nandini so kindly briefed us on – does in fact keep me awake at night. So I suppose I’m here to sort of here to share some of those thoughts with you with regard to the appropriation of desi, brown, south-asian identity and symbols by white people.
Before I share my thoughts I’d firstly like to preface what I’m about to say by saying that this is the first time I’ve made audible sounds let alone words to this many human beings in a room before so if I mumble or get nervous – you’ll know why.
Secondly, just before I go on to kind of build up my ‘thesis’ if you will, I’d like to also say that about a year and a half ago in freshers I had actually urged a white girlfriend of mine to wear a bindhi on a night out, I had even gone as far as saying that getting a few canerows on the side of another friend’s scalp would look “sik”. I was young. I was unpoliticised. I was mistaken, and even as a woman of colour, I did not know.
So to make the criticism of cultural appropriation is not to make a criticism about a character fault at all – but to actually shed light on the skewed unjust treatment, representation, authority, status and valuation (call it what you will) of minority ethnic communities (globally). An under-valuation, an injustice, a racism which fundamentally has its roots in colonialism – a past with which we are only beginning to reckon with. Cultural appropriation is simply the tip of a very big and neo-colonial iceberg – a lens through which the disparity of treatment between the dominant, and the underrepresented – becomes evident.
I’ll get to why wearing a bindhi as a white person is ultimately painful (in a very significant way) in a bit, but in order to get there I need to give you a glimpse of the reality in which people of colour live in daily.
This is a reality that is indeed neo-colonial in nature – where the history of colonial terror is fundamentally linked to the structural inequality PoC communities encounter everyday. This ranges from dire representation in political spaces, even more dire representation on every public screen (where even the slim representation that exists is an amalgamation of often demeaning stereotypes, and nothing more), where the pay gape is ever wider for people of colour (especially women), where mental health is often turbulent in PoC communities, where we see people who look just like us, (but unfortunately aren’t able to migrate to more politically stable countries) hyper-sexualised, sub-humanized, criminalized in the press, and beyond all – are witness to the daily news of the decimation of brown bodies by drones, a phenomenon legitimized under those ever divisive words: “national security”.
These are all the things we as a multi-cultural community have inherited from the fundamental mistake of the western colonial project.
All of what I’m saying might seem tangential to this connection that I’ve flagged up between bindhis and pain and browness and whiteness, but in fact structural inequality, or hey let’s call it by its real name, racism, is what gives cultural appropriation the sheer weight of its pain.
The taking of the bindhi does not exist in isolation, but within the history of other ‘takings’.
And this is what makes cultural appropriation an “appropriation” and not an “exchange” – because an exchange means that something is being swapped. That a fair transaction has been made between two parties that are on equal terms, with equal opportunity and resources, and the like. This is quite clearly not the case. I’m not really interested in proving that premise because I think as well as being enough evidence out there in the world to suggest that structural inequality exists, there’s a certain violence in having to experience the daily strife of inequality in a post-colonial world, and then prove that that is indeed the case. Further, I have a deep sense of trust in this room that all those here tonight affirm that fact.
So now it’s time to tie in the bindhi to this whole rant.
I’m gonna now try and pin down how this picture of racism permeates our aesthetic values, beauty standards, fashion and the lot. Now that I’ve sort of given a broader picture of a kind of inter-generational pain that exists for people of colour, hopefully the bindhi thing will make a bit more sense given that contextual frame.
Well actually I hate to use the word ‘context’ because context makes it sound faintly circumstantial and infrequently occurring when this is in fact a systematic reality that is reoccurring over and over again, and globally for that matter.
With regard to the bindhi, it’s important to understand this issue is in equal parts both a gendered and racial one. It is gendered in so far as, to be a woman is to feel pressure to be desirable in the public space, or face the consequences of scrutiny and harassment that will follow if you reject desirability; and to be brown is to not be able to fit in to the category of the desirable because the standard of beauty couldn’t get more Eurocentric if you tried. Brown women are excluded from Eurocentric beauty by their very physical constitution. It is a concept built to exclude our bodies. Type beautiful in to google and all you will see is pictures of white women. A number of studies done on rates of responses on tinder were significantly lower for women of colour. The few brown women who get on to the big screens have unsurprisingly the lightest of complexions. Friends constantly and myself included have had the trouble of bearing micro-aggressions such as “he must be in to Asian girls” when dating white men.
Once one is able to engage with and understand this daily lived experience, it becomes obvious why seeing white girls at festivals using what is indeed a deeply spiritual expression of south Asian identity, namely the bindhi, commodified in to an aesthetic accessory.
To put this in to perspective, I, or any hindhu friend of mine could never dream to enter a public space in this country whilst wearing my bindhi and my shalwar kameez without feeling vulnerable. Forget beauty, safety becomes out of reach. The history of brown women wearing bindhis in this country is one fraught with not simply an emotional violence but a physical one too. Where white supremacist groups would attack newly immigrated south Asian women for being ‘dotheads’. To this day, the thought of going out in shalwar kameez in my hometown is scary.
The disparity between my safety and the commodification of those ancient, special, unifying and beautiful symbols for the use of bolstering ones own personal aesthetic at festivals (festivals which are admittedly far too expensive for many many working-class brown and black teens to attend) in the first place is a sickening one.
Especially when I have only just learned how to love those things. I grew up in this country not only not wanting to wear brown things but also wanting to assimilate because expressing those facets of my identity were stigmatized. So the sudden surge of instagram accounts such as ‘whitegirlsdobindhisbetter’ is not only painful, but ultimately: a pisstake.
I hope I’ve done okay to give you a sense of why the pain exists for women of colour when it comes to the appropriation of aesthetic symbols. But if anyone has any further questions I’ll be happy to do my best to answer.”
What is better than a think piece? Most things. But also playlists. Playlists are great. Wanky ones with super eclectic song choices that very few people have heard of are kinda nice cus the few people who will have heard your vinyl or your discog or your B-side or F-side or ur looney tune will be a like-minded individual – an exercise in reaching in to the void to talk to a really specific individual who also likes looney tunes. This isn’t that though, this is me picking out the least embarrassing, but still a bit embarrassing, songs from my early teens, because its a Tuesday at 7pm and what else am I gonna do.
I like so much that The Killers are a kind of universal staple to all former teen millennials everywhere. A shared public embarrassment is the best kind of embarrassment. I still maintain this was one of the best albums of 2004 (out of the 8 albums I did listen to in 2004). Still, Believe Me Natalie is a b a n g e r.
Solid music video. Still entices me, a brown lady, to want to walk in to a Texan barn (are those real?), pick up a drumstick and start line dancing.
I now look back at this with extreme second hand embarrassment at Gwen Stefani, definitely squeezing out afro-latinx vibes inappropriately, nonetheless this album was huge for me – after all, “bubble pop e-lec-tric who’s gunna get it?” profound stuff rly
I was not cool enough to know this tune at 13 but a lil obsessed right now
I dig this so much because rly buying in to the whole evil woman aesthetic thing atm, makes me feel like the adam’s family mum morticia without the gross husband that always leechin on her – sarah vaughn gets it. A deep, clever, aged voice that is wise wise wise and makes me feel like i’m a 50 year old kajillionaire with an corporate empire that made its money off of feminist memes.
/ my punctuation is gna be bad but also idgaf /
I was originally gonna title this the ’10 best feminist movies i’ve seen in 2016′ and then i remembered i could only think of a handful cus i barely watch films now and also didn’t necessarily wanna commit myself to this handful being ‘100% feminist’, cus what does that even mean?
Sounds like a bit of a gimmick to me. we livin in a dark white cisheteropatriarchy so calling a piece of art 100% feminist would be to say that it was made in a vacuum free of all oppression-related content, so what I will commit myself to instead, is a list of good movies. And I think good movies, do broadly tend to be feminist, they do have characters of different ethnicities that, crucially, are three-dimensional.
Three-dimensionality can often be a bit of a fluffy term, people know a 3D character when they see one but couldn’t necessarily describe what makes them so off the tip of their tongue. I read a great article the other week about why Emilia Clarke (who plays Daneyrs Targareon) is kinda not so great at that stuff. In a nutshell the writer expressed that 3D characters give you a glimpse in to their internal life i.e. what they’re thinking, feeling, their internal conflicts and how that might fit in to the broader conflicts within the plot. And the actors’ faces and bodies are expressive enough to accommodate such three-dimensionality. They move with conflict, with an array and spectrum of varying degrees of emotion that should rightly be in flux. They, vitally along with a writer who understands these needs, work to create a character that has agency over their choices. Often I find that one of the key signals that a character has agency is similar to what makes us real people have agency, we’re pretty unpredictable, disappoint but have er some degree of ethical tickings going on internally. Often these conflict with the former, and we fuck up. Easy: flower + sugar + internal life + moral responsibility = human agency and voila.
Tokens and misogynistic tropes are so bad because we rarely get to see evidence of agency with them. They just turn you in to the black best friend with none of your own storyline. They turn people of colour in to instruments that make their white counterparts funny or cultured or loved or whatever tbh idgaf what they’re intended for. They’re just evidence of bad writing and possibly even really unfruitful personal relationships that the writers of such pieces have lol. I wanna HEAR the thoughts of the characters I’m investing two hours of my life in. I wanna be able to guess where they’ve gone when they’ve left the room. I want to be able to care about them.
So where does this leave the status of films like pulp fiction or er the bourne identity which actually i like a lot but cmon Marie dies in the first two minutes of the sequel and was just there as a way to show how vulnerable and fuzzy wuzzy n sad Bourne can get. But the action scenes and suspense are good so also there’s that. I dunno, I guess liking films like that, which I do, are on the same level as liking really cheesy pop songs that prescribe women to wear less clothes and drink more: you like them, but you don’t believe they’re actually good. Or maybe one step above that – given that there’s some genuine craft going on there about how to instantiate suspense as much as possible through cinematography, editing, storyboarding etc. So they’re not bad, but ultimately I’m not able to care about Bourne, which to me is his and the film’s crucial flaw.
Anyway away with my babbling, here is a list of a couple of films I feel made the mark.
The Girl Who Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)
Basically an Iranian Vampire Spaghetti-western, you gotta.
A Seperation (2011)
Iranian film about a couple that file for divorce.
SHOT ALL IN ONE TAKE, no seriously. Also such a testament to the fact that you can have a feminist action/suspense film.
Before Midnight (2013)
The third part in the trilogy.
Ackee & Saltfish (part 1)
This is really really cool short film/web series called Ackee & Saltfish by filmmaker Cecile Emeke. Super good and so genuinely funny. You can check out the other parts of the series here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLpwJsNR8PZ6PoojgrGVm1OESByRKAuFut