i n d o - c h i c
Several months ago, a boy I know--a smart and gracious boy, but one I know pretty damn peripherally--asked me casually what I think of all this new "exotic style." We were walking down Ave. A on a Sunday, and it was very evident that he was referring to the return of chic Third-world fabrics and chic Third-world fashion to the U.S. hip-scene-- there was a profusion of bindi's and head scarves and cane-rowed hair adorning the white women around us. I could only respond by exploding that, "I fucking hate it," and then sputtering out some sentences punctuated repeatedly by, "I mean, I don't know, you know?" I was trying hard not to overwhelm this slight acquaintance with my years-old distress surrounding the topic but was really unwilling to act as if it didn't bother me or as if it left me opinion-less. I also didn't want to invoke the coded sentences that are usually most meaningful to me (employing terms like "appropriation" and "cultural colonialism") but that tend to turn off 85% of the people I know. It's been a struggle to articulate a response to that question and to my own frustration, but it's not an easy question... Responding to it comes together, for me, around the issue of the Hindu bindi in American culture-- its progression from a point of confusion to a focus of racist hostility to a newly fashionable adornment-- more attractive for its atypical placement on white skin.
Let me start by sharing a little from my own humble life. When I was four and living in some mostly white suburbs, my Indian mum sent her Indian daughter (me!) to day-care wearing a bindi-- the kind painted on with traditional vermillion powder rather than the now-common sticker ones. At day-care, my "American" "care-giver" rubbed it off my face and made an example of me in front of the other little angels, saying I made up ridiculous stories about so-called customs to get away with wearing something weird on my face.
18 years later, in those same suburbs, I returned to wearing a bindi everyday-- a plain, round, red sticker one-- for personal, family, and religious reasons. Soon after, in 1996 (just as ethno-chic was surging back into style), I moved to Manhattan and was immediately stunned by everything new-- for starters, the amount of racial and ethnic diversity in the city and, unrelatedly, the shocking amount of sexual harassment women sustain on the streets. For example, a man followed me 3 blocks through the garment district one day, shouting, "Hey India! Miss India!" "Miss India" became a common nick-name for me, used exclusively by men I'd never seen before: meant, perhaps, to make me feel like a beauty queen but more effective in making me feel ill. There was other harassment too. A woman squeezed onto a crowded elevator right in front of me and chose me (not any of the many Judeo-Christians surrounding me) to inform that God was dead. I thanked her for the information and wondered just what ethnically and nationally-specific presumptions made her feel entitled to speak to me. Did she maybe think she was liberating some passive Asian woman? or did she just not think at all? Months later, a man approached me by Washington Square, spit at me, pointed at my forehead, and told me to "go back." (Tell me exactly what that means!) I stood there with tears of fury welling in my eyes and planning futile revenge. Since then, I've switched to a tiny, unobtrusive black bindi; and if I'm on the subways alone late at night, I don't wear one at all.
Let me turn now to dip into some other humble history. In 1987, while I was still in junior high in the South, a group of predictably young, mostly white, and angry men formed in New Jersey, not far from the ever-chic New York City, joined by their common anger at the burgeoning Indian and larger Asian populations in Jersey and calling themselves the "Dot-Busters." This was yet another "American" response to the wearing of the bindi, preceding its adoption as "body-jewellery." As is usually the case, their hatred was economically grounded, as they felt displaced by this new wave of immigrants, who came with their entire families and slogged away at occupying the niche of lower-level businesses-- gas stations, convenience stores, cheap motels-- we're all familiar with the types and stereotypes. "Little India's" had started to establish themselves in white-flight areas, and the smells of curry and incense had started to permeate the air in those neighborhoods. Overcome by an unsurprising sense of losing something precious and employing unoriginally misdirected and reprehensible violence, the Dot-Busters engaged in a spree of assaults that left two people dead and one beaten into a coma. In the South, too, my mother and I were repeatedly called "Dot-heads," but no such groups formed there; there were few Asians where we lived.
Somewhere around 1995, the band No Doubt, with its energetic, effervescent, cute lead-"just-a-girl" Gwen Stefani hit MTV (and North American hearts everywhere) hard. The story was this: the guitarist was this Indian-Californian boy named Tony Kanal and was the love of Gwen's life for a few years until he dumped her (for being "too clingy") just before the production of their mega-hit album, breaking her heart. Consequently, every song on the album is written about their break-up and her heart-break. She moved on, eventually, to that guy from Bush; but her sexual/ emotional brush with the East remained significant. It was there in all these songs, in the interviews where she discussed her fallen relationship at length, and in the videos where she crooned at Tony (who remained silent throughout). Most visibly, it was there in her fashion-- in her ever-present bindi and in the expensive sari's she wrapped around her waist sarong-style, matched with a little bustier. No one ever talked about Tony being Indian (that would be strange and irrelevant, no?) or discussed the myriad complexities of inter-racial romance (again, a different story) or even articulated which subcontinent her fashion was borrowed from (but, why?)... her bindi and sari fabric were just quirky, "new," and cute-- like Gwen, herself. My much-maligned bindi looked attractive, it seemed, on Gwen's racially different face; and the implicit message seemed to be that the dark and silent Tony had squandered his chance with this girl who featured fusion-sexy (white skin, American attitude, exotic style) so temptingly well.
Something like a trend started. Designers began cutting up sari's to make dress pieces and built skirts and strappy dresses. My mother was horrified by the disrespect. Those intricate, "pretty" bindi's favoured by Gwen and others, manufactured by craft-makers in India for around a Rupee each were boxed attractively and sold in New York for \\$5.00 each (Rupees 200). Henna "tattoos," usually applied to women's hands and feet around weddings or religious holidays, became popular; and, at a "World Music" (Thank you, Peter Gabriel...) concert in Central Park in 1997, hippie's all around me sat together and henna'd each other. It was beautiful or something. Sting and Madonna and other stars turned to the ministrations of Hollywood guru Deepak Chopra and attended practices at the Jivamukti yoga center on Lafayette, and, then, Madonna took her spiritual epiphanies even further. She maximised them; she commercialised them.
Madonna's MTV performance, wearing a silk sari and backed by Indian Odissi dancers, ruffled Indian comunities: was it great that this Western divinity was adopting and popularising "Indian" culture? Was it offensive that she was using Hinduism as fashion, dreadfully mispronouncing her way through Sanskrit verses? Her use of henna, of Indian styles and fabrics, and her New Age babble about yoga and "Indian spiritual" serenity filled up air-waves; and, all through this tranformation, she undeniably produced some damn good dance pop. All through her career, Madonna's treated culture as disposable and handy; it's simultaneously refreshing and insulting. She started off by flouting her own Catholicism and white-Italian roots. When Pepsi pulled its backing of her "Like a Prayer," it was unclear if they were offended by her burning crosses, her Black Jesus, or her kissing the Black Jesus. Since then, she's taken her cultural appropriation (I can't resist the term) to Latin America (where Catholicism thrives, as well as dark-skinned men) and to Harlem (where Christianity, at least, thrives as well as dark-skinned men) and incorporated poppified Latin rhythms and jazz syncopation into some of her songs. In her movie, _Truth and Dare_, she ranted and raved all over issues of gender, race, and sexuality-- generally asserting that challenging almost everything was more important than thinking about anything. I do love, indeed, the way she puts the social sanctity of culture and religion in its place, implying that it should all be there primarily for pleasure; but it's interesting which cultures and religions she chooses to play with (NOT ones she considers mainstream); and I hate, hate, hate that she promotes the general U.S. tendency towards just not thinking about anything too deeply. I counter that and simply ask that we all think about everything very deeply.
I know that Indo-chic is a phase for Madonna and for the New York hip-scene-- that it's been picked up and will be put down again. Already, a different kind of orientalism is taking over-- that of the vague "Far East"-- and, maybe soon, that will shift on to some other Third-world fascination. Or, perhaps, the Third World will stop being fashionable for a time, again; it is seldom fashionable, though, in the eyes of either Third-worlders or First-worlders, until it is first approved by and metamorphised by people in the West. I hated, when I was small and in the South, the way my Indianness and Hinduism and darkness made me exotic and weird and ridiculed; and I hate the idea of using all that exoticism now to make myself interesting and alluring. I'm just a girl too, Gwen Stefani, and I want my cultural, religious, and social forms and choices to be normalised and respected. So, I do fucking hate that all these intricate bindi's on non-Indian foreheads (and shoulders and necks and cheeks) around me look so interesting and delicate to people while my plain, red one on my plain brown forehead between my plain brown eyes marks me as unusual, alien, and problemmatic. But, I don't know... you know? To what extent is imitation a compliment? and to what extent is imitation (mis)appropriation?
I'll tell you-- I think of the whole issue of ethno-chic in terms of the following concepts: appropriation; cultural/racial supremacy; displacement; sustainable economies on local and global levels; naivete; colonialism; and pluralism-- and I try to have a complicated anti-racist and anti-poverty, feminist response to the whole matter. I do think that learning about and sharing in multiple cultures can be a good thing but-- please-- neither culture nor fashion is ever meaningless. Slapping someone else's cultural, religious, or sexual artifact on your body in the name of diversity does not comprise progressive action; nor is it automatically the wrong thing to do. I don't believe in elevating or reducing anything to pure art or in the social innocence of art, so I think it's important to pose specific questions to ourselves when we're borrowing or changing or leaving behind cultural forms. I go through this process every morning as I lean into my mirror and decide on the bindi, going through each of the above concepts in my mind. It's a difficult way to live my life, but it's the only way I can try and be an honest, social human being. And being social, after all, is-- in my opinion-- the best part of being human.