Culture should never be an accessory

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Cultural appropriation is the reproduction and commodification of elements of a certain culture, usually for purely aesthetic value, by those who do not belong to that culture.

For example, actress Vanessa Hudgens is known for posting pictures of herself on Instagram wearing Native American headdresses and South Asian bindis. Cultural appropriation is a huge issue in today’s society, and nothing exemplifies this problem more than the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival that ended last weekend.

One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is problematic is that it strips away the cultural meaning and context of something. When Hudgens wears a headdress, she is taking something sacred to most Native American cultures and reducing it to mere aesthetics. This behavior turns something profoundly meaningful into an accessory.

Now, this isn’t really the issue with things like bindis and even henna because most South Asian people I know, including myself, couldn’t tell you the spiritual or religious meaning behind these things. However, if I were to go outside in a bindi or with henna all over my hands, I would be othered.

I would be considered one of those immigrants that hadn’t assimilated properly, or that still clung to the old ways. I’d probably get stared at and laughed at and asked to explain myself a billion times over. I’ve heard stories of my friends getting sent home in elementary school because they had henna and the administration thought it was a disease.

But when someone who isn’t from that culture and doesn’t have my brown skin wears a bindi or does henna simply for the artistic value of it, none of this discrimination happens to them. They’re allowed to pick and choose the parts of my culture that they feel are good enough, and simply leave behind everything else that comes with it, because they don’t see value in it. They are allowed to wear my culture as an accessory, when I — a person of that culture — am not. The othering and the racism isn’t something I can walk away from; I can’t just take off my skin the same way they can just take off the bindi at the end of the day and walk away from it.

So when Vanessa Hudgens posts pictures of herself in headdresses and bindis, it’s harmful in two ways. One, because it strips away the meaning behind the piece of clothing or adornment, and, second, because it perpetuates the idea that the things that make up my culture are something to pick and choose from.

Besides Hudgens, there are multiple pictures of celebrities at Coachella appropriating different cultures, and countless occurrences outside of it as well. Many celebrities have appropriated cultures, from Katy Perry in her music video for “Unconditionally” where she dons a kimono, to Selena Gomez in “Come and Get It,” where she wears a sari and a bindi.

This article isn’t meant to point fingers, but rather to call out the enormous number of people who have been perpetrators in cultural appropriation, and to try to explain why such appropriation is a problem.