We Can Wear Bindis, But You Can't

As an Indian American who has spent the majority of her life in the "West" (ie North America and to a smaller extent, Western Europe), I've always noticed the commodification of cultures for societies that are based on consumer culture. The moment I noticed this was back in 1997. In high school, my friends took me to a No Doubt concert in Orange County, California. At the time, No Doubt's Gwen Stefani was sporting bindis. So when I went to the concert, I wore one. Everyone at the concert was white; all the girls were wearing bindis. But they were looking at me in the most depreciating manner; I even heard a couple of comments about my skin color (I used to be very tan because I was a swimmer and water polo player) and that I "should go back."

Apparently, it's ok for white girls to wear bindis, but not Indians themselves, even though bindis come from India and bindis are an object created by Indians. I remember all the times my mother was treated like an alien; sneered and glared at, being told to "go back to where you came from" because she wore a bindi and a salwaar kameez in public. Whites can wear bindis with no problem; but my mother, for whom it was a part of who she was, was ridiculed for it. It's permissible for white people to wear bindis because they've claimed ownership (through consumption) over the very idea of bindis: that it's cool and trendy to wear one- but only if you're white. This smug hypocrisy of the whites that I grew up with could make anybody feel resentful and indignant.

So when I came across this post on The Curious Stall, I kept nodding my head in agreement as I read an incisive piece written by Professor Z, an American professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco who has spent time in India:

...[S]ince returning to the U.S. we've noticed several other instances of "brand India" for sale. At least two of the catalogs Marion has come across here at my in-laws have whole lines of India-inspired clothing for sale. All of a sudden it seems that it's hip to be Indian. It's possible that it's been hip to be Indian for some time, and that we never noticed. Or perhaps we've become hyperaware of all things Indian outside of India now that we're back from India ourselves.

Either way, the fact that it's hip to be Indian irks me. Appreciating "brand India" is very different than having any sincere appreciation for the country, its cultures, or its problems. So when western consumers turn India into a lifestyle, I find it troubling on a number of levels. First of all, its not terribly hip for Indians to be Indian, at least not in the U.S. While in India, we talked to at least one Indian who left the U.S. after 17 years because he had found it inhospitable in the post-September 11 culture of fear.

Why would it have become inhospitable for him? Because the color of his skin leads Americans to the presumption that he is either (a) Muslim, or (b) from the Middle East, and therefore a threat. For an Indian in the U.S., in other words, there is nothing hip about having dark skin. Even within India it's not hip to have dark skin. Advertisements for sunscreen urge people to use sunscreen not to protect their skin from the sun's harmful UV rays, but rather to keep their skin light in color. India is still very much influenced by the caste system, and the upper castes tend to have lighter skin.

So I am bothered by the fact that "being Indian" is really only hip if you're not Indian. But more bothersome is the fact that, most likely, none of the more than half a billion Indians living in poverty are benefiting from the commodification of their lifestyles. I guess it's too bad that they never patented their traditional fashions, their stainless steel bowls, and their terra cotta chai cups, all of which are now for sale at Globus for sums 10-100 times what the same items fetch in India. Take the hip hop industry in the United States, at least here you have a model for returning a bit of wealth to a traditionally exploited and oppressed segment of the population through the commodification of its culture [Link].

I couldn't have said it better.

What's more is that this is not endemic to only the US. In Bologna, Italy, I saw hippie orientalist Italians man the stalls at the weekly bazaar at Piazza Montagnola who told me that they went to India every 6 months or so to stock up on goods and sell them to Italians- at high prices. Rich Bolognese women would wear expensive salwaar kameez and carry intricately patterned Indian purses which cost a fortune at boutiques, but would keep Desis at a distance. In Spain, I'd see overpriced "indigenous" items in boutiques, the history of cruel colonization and extermination of indigenous people in "Latin" America absent from the price tag. Even the hippie and progressive folks were basically a walking billboard of trinkets and jewelry from "exotic" cultures, advertising that they were "multicultural" in that they "accepted" and liked those far off, exotic places. And this consumer culture of consuming other cultures is not confined within the boundaries of the West. Yuppie Indians in India consume obscene amounts of Western goods, and thereby consider themselves as more "modern" and "Western" (Franz Fanon's worst nightmare: the local bourgeoisie imitating their masters.) Having knowledge, contact, and an understanding of a locality is replaced with buying objects and consuming goods.

The commodification, capitalization, and reduction of entire peoples, societies, and richness into a few token items is the easy way out. Specific to the US and western Europe, consumption is the way liberal Westerners are "multicultural" and "experience" various cultures: eating foods of a certain region, donning local outfits and accessories, listening to the music, and superficially dabbling in the religions. For a country as multi-ethnic as the US, we're astonishingly insular, inward looking, and lazy to really know about anything remotely different. It's easier -and safer- spending money on objects rather than having "any sincere appreciation for the country, its cultures, or its problems," as well as making an earnest and sincere effort to understand its histories, politics, and social realities. The latter would be too taxing. And can you really blame people? In a country where everything is capitalized, where consumption is culture, and culture is consumption, it's not the least bit surprising that whites can wear bindis, but you can't.

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Is there any objection within

Is there any objection within India to the commodification of local cultures? For example food or fashions from the south are now much more commonly seen, and available for purchase, in the north (and vice versa).

Northern food in the South is much better than Southern food in the North :P

I don't know if there's as much commodification of "local culture" as much as there is commodification of "village culture." viva la calle wrote a post about "ethnic" a while back which hit on this.

I've tried typing a lot here and ended up deleting all of it. Not enough sleep. Will try again later.

well written. as you have

well written.
as you have rightly pointed out, the over-consumption of 'the other' lifestyle goes both ways.
doesn't the consumption of signifiers [objects of/from a culture that have come to signify that culture in other/foreign culture(s)] instead of the culture itself, mean that the human predisposition is lazy?
an answer to the question 'why do you only buy and not try and understand them' might only be 'why should i? i'm not interested in their culture. i just want their things'. isn't that how we have been ''media'ted'', with all this talk of globalisation?

in other words, 'buy my culture, give me your money. but we won't sit on the same table'.

as a concept, i have trouble with 'understanding'. it is too ambiguous a term. and too distant for what scenarios are like, within social dynamics.
anyhow, i think for 'an understanding' to appear across two or more cultures, there seems to be a need for an inquisitive mindset. but, with television and cinema 'rightly telling us how it is', 'we' don't need to know more.
'i can live your culture through the ethnic/cultural/elitist restaurant, jewelry shop, clothing boutique or painting exhibition. i don't need you to tell me what your culture is about because it is available, and i have bought it.'

First off, "Ouch!" Aatish,

First off, "Ouch!" Aatish, you really laid into me. Thanks, DI, for the defense. I underestimated exactly how sensitive caste issues are. It was sloppy of me to write what I did. However, if you read my original post,
you'll see that I made the comment in the context of a critique of Americans, who post-9/11 assume that anyone with skin a shade darker than white and a strange accent must be Muslim and therefore a threat. Yet at the same time, we embrace the commodified version of Indian culture.

A few quibbles, and concessions, about your critique, Aatish:

studies have shown that upper caste Hindus share more DNA with their lower caste co-regionists than with upper castes elsewhere

Skin color matters in societies not because of DNA--we all know the arguments about the similarities between the DNA of people of different skin colors--but because people treat skin color as if it is a sign of real and meaningful differences between people.

This statement implies that South Asia’s obsession with fair skin is purely a product of the caste system. So how does this account for parallel obsessions in the Middle East, in East Africa, in South East Asia and East Asia? In many of these places beauty is also equated with fairness

Yes, good point. But any society that attempts to value to people on the basis of skin color must have various mechanisms and institutions for maintaining the illusion that skin color matters. In the U.S., we had slavery for around two hundred years. This had the effect of establishing cultural beliefs and government policies that have sustained inequality among the races in this country for the last 143 years since slavery was abolished. In India, I suspect, the caste system, among many other functions, legitimates perceived differences between people of varying skin colors.

Also, if the upper castes were indeed lighter, then they would not naturally be the majority consumers of these types of products. Yet they are, because I somehow doubt that Dalit labourers are ‘fair and lovely’s’ biggest customers.

Ahh, another good point! But in any society where skin color is perceived as a sign of social status, fine-grained distinctions are made on the basis of nearly imperceptible differences in skin tone. The nuances are most important at the top. Many Dalits could never afford skin-lightening products, and even if they could, would have no chance of lightening their skin enough to pass for someone of higher status. Upper caste Indians can afford these products, and people at the top do what they can to maintain their status.

In my own uninformed speculation, South Asia’s obsession with fairness is likely a result of many factors, among them being the simple manual/intellectual labour division (i.e., workers work in the sun and get dark, others do not…

Well, your views are not at all uninformed. Your personal experiences, observation, and knowledge are valuable. And I think here you've hit on a point that is very consistent with what I just wrote: When inequality exists in societies, people look for differences between the haves and have nots and use those differences to justify the inequality. Skin color is convenient, even if meaningless at the genetic level.

Basically the point is that one cannot make the common orientalist mistake of finding the origin of every Indian cultural phenomenon in caste.

Thanks for the reminder. I will work to avoid making statements that might be interpreted as reductionist with respect to caste.

One last point in response to Varun and DI's post.

anyhow, i think for ‘an understanding’ to appear across two or more cultures, there seems to be a need for an inquisitive mindset. but, with television and cinema ‘rightly telling us how it is’, ‘we’ don’t need to know more.

I think this is a great point, Varun (perhaps you have something in common with the character named Varun/Vroom in One Night at the Call Center). If commodification of a culture could somehow trigger inquisitiveness in the consumers who purchase the goods, then this discussion would not need to take place.

Lastly, a question for DI or any other readers: Is there any objection within India to the commodification of local cultures? For example food or fashions from the south are now much more commonly seen, and available for purchase, in the north (and vice versa). Is this different than "outsiders" (outside of India) commodofiying the culture? This is just a quesiton. They way I worded it sounds like I have a position. I do not. I'm curious what others think.

DesiItaliana, But didn't ya

DesiItaliana,

But didn't ya know - their wearing a bindi is a 'free-will individualist CHOICE' you wearing a bindi means you 'are an oppressed south asian woman who follows fashion because of your unquestioned allegiance to backwards cultural dogmatism'?

Freedom in consumption!

Did those vacuous posers at

Did those vacuous posers at the No Doubt concert realize that Tony Kanal (and dating Gwen at the time) is of Indian descent ? Wonder if they would have wanted him to "go back".

I generally agree with both

I generally agree with both the tone and content of this post and with Varun's intervention...but I just want to comment on a few things.

Even within India it’s not hip to have dark skin. Advertisements for sunscreen urge people to use sunscreen not to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays, but rather to keep their skin light in color. India is still very much influenced by the caste system, and the upper castes tend to have lighter skin.

That’s absurdly reductive. So reductive in fact, that it really makes me distrust anything else this man has to say. Even if we accept the rather dubious claim that upper castes have lighter skin (studies have shown that upper caste Hindus share more DNA with their lower caste co-regionists than with upper castes elsewhere), this statement implies that South Asia's obsession with fair skin is purely a product of the caste system. So how does this account for parallel obsessions in the Middle East, in East Africa, in South East Asia and East Asia? In many of these places beauty is also equated with fairness, evidenced by the success of fairness creams in those markets as well. Also, if the upper castes were indeed lighter, then they would not naturally be the majority consumers of these types of products. Yet they are, because I somehow doubt that Dalit labourers are 'fair and lovely’s’ biggest customers. Also, this implies that the same obsession is either absent from non-Hindu communities, or the result of 'Hindu' influence. Yet this is not true historically, as the equation of fairness with beauty is present in even the early Muslim period (whose rulers largely defined themselves in opposition to 'Hindu' culture). In my own uninformed speculation, South Asia's obsession with fairness is likely a result of many factors, among them being the simple manual/intellectual labour division (i.e., workers work in the sun and get dark, others do not...also provides some explanation of similar fairness preoccupations in early modern through Victorian Europe, ruler/ruled politics (both Muslim and Colonial), caste politics etc. etc. etc. Basically the point is that one cannot make the common orientalist mistake of finding the origin of every Indian cultural phenomenon in caste.

ok more later...

as a concept, i have trouble

as a concept, i have trouble with ‘understanding’. it is too ambiguous a term. and too distant for what scenarios are like, within social dynamics.

Yeah, I was struggling to find the accurate word, and used "understanding" for lack of a better term. But I agree with you.

So reductive in fact, that it really makes me distrust anything else this man has to say.

Relax, yaar. He admitted in the comment section of this post that he is a Western man who has a romanticized (and arguably orientalist) vision of India.

this statement implies that South Asia’s obsession with fair skin is purely a product of the caste system.

Also, this implies that the same obsession is either absent from non-Hindu communities, or the result of ‘Hindu’ influence. Yet this is not true historically, as the equation of fairness with beauty is present in even the early Muslim period (whose rulers largely defined themselves in opposition to ‘Hindu’ culture). In my own uninformed speculation, South Asia’s obsession with fairness is likely a result of many factors, among them being the simple manual/intellectual labour division (i.e., workers work in the sun and get dark, others do not…also provides some explanation of similar fairness preoccupations in early modern through Victorian Europe, ruler/ruled politics (both Muslim and Colonial), caste politics etc. etc. etc. Basically the point is that one cannot make the common orientalist mistake of finding the origin of every Indian cultural phenomenon in caste.

I agree with you; I also thought the same thing as you, so I didn't boldface that tidbit. But I didn't want to take it out either because it could generate a discussion :)

Did those vacuous posers at the No Doubt concert realize that Tony Kanal (and dating Gwen at the time) is of Indian descent ? Wonder if they would have wanted him to “go back”.

You know, I never really heard any of the girls go ga ga over him. Or maybe I was just oblivious. But it's entirely possible that there were girls who had crushes on him; maybe he was regarded as the "exception," perhaps even sexy.

Freedom in consumption!

That's right.

Aatish: So how does this

Aatish:

So how does this account for parallel obsessions in the Middle East, in East Africa, in South East Asia and East Asia?

From my experiences, I think the obsession with fair skin is more predominant with the South Asian populations; and if it's in East Africa or elsewhere, it's usually with the diasporic communities. Have you seen strident in the aforementioned communities? (I'm not talking about the mass media, meaning how Arab channels will have models and actresses who look similar to Europeans; I mean within the populations, from your experiences).

Professor Z:

because people treat skin color as if it is a sign of real and meaningful differences between people.

This is true.

In India, I suspect, the caste system, among many other functions, legitimates perceived differences between people of varying skin colors.

Hmm.... I see what you are trying to argue, but I don't know if this is accurate. I don't think skin color is so much of an indication of caste as it is with beauty ideals. There are plenty of Brahmins who are dark, and there are non Brahmins who are not. South Asians in general are incredibly of varied hues. The caste system- and I may be wrong- was a stratification of color AND social dynamics.

I think many mistake the caste system in two ways: either they see it as class as we know it in the West (socio-economic status) or as a racial stratification. I think the caste system is a complex, hybrid of those two. So I don't think that caste is singuarly based on skin color (ie fair=high caste) and I don't think that social problems in India are singularly based on the caste system. There are deep, deep caste issues in India, but they have more to do with notions of purity, religion, social, and societal dynamics that are not always tied to skin color, but more to class and social divisions, as Aatish points out.

Is there any objection within India to the commodification of local cultures?

Yes! The whole controversy over patents and biopiracy (that's a whole other post I've been meaning to write, but I've just got no time. It's coming soon, though).

Is this different than “outsiders” (outside of India) commodofiying the culture?

One could argue no, not really. :)

I don’t know if there’s as much commodification of “local culture” as much as there is commodification of “village culture.”

Lots of commodification of "local culture." And dichotomy between the city vs. village, especially when we talk about the reification of regional cultures and hence, "pride," ie "Punjabi culture is like this," "We Punjabis are knownf or this." Whole other post, this one. Boy, is there a lot to say about this :)

Great article. Thank you!

Great article. Thank you!

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