So Selena Gomez, whom I’m familiar with thanks to my younger daughter, has honked off some people by wearing bindi during a performance at the latest MTV movie awards. The comments quoted in the article basically say that Gomez, as a non-Indian, had no right to wear bindi, that she was guilty of “cultural appropriation.”
I’ve heard similar protests before, such as when Disney released Pocahontas. In writing my fantasy novel Dragontamer’s Daughters, I (a white guy of German-Irish descent) borrowed a lot of elements from the Navajo culture: names, foods, dwellings, clothing styles, religious beliefs, even the language (you’d be surprised how hard it is, even in the Internet Age of the 21st Century, to find anything resembling an “English-to-Navajo” translation guide).
I didn’t use those elements to mock that culture: far from it. My intent was simply to present something hopefully new and unfamiliar to my audience to make my story more interesting and distinct from all the other young adult fantasy books out there. And if readers became interested in the Navajo-inspired trappings and took it upon themselves to learn more about that culture–well, so much the better for everyone. If Gomez had considered why she was wearing bindi, she might have thought much the same as I did.
Should Gomez not have performed her song dressed the way she did because she’s not Hindu? Should I have not written DTD because I’m not Navajo? If so, then Disney shouldn’t have released Pocahontas, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant shouldn’t have given us “Kashmir,” and James Clavell shouldn’t have written Shogun. And on and on and on: I’m sure you can think of many more examples.
I don’t believe that a culture exclusively “belongs” to any particular group, and that outsiders can’t participate. Others have claimed that a culture is not for “commercial exploitation,” especially by those who don’t belong to it, but I don’t see it that way. Culture is a treasure, but it’s not to be hoarded: it’s to be shared with everyone.
If a young Hispanic woman can’t wear bindi and a white guy can’t write about the Navajo, if we’re all just stuck doing and eating and wearing and saying the same things as our ancestors did, singing the same songs, writing the same books, hearing the same tales, then how will our art evolve? How will we appreciate people not in our tribe? And won’t the world be a much more dreary place for it?