To the girl standing outside Freshii with a bindi on the side of your forehead: I’m truly sorry for staring.
I was just trying to tell if the bindi, an item I’d watch my mother cautiously place on the very middle of her forehead with calculated precision, traveled to the side of your head by accident. Perhaps you brushed it aside while walking? Perhaps it slid down to the left as the day progressed and you had no time to adjust it?
But then you reached across and patted the bindi down — still displaced on the side of your forehead — and I couldn’t continue making excuses for you.
To the girl standing outside Freshii with a bindi on the side of your forehead: I didn’t say anything out loud, but you made me angry.
Looking at you made me recall all those mornings I would spend over the school sink rigorously scraping the tikka or red rice paste — essentially the non-sticker form of the bindi — off my forehead because my classmates would taunt me with remarks like, “Look, she’s bleeding from the forehead.”
Practicing my own culture meant having to deal with the bullying. It meant internalizing the stares, giggles and pointing. But the element of my culture that once singled me out for being “too foreign” sat on the side of your forehead as something edgy, exotic and desirable.
As we’ve heard over and over again, there’s a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. But do we listen?
Appropriation is theft. It’s when, last year, a sorority at Elon University decided it would somehow be culturally appropriate to supplement its recruitment theme with headbands, feathers, Native American symbols and dream catchers without making any reference or respect to the culture they were seemingly exploiting and stereotyping for photo opportunities.
Appropriation is denying history. It’s buying an Indian mandala tapestry — a Buddhist and Hindu symbol of interconnectedness and unity — from a “boho store,” hanging it on your wall to “add color to your room” and describing it as "hippie" — a term that silences and denies the extensive history behind the art form and does not do justice to its origins.
Appreciation is the intentional toppling of power structures and dynamics in a conversation. It’s a mutual exchange. It’s admitting ignorance, recognizing privilege and exhibiting respectful curiosity. It’s a question constructed in a way that doesn’t take ownership of the culture you’re choosing to celebrate or learn more about. It’s asking and researching before wearing.
Appreciation is humility. It’s recognizing that studying abroad in a country for three weeks or three months doesn’t make you an expert or give you the right to take ownership of the cultures you engaged with. Yes, even if you had an “Eat, Pray, Love” epiphany and constantly tell your friends, “My heart never left ______.”
Appreciation is also taking a stand. It’s calling out those who appropriate and it’s questioning social norms that play on cultural traditions that aren’t your own. It’s saying, “No, you can’t just call any patterns of colorful geometric shapes ‘tribal print.’” It’s asking, “Hey, before you don those cornrows, maybe think about the cultural double standards black women face for doing the same?”
The primary difference between the two? Research, respect and an educated decision on whether the aspect of culture you’re choosing to celebrate is diminishing the community you’re taking it from.
To the girl standing outside Freshii with a bindi on the side of your forehead: I’m truly sorry I walked away without saying anything.