Sometimes it seems like you can learn more from Twitter than you ever did in a classroom. Even as a mix-raced woman, I had never encountered terms like cultural appropriation and intersectionality until I made a Twitter account — OK, and took a gender and race relations class that blew my mind. However, I realize that many people get caught up in trends without realizing that they have the potential to be offensive. Sometimes it's confusing when something of cultural or religious value is suddenly "fashionable." The way around it? Inform yourself, look for first-person perspectives from people of those cultural backgrounds, and always listen when someone tells you something is problematic.
Personally, I generally tend to avoid music festivals (unless Drake is playing, obviously), because if it isn't the $13 cans of beer, it's the five feet of mud you have to plow through to even find a stage. However, the undeniably worst aspect is the commonality of people wearing things of cultural value — and not even being aware of it. Of course everyone understands the beauty of a sari or a kimono, but that hardly means they're yours for the taking. If you aren't an oppressed minority who is told your traditions aren't cool until white people wear them, you likely don't understand the gravity of wearing a burka as a fashion statement. It takes some mental shifts to think about these trends differently, but these kinds of realizations are important. First thing's first, though: Here are the origins of a few music festival appropriation favorites, and how you can appreciate them for what they are.
1. The Bindi
The classic Coachella felons of this particular form of appropriation are many, many celebrities who you probably have seen on best-dressed lists once or a thousand times. This is massively disturbing. Although of course, bindis are absolutely beautiful, they have religious and cultural significance that goes far beyond just looking stylish. It's not cool to rip off someone else's culture, especially when you have absolutely no idea where it comes from.
Deriving from the Sanskrit word "bindu," which suggests the presence of a mystic third eye, bindis are traditionally South Asian and represent many things as part of the religion of Hindu, including warding off bad luck and sacrificing to appease the gods. Culturally, they might be worn to symbolize marital status or simply because they are a rich part of tradition and hold some kind of meaning to the wearer. But just because you can buy adhesive crystals for 99 cents at Claire's does not necessarily mean everyone who belongs to that cultural background is OK with it. If you're really enthusiastic about glamming up your face, invest in some bold eye makeup — not someone else's religious or cultural beliefs.
2. Feathered Headdresses And "Native-Inspired" Beaded Accessories
To sum it up perfectly, Dr. Jessica Metcalf, a Blue Turtle Chippewa, academic, and founder of Native fashion blog, told Jezebel, "There isn't just one Native American culture. There are hundreds. And there are millions of Native people. And we're being ignored. We're being told that we don't have rights over how we are represented in mainstream America."
Some very cool music festivals have noticed how offensive (and out of hand) headdresses have become as a "festival trend" and banned them all together, but that doesn't mean the problem is gone entirely. Look at it this way: If you think headdresses and "tribal patterned" tank-tops are just trends, you're taking what you like from cultures (the "cute" stuff) and devaluing their realities, like the fact that Native Americans are the smallest minority group in the U.S. (despite the country being, well, their's to start with).
Instead of braiding feathers into your hair and going on and on about your "spirit animal," think about instead giving back to the Native American community. Although nearly 30 percent of Native Americans work as artists, one in four Native Americans live below the poverty line. You can support those who are working to elevate their culture through artistic means and shop at incredible artisan shops like ETKIE, which is comprised entirely of designers from different tribes in New Mexico. Wear pieces actually crafted by Natives who will benefit from your sales instead of just watching their culture be mass produced.
3. Braids, Twists, Cornrows, And Other Traditionally Black Hairstyles
Everyone listen to Amandla Stenberg, because she is 16 and so painfully smart. When she called out Kylie Jenner for wearing cornrows, there were a lot of mixed reactions. Angry tweets demanded, "How can a hairstyle be offensive?" Here's how (as put by Sternberg herself in that awesome YouTube video she released): "Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny, when the privileged take it for themselves." She then poses the very important question: "What would America be like if we loved black people as much as black culture?"
You simply cannot ignore issues of police brutality against young black people and the hyper-sexualization of black women, while still thinking it's OK to use whatever part of black culture you think is the coolest. You should be here to elevate the voices of people of color, not stifle them by appropriating their culture because it seems "stylish." There are plenty of other braids that don't fall under the appropriative category, so try out one of those instead. But if you are genuinely interested in black beauty and hairstyles, simply support and share the work of black beauty bloggers.
4. Mehendi (aka "Henna")
The origins of Mehendi go as far back as 15 A.D. to North Africa and the Middle East, and also spread into South Asia. It is mainly a wedding tradition amongst Muslims and Hindus to decorate the bride's hands, feet, and legs as a means of celebration and symbolizes the transition to womanhood — however, it is used to celebrate various other things (even circumcisions in Morocco). Historically, it holds a number of symbolic meanings, which vary depending on region, beliefs, and the personal value put behind it.
However, if you are an outsider to this nearly 5,000 year old practice, you have to treat it like the art form it truly is. It is not a "look" up for grabs simply because your Instagram crush wears it all the time — if it doesn't hold that same cultural meaning to you, it probably doesn't belong on your hands. If you want to do more than admire from afar, find a mehendi education class in your area and learn techniques and the meanings behind certain designs from experts.