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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

Disney-darling-turned-pop-star Selena Gomez has recently come under fire for appropriating South Asian culture as she promotes an album that features tabla-style drumming and Punjabi beats. She wears clothing similar to saris and wears bindis as a fashion statement wherever she goes. Here’s the song most people are talking about, although she’s not wearing a bindi here. Yet.

In response to her critics, including religious and cultural groups that have urged her to discontinue the appropriation, she says ridiculous things, like, “The song kind of has that almost Hindu feel, that tribal feel. I kind of wanted to translate that,” she said. “Plus, I’ve been learning a lot about my seven chakras and bindis and stuff. I’ve learned a lot about the culture, and I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s fun to incorporate that into the performance.” (

Some people, including Indian women, don’t think it’s a big deal that celebrities are wearing the bindi — because it no longer has a religious significance, as it once did. In South Asia, bindis are worn decoratively. That’s true, and I’m not going to get into a whole discussion about the bindi or cultural appropriation because it will probably make me too angry and frustrated, but here are links to two of my favorite responses. These highlight the deeper problem, the hegemonic nonchalance and perpetuation of Otherness:

What’s even worse is that when asked about this song in interviews, Selena Gomez just perpetuates the grouping of all brown bodies by stating the song is “tribal” and has “Middle Eastern vibes.” Because the Middle East and South Asia are two geographical areas that are entirely interchangeable, right, Selena Gomez?

(Anisha Ahuja, FemInspire)


On her, it’s a bold new look; on me, it’s a symbol of my failure to assimilate. On her, it’s unquestionably cool; on me, it’s yet another marker of my Otherness, another thing that makes me different from other American girls. … I understand being a little flummoxed at the rage that the bindi issue inspires in our community. The anger always seems disproportionate to the crime. But will I celebrate the “mainstreaming” of a South Asian fashion item? Nope. Not when the mainstream doesn’t accept the people who created it.

(Jaya Sundaresh, the Aerogram)

So, Selena Gomez doesn’t care about Us vs. Them or cultural appropriation or that she sounds like an idiot while she simultaneously ignores the fact that she is a woman of color too. But here is what prompted this post (finally, I know you’re thinking).

Selena is in Nepal right now. She is staying at Dwarika’s, a luxury hotel in Kathmandu. A relative of mine works there and posted a selfie to Facebook.

Because I am unfortunately a little essentialist and dreadfully elitist, my initial reaction was the scoff that I had when I first found out that celebrity Lauren Conrad was in KTM the same time I was. These celebrities — and why don’t I include any Western tourist while I’m at it? — only want to experience a mystical, spiritual, hippie-esque journey in an exotic land. It’s easy to feel jaded that way, especially having studied tourism while I was there.

But I would be terribly, terribly remiss if I didn’t also admit what I did learn from my studies and my experiences in grad school — that I’m not always right, that my (usually negative) preconceived notions are stupid, and most importantly, that we cannot think that we understand and know everyone. Tourists visit other places for a variety of reasons, and should we hold celebrities to standards different than the public?

When you visit a new place, do you wear the traditional or ethnic clothing? Personally, I don’t, because I find it a culturally inappropriate version of playing dress-up. But some people try it to express their excitement and appreciation for the culture they are experiencing. Some natives (in the sense of people who live there locally) love it when tourists do that!

So, if Selena Gomez is in Nepal right now, pouting in a selfie while she wears a bindi and a sari, well… maybe she is there because she really does want to learn more about the culture. I wouldn’t say I applaud her, but I would rather she go and experience the culture for herself rather than rely solely on cultural markers created from exoticizing media.


If you are interested in more on cultural appropriation (which I say this blog is not about but, looking back at my previous entries, apparently it is), check out this article: The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation by Jarune Uwujaren.


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