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A few weeks ago in the Lowell Thomas first floor lobby, students shared the cultural traditions involved in the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali. Across Marist’s campus, students of different religions and cultural backgrounds walked around wearing traditional hand henna and bindis. I stopped by the colorful display of traditional garments and music and a woman dressed in a sari asked if I wanted a bindi and proceeded to place one on my forehead. While wearing the bindi, I thought about whether or not wearing it was appropriate for me, someone who does not celebrate Diwali or practice Hinduism.

After thinking about it, I ruled it as an instance of cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation. I have always danced around the subject of cultural appropriation because I never fully understood it. I understand the concept of a culture not being a costume, but where is the line when it comes to everyday trends? I categorized the beautiful henna and bindis as cultural appreciation because students wore the items with utmost respect for the culture having also attended the Diwali celebration and learned about the festival through the museum-like display. Wearing the traditional items with reverence was far different than cultural appropriation.

In my definition, cultural appropriation is wearing another culture’s traditions without respect, or intending to mock or demean in some way. For example, the native American Halloween costumes that tend to be trendy and popular each year demean the culture by categorizing it as a frivolous, often sexualized costume. Wearing a garment without respect for the culture, or inaccurately portraying the culture misrepresents an entire group and their deep-rooted, sacred traditions.

Sharing a culture at an event, such as Diwali, intends to educate other students of different cultures about a tradition that their peers partake in. So yes, if a henna tattoo or bindi is traditionally worn at the ceremony, it is acceptable. However, if I decided to wear a bindi every day for fashion purposes, it would be inappropriate due to misrepresentation. So those celebrities like Miley Cyrus, who donned dreads at the VMAs, or adopt cultural styles and claim them as a fashion statement are insulting another culture’s values and traditions. I have to say, I never felt more beautiful than when I wore a bindi at Diwali, but it’s a tradition that I can appreciate next year when the Diwali festival returns.

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