I Admit, I Messed Up: A Tale of Appropriation

(From The Campus Lantern – April 9th, 2015)

As I look down at my left hand right now, I see brown, thick-lined drawings of flowers. I may be exaggerating, but I feel a slight pang of shame. Why do I, a white woman, feel guilty that I’ve got henna on my hand? What’s the big deal?

I got the henna done at a UROC event last Friday by another white woman. I flipped through a paper booklet until I found a cute design that I thought I’d like to have on my hand for two weeks. I pushed the doubtful thoughts out of my head and focused on how cultured and hip I’d look with henna.

I pushed out the thoughts in my head that pointed out that henna is a practice historically used by poor folks in areas like Pakistan, India, and Africa to cool off their bodies in hot weather. I pretended that I didn’t know that henna is a cultural tradition common in weddings, birthdays, and other meaningful celebrations.

Some people argue that it is a positive thing that henna has become to popular in western culture. They see henna as a happy, beautiful tradition that should be embraced by every race and culture.

Then why do I feel guilty for indulging in henna?

Well, I think I just answered my own question.

It doesn’t mean anything to me. I just got it because I thought it looked nice. I didn’t get it for any sort of significant occasion.

I feel guilty because I appropriated something that has been a historically meaningful practice, and instead used it for my own personal, selfish aesthetic gain. I pushed out my negative thoughts when I was initially getting the henna and instead focused on how “cool” I would look.

There is a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. If I were at an Indian festival celebrating culture and I got henna done, then I might have been taking part in cultural appreciation. Instead I got a meaningless “cute” design just because I wanted to, therefore appropriating the cultural significance of henna.

The big question here is, is it alright for white people to get henna? Maybe. In certain situations. Just try to think critically and with cultural sensitivity before you do. My advice (that I didn’t take, but will follow henceforth): if you’re having second thoughts, just don’t do it.


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