Coming to India I knew there was a certain Eat, Pray, Love aesthetic I wanted to avoid. You know, whether it’s Vanessa Hudgens with her bejeweled bhindi, or the ‘intellectual’ trying to “find themselves” with south eastern philosophies, or all the white girls on Pinterest showcasing their ‘modern’ takes on henna—cultural appropriation is tacky. More than that, it can be hurtful. Back home, one of my good friends, Falguni*, likened the appropriation of her Indian culture to “pillaging a village and then putting cheap knock offs of their sacred items on the shelf above your fireplace”. That, to me, served as a pretty clear message that I needed to stay in my lane.
When I got to India, however, I noticed that the line between appropriation and appreciation looks different than it does at home. This was specifically true of henna. In the States, the general rule of thumb is that it simply isn’t for white people. To show my respect and avoid “pillaging a village”, I never had it done. But here, a lot of Indian folk have gone out of their way to encourage me to try it by setting up henna lessons for me and taking me to henna artists.
This was honestly very confusing.
1) I didn’t want to be culturally appropriative and a white-girl-in-henna is one of the classic symbols of that in the States.
2) I didn’t want to be disrespectful and outright refuse to participate when someone offers a part of their culture to me.
It’s a question I think everyone (especially white students) should ask when they are abroad: what does it mean to participate and what does it mean to appropriate in your host culture? There won’t be a concrete answer; everyone will have a different opinion on what is okay and what isn’t. But asking that question (and asking that question continuously) puts you in a mindset of learning instead of just consuming.
That said, because it was openly and enthusiastically offered to me, I did end up getting some henna and participating in the henna lessons. From these experiences, I learned that there is a difference between the traditional Indian and Arabic styles of henna; I learned which styles are typically used for different holidays and events; and I learned about the reported health benefits of henna. Still, because I know it does not belong to me, I won’t try to boast my new henna knowledge at home by doing it for others or even decorating my own body.
Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I’ve somehow figured out how to easily navigate the line between appreciation and appropriation. It is messy and something that always needs to be questioned. Not just for this one-case instance of henna, but of so many things here, at home, and everywhere else I go.
*Name changed on request. S/O to her, this gal is the greatest.