Swiping through your daily Instagram feed nearly always entails encountering a photo of a girl showcasing her newest henna designs. Most people make a quick decision as to whether or not the photo deserves a precious like, then move on. The girl’s post doesn’t stick out to most people as offensive or controversial. Rather, it’s viewed as artsy, indie and hip. However, I find this post incredibly insulting. Each one I encounter is faced with a flash of frustration and annoyance. Nonetheless, I try to brush it off. After all, it’s just another person “appreciating” my culture.
Indian culture has become increasingly trendy over the last several years; from yoga to mehndi (henna) and bindis, my culture has turned into something people dabble in when they have too much free time. As of late, mehndi has captured the attention of several of my peers. Quite often, girls will show up to school flaunting their newfound henna skills and receiving copious amounts of attention and compliments. Yet a majority them have little to no affiliation with Indian culture, nor do they know the true meaning behind their newfangled obsession. They’ve taken a part of my culture and adopted it into theirs, while stripping it of its symbolism and history. This appropriation has transformed mehndi from a traditional art that entails elaborate ceremonies into a cute and trendy temporary tattoo.
The word mehndi is derived from the sanskrit word mendhikā. In Indian culture, the most common use for mehndi is in a mehndi ceremony, a major pre-marital ritual. During a mehndi ceremony, a family member or a professional mehndi artist will apply henna on the bride’s hands and feet. The mehndi designs are extremely intricate and take several hours to complete. It is believed that the darker the color of a bride’s mehndi, the happier her marriage will be.
However, very few people who use mehndi know any of this. They view darker henna as a temporary tattoo that will last longer than normal. Furthermore, they do not understand the symbolism behind Indian designs and blindly incorporate them into their artistic projects. Little do they know that the pretty paisley they integrated into their design symbolizes fertility or that the sahasrara they used represents enlightenment of the soul. They do not even know what a sahasrara is. Instead, they call it the “pretty-flower-looking-thing.” I feel honored that some people respect my culture so much that they created a new name for a symbol of enlightenment!
Arguing that this attraction to the art of mehndi is appreciation and not appropriation is both inaccurate and demeaning. I don’t have the naivete to believe that several high schoolers have suddenly become infatuated with a love for Indian culture and want to truly appreciate it. If that were true, girls wouldn’t be posting pictures of “artsy” henna designs that actually represent their fertility and foretell their happy marriage (but who cares what it means, it looks good and that’s all that matters isn’t it?). There wouldn’t be people who walk around wearing bindis just because they look cool or people saying “namaste” in attempt to find inner peace without truly knowing the implications this word has.
I do not have a problem with people who adopt aspects of my culture so long as they take the time to genuinely learn about it and truly respect it. What I do have a problem with is ignorance. I have a problem with people ignoring the meaning and significance behind the part of my culture that they are stealing. I have a problem with people prefacing their justifications with “I don’t know much about your culture, but I do this for fun, not to be offensive.” If you don’t want to be offensive, then you have two options: stop appropriating my culture or take the time to learn and appreciate it.