I was prompted to write this because, as a self-identified pro-intersectional vegan, I couldn’t find any articles that were easily accessible and addressed this specific issue.
It’s unfortunate that vegans of colour do need to write new content to address the same types of issues, but it’s still necessary when people have a hard time understanding and considering why some things are problematic.
Many thanks to my colleague, Sonia Aujla-Bhullar, for her helpful feedback and suggestions on this article.
(Image Credit: RAJA RANI Bridal Mehndi Design)
The dangers of cultural appropriation have been discussed in detail over and over and over again, but festival-goers in North America still remain genuinely confused and defensive about using non-Western cultures as they see fit.
Due to this abundance of existing literature on the topic (just replace “bindi” or “yoga” with “henna”), I did not think it was necessary to explain why white artists shouldn’t be practising or selling Mehndi, at VegFests and other Western festivals, yet here we are.
In particular, vegans seem generally resistant to give up their attachments to Eastern traditions, citing their veganism as morally aligned with deeply spiritual aspects of these cultures. While this connection between veganism and Eastern cultures is likely symptomatic of a wider cultural disregard of colonization, the notion that veganism is the pinnacle of moral enlightenment seems to enable dangerous whitewashing of culturally specific garments, ideas, and practices.
Before I continue, I’d like to address the inevitable question about whether this is “racist” against white people. It’s not, because, in order for something to be racist, certain elements need to exist:
- It needs to be systemic (a type of discrimination that negatively impacts an entire group through various social structures, eg., prisons, hospitals, and housing)
- It needs to be intergenerational (the same or similar forms of discrimination occurred or affected multiple generations of a group, eg., redlining, social poverty)
- It needs to occur in micro, mezzo, and macro discourses ((where patterns of similar sentiments are shared by groups in society, e.g., stereotypes in news media and school textbooks)
- SO, an individual act of ‘rudeness’ between two people is not necessarily racism as much as it is just personal prejudices — while white people CAN experience prejudice, they CANNOT experience reverse racism because it does NOT exist.
- For more about this, check out this book or this book or this article here.
With all that said, now let’s move onto the reasons why white henna practitioners should re-think their participation at community festivals…
- Colonization – When white henna artists get involved in festivals, they are reproducing an ongoing colonial legacy.
For nearly 200 years of British imperialism, Indian people were subjugated through colonial violence including genocide, cultural destruction and the theft of resources like tea, spices, and fabrics.
India’s own systems of government  were destabilized and disempowered as a result of British interference – such as how the British falsely assumed the Indian Caste system operated hierarchically, similar to the European class system. Residual beliefs still exist in India like the physical inadequacy of specific peoples (those with darker skin, assumed to be unintelligent and destined for a life of servitude). Many of these same effects of colonization remain alive and well in contemporary North America too – specifically for this situation, when our Indian relatives wear henna, speak with an accent, or wear a sari, they are called “fobs” and told, “go back to their own country”.
It’s decidedly UNCOOL for a brown person to wear henna, yet when white people “discover” henna, it is fashionable? This just ends up reproducing colonial history and the same oppressive power dynamics.
- Context – Henna has never been historically significant for white people, and so they aren’t entitled to it.
It’s really that simple!
Henna has Middle Eastern roots (Afghanistani culture) and has also been integral in some aspects of North African cultures too. For people of the Indian diaspora, henna is linked to sacred and important celebrations, used as a decorative adornment to represent virtues of patience and respect for family, elders, and tradition. Henna is used frequently as a coming-of-age ritual that marks significant life events, usually weddings.
When white people lift the visual characteristics of henna alone for literally superficial purposes, divorced from all traditional context, they transform a rich and nuanced art into a flat and meaningless fashion accessory.
The “hows” and the “whys” of our heritage and identity are stripped away in favour of a short-lived trend that can be picked up and discarded without consequence.
- Money – White people need to stop profiting off of non-white legacies.
This is where many people seem to get hung up.
Picture a situation where a white person has travelled to India and studied with an Indian expert, all in order to ensure that the understandings they impart are “authentic” and that their practice is done “properly.” This represents a best-case scenario, and yet there still remains the relentless desire for white society to profit from another culture while doing nothing to uplift or empower people from that same group.
Using non-Western knowledge on an individual level to be creative is acceptable in most circumstances, but profiting from it?
Profiting from it, and doing nothing in the face of racial and social injustices against Indian and other historically oppressed people?
That is just hypocritical and appropriative.
It represents a level of privilege tied directly to the colonial attitude of entitlement; the ability to steal freely and without consequence, while simultaneously distancing oneself from the oppression and marginalization faced by the people whose culture has been stolen.
If white henna artists are truly interested in appreciating rather than appropriating, they could at the very least donate the money they generate to an Indian non-profit society or refuse to accept payment at all.
- Opportunity – Unpack the real reasons why white people have this opportunity.
Think about how opportunities to practice and represent henna occur within North American festivals: when white henna artists profit from or otherwise benefit from having a presence at festivals, they are implicitly reinforcing a colonial anthropological narrative where a Western individual, initially naïve to a culture, manages to learn and master specific elements of that culture to eventually surpass the very people they learned from.
White henna artists are indirectly saying “I am an expert at this, and I deserve to be the one to represent henna at this festival.”
Do you get why this is a problem when white people assume they know Indian traditions better than Indians?
Invariably, this rhetoric excludes and further subjugates Indian henna artists by preventing them from accessing opportunities that they should, as practitioners of their own culture, be entitled to experience free of more Western interference.
Let me summarize: appropriation IS the lack of giving due respect – it is an apathy about issues concerning those who practice their own culture in a very historically significant way that involves generations of oppression, shame and resistance.
At its most basic and fundamental level, appropriation is about unfairness – while brides anticipate the sharing of ritual and associated meanings of happiness and blessings with family members during wedding celebrations, white festival-goers get to access, benefit from, and later discard henna as fashion trends wane.
What is problematic is the ongoing hegemonic politics that Westerners can replace any in-depth dialogue between cultures and history, instead choosing to exotify sacred traditions to the point where original meanings become diluted and eventually forgotten.
 This is an extremely watered down history. The history of India pre-British colonization was quite complex – no set ruling system, other than the Mughal empire which was situated mainly in present-day Northern India and Pakistan. The South, for example, has a very diverse history, and elsewhere all over India, the governance system was layered, adding to the complexity prior British imperial rule.
Meneka Repka PhD (@menekarepka) is an instructor at Alberta College of Art and Design. Her current research questions the neutrality of curricular discourse in Alberta by examining how dominant interests in the meat industry influence schools. Prior to completing doctoral studies, she worked as a high school and junior high teacher. Meneka’s research interests include Animal liberation, Critical/Radical Animal Studies, Critical Sociology, Critical Race Studies, environmental sustainability, environmental education, discourse analysis, youth activism, and social justice education.
I would have expected a more well-researched article from a PhD! “White” people DO have a history of henna usage, in fact it was used in Europe before it ever made its way to India. I mean, fuck, what does “white” even mean in your context? Does it mean Caucasian? Or does it mean European? Either way, both the Caucuses and Europe have a long history of henna usage.
Henna has been a “trend” for at least 5000 years, I don’t see that going away anytime soon. Not to mention, henna has historical usage by “whites” (Europe and the Caucuses) which actually pre-dates its usage in India. For a PhD, I’d expect at least a baseline amount of research before writing an article so full of factual errors. Disappointing. And nice work stealing an image to use for your cover photo, speaking of unlawful appropriation. What a hypocrite! I’m disgusted.
For someone who cares so much about uplifting “brown people” (you seem to use the word “white people” a lot in this article), you used an image that belongs to an artist and did not credit them. Not to mention, your article contains a lot of factual errors. “Henna has never been historically significant for white people” is wrong – please educate yourself by actually reading up on the history of henna across the world – http://eshkolhakofer.blogspot.ca
“Do you get why this is a problem when white people assume they know Indian traditions better than Indians?” – As an Indian, I do not have a problem with this! Majority of Indians do not actually know how to create natural & real henna paste; they buy harmful cones from manufacturers (henna paste does not have a long shelf-life). Yes, I have been called a “fob” in the past by my high school peers, when my family immigrated to Canada. However, that does not mean that I will carry that experience with me throughout my life. I stand with all henna artists who love and appreciate this art form and keep it alone, REGARDLESS of the skin of their colour and the atrocities committed to my forefathers by the British in colonial Indian. This is 2017. A “white girl” *correction – henna artist* who has invested her money and time into mehndi; and uses the highest quality Bulgarian lavender essential oil to hand-mix henna paste is far more “woke” than an Indian aunty who refuses to change her ways and continues to buy chemically-adulterated “henna” cones.
appreciate this art form and keep it alive, regardless of the colour of their skin (correction to some errors I made while writing the above comment).
P.S. When are women going to stop telling other women what they can wear!? It’s almost 2018.
I am saddened by the ignorance in this article. I am a “white person” yet I still have ancestors who used henna. Most people do. As a henna artist, I have only felt absolute love and encouragement from my Indian counterparts. Discovering Henna truly saved my life, and I have been connected with people from around the world because of it. Henna is meant to be shared, and I believe the world would be a better place if people chose to embrace and love other cultures, instead of insisting on separation and hate.
Wow! What’s you problem with henna? I guess according to you white people should never teach karate or cook egg rolls. Whites should never put Christmas lights on their house since whites didn’t celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights. Probally should stop eating fryed chicken and watermelon too huh?
Some of the best henna artists in the world are white people and have done their homework and are passionate about the art and would like to share it with the world no matter color they are. You should open your mind a little and take full that chip of your shoulder!
Although you have raised interesting points from a specific perspective, I think there are some key elements that were missed. First being that henna, while belonging to Indian culture, is not *solely* Indian. You did mention in a sentence or two of different regions, but your entire article seems to say “henna is Indian, India was colonized by white people, therefore white people should not do henna.” I respect your opinion but what is bothersome is that you are enforcing it on others. This linear way of thinking is truly unfortunate and hurts the integrity of the art form.
Henna is evident in religious customs such as Judaism, Hinduism and Islam, it has strong roots in Middle East and South Asia. It has made a global impact over centuries. The earliest physical evidence is on Egyptian mummies. While it means something special in regards to Hindu ceremony (celebration), it means something else to some North African tribes (mourning). So… maybe then you can tell me which part are Indians appropriating and which part is where Africans are missing their mark?
To say that an art form that has been embraced my different cultures and religions is no longer art because of its involvement in a part in history is a deeply unfortunate. Henna was not used as a form of retaliation in India during the British colonization, it does not hold any significance to deep Hindu traditions as it was used throughout many different regions. If the vegan movement is coming from Indian traditions, then that’s a big issue that should be addressed independently. When bindi is worn as a fashion statement, that’s a problem as bindi is specific to Hindu culture (and as far as I’m aware) only Hindu culture. I feel proud to have my fellow white brethren embrace an art form and bring their voices into it. It IS art, art travels different cultures (as is evident) and is embraced by different cultures. I truly feel that you are equating henna with India as if India has a sole claim to a thousands-years-old, multi-regional tradition and that is a disservice to henna’s integrity.
I see you are appropriating the Western blazer and T-shirt. I feel so appropriated right now.
I love this. I am a part of the Henna Hub group on facebook where, mostly, white women do not see anything wrong with doing random doodles and calling it mehndi.A lot of them even had the nerve to say Europeans did it first so really its Asain cultures who are appropriating mehndi. These people are delusional, and even after they read your article, all they could say was that your clothes in your picture are cultural appropriation. Henna hub on facebook is a BIG disappointment.
Could we all stop using the term “white”? You mean “European” or “Euro-American” and the related terms. By using “white”, you are perpetuating a false reference to all the attributes of this (non) color. Same for “black”, which should be African, Afro-American, Ghanian, Kenyan, or the like.