Note: Mehndi is another term for henna. I use the words interchangeably here.
“i love indian food!”
THAT’S NOT WHAT YOU SAID IN 4TH GRADE WHEN YOU MADE FUN OF ME FOR BRINGING DAL CHAWAL FOR LUNCH
Who was the first person to climb Mount Everest? No Googling — what’s the name that comes to mind? Hold onto your answer for later. For now, let’s move from mountains to music. My love/hate relationship with Madonna can adequately explain exactly how and why I came to feel the way I feel about cultural appropriation.
In my family, it was very common to decorate one’s hands for a wedding or for Eid. During my early childhood, in the days following any given celebration, I was mocked, berated, and othered by white people, young and old, for having “gross things” on my hands. I would try to educate them but was mostly dismissed out of hand. The deep brown stains would fade to orange, leaving me with an odd sense of embarrassment for choosing to other my limbs in such fashion.
All of this changed in 1998, when this happened.
Madonna, acting as a trend-amplifier, wore henna on her hands and waved them around rather extravagantly for her gothy-pagan-meets-Desi Frozen video. Other celebrities followed suit, wearing bindis as well as mehndi body art. Suddenly, henna went from something no one knew about to something that was interpreted as “trendy” on white girls. Prepacked “tattoos” could be bought at the store or fresh designs obtained from a decorator working at mall kiosks. Thanks to its popularity, I no longer was asked what those “gross things” on my hands were. I was hardly spared from othering, however; people assumed I was getting a very young arranged, forced marriage when I wore it on my hands.
Henna is no longer officially A Thing in American culture, except for the occasional mention of it as used by cancer and alopecia patients as a beautifying procedure. It is remembered as part of Madonna’s “phases”: something she tried out, popularized, then left behind, as discardable as the infamous cone bra. It is seen as passe, as a fad that died out, as a trend that’s so 1990’s.
Except that henna is not a trend, it’s an art form that spans continents and has a deep heritage that goes back thousands of years.
Many other art forms that originated with people of color follow the same trajectory: it’s unknown at best and mocked at worst, then it’s trendy for white people and an indicator of “backwardness”* for people of color, then the Western world moves on from the “trend”. Art forms created by people of color are used by white culture, then used up by it, then discarded entirely.
This cycle of consumption could be argued to mirror what happens to everything else in capitalistic cultures, including Madonna. What makes appropriation different takes us back to the query regarding Mount Everest.
Sir Edmund Hillary was the first white man recorded to have climbed Everest and the name that many remember. Meanwhile, his guide, the multilingual Tenzing Norgay, was recorded to have technically ascended first. Furthermore, it’s not exactly impossible that another Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer climbed it before Hillary even thought to do so.
White privilege is being hailed as an exciting innovator for doing things that non-white people have been doing for centuries, if not millennia, largely unnoticed by white people until a white person did it. White privilege is being given a platform from which to broadcast your voice for doing things people of color have always done, or things people of color cannot do due to lack of privilege.
It’s no wonder many non-white children grow up believing that their ancestors did nothing but serve white people: when the accomplishments of people of color aren’t completely ignored by the discourse of mainstream culture, they are attributed to the first white person to have mentioned them.
That is the problem with cultural appropriation: the cycle of consumption and inevitable excretion, along with the inability to properly recognize who originated the idea.
* This is the reason why I avoid Indian-looking embroidery, clothing, and jewelry, even if it comes from a Western department store rather than Little India. When I wear such Subcontinental accoutrement, I am treated as if I were fresh off the boat rather than trendy or stylish.