I get this question a lot, and the short answer is NO, it’s not offensive to get henna if your culture hasn’t been using it for thousands of years! I honestly cannot think of a single situation in which a henna application could be relevantly viewed as disrespectful, aside from if the design itself was intended to be.
The use of henna on someone who is not descended from an Asian culture is not offensive, and I say this as a proud British Indian henna artist. I cannot even pinpoint one specific country or people to entirely associate henna with because it has been used for centuries by a variety of peoples who live in geographical areas where the henna plant grows. These cultures are rich with the history of henna and exquisite artistic talents, and it’s wonderful to see it go worldwide.
Henna is, at its basic, an accessory. It is makeup. It is jewelry. It is a fancy dress or a cute top or gorgeous shoes. The specific designs created with henna can have religious connotation, but the existence of henna as temporary body art does not. The areas of the world that henna application originate are populated with people devoted to differing religions at that.
The definition of cultural appropriation is the purposeful use of traditions from a culture other than your own. It becomes offensive when used for entertainment rather than your own heartfelt delight. So how is henna lovely where blackface is heinous? Is it harmful when someone from a culture that had or has power over another adopts something from the abused culture. Culturally appropriated Halloween costumes and celebrity fashion choices become points of contention because the individuals are adopting these traditions because they know they’ll be seen. At best it is in poor taste, at worst it is racist.
But having a henna tattoo done at a festival of your favourite Pokémon or even a traditional floral or abstract design is not offensive. It is a celebration! And that is what henna application is all about! I was born in Africa to an Indian family, and we moved to England when I was very young. As I was growing up, henna was applied when we were getting ready to celebrate weddings, births, engagements, birthdays, holidays, and more. It is fun! Furthermore, henna is a way to bring unity between cultures. Having firsthand experience with something that is from another place or people breaks down walls, reduces fear, and slays prejudice. And this is why I started to provide henna applications everywhere, from private birthday parties and wedding showers to corporate Christmas parties and public festivals. I want to share the joy and break down barriers. And for almost 25 years it has been an honour and a pleasure to do just that. Here’s to 25 more at least, right?
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