Is the Western Embrace of Henna Tattoos Cultural Appropriation? | Wender Mind Kids

Is the Western Embrace of Henna Tattoos Cultural Appropriation?

Editor’s note: This story is part of the annual Mosaic Journalism Workshop for Bay Area high school students, a two-week intensive course in journalism. Students in the program report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

Foram Mehta, who grew up in this country, was bullied for having henna designs or mehndi painted on her hands at Indian-American community celebrations.

“Henna was something people didn’t understand, so people thought it was weird, especially kids,” said Mehta, a content creator who grew up in Texas and lived in San Francisco until recently. “A few years later, celebrities are wearing mehndi.”

The Bay Area, Mehta’s second home, is home to a vibrant South Asian community. Since 2010, the population of people of Indian descent in San Francisco has doubled, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. As the South Asian community grows, elements of their culture such as mehndi and yoga have become fashionable, leading to debates about what it looks like to show respect for a culture, or just to take advantage of it.

For Foram Mehta, outside of South Asian culture, some benefit from their art forms without respecting the years of history in which those traditions are rooted—a practice some refer to as cultural appropriation. She believes the prosperity of the Bay Area has enabled the rise of such appropriation here.

“The Bay Area is filled with wealth and people interested in alternative lifestyles,” she said. “So in that space there are people who have the ability to change their lifestyle, which allows for greater cultural appropriation.”

However, Santa Clara-based mehndi artist Mansi Mehta appreciates the increased interest in mehndi and strives to shed light on her culture through her work. She has been practicing mehndi for 18 years, starting in fifth grade in India.

“A lot of American customers may not know the history of henna, but I guess they respect the art,” said Mansi Mehta. “As long as we remain respectful and understand certain boundaries, that’s key.”

Mohana Narayan, the head of a studio in San Jose for bharatanatyamor Indian classical dance, also believes that mehndi should be open to all people.

“Why should we think that someone else’s use would take over our culture?” said Narayan. “I’m more open”
Foram Mehta sees the cultural appropriation of South Asian culture beyond mehndi in yoga. According to Statista, a market research firm, the yoga industry generated $11.6 billion in the United States in 2020.

“Almost every yoga teacher says Namaste without knowing what it means, and that’s because they learned from yoga institutes founded by people who picked up the practice,” said Foram Mehta. “If you want to become a yoga teacher, you have to learn it properly.”

Regardless of their views on cultural appropriation, all three women agree on one thing: it is important not to detach from one’s own culture, but to develop a stronger connection to it.

“Our culture is for us,” said Foram Mehta. “It is important for us to live our lives and continue to practice what we know. It’s important to us to have community and keep our culture alive.”

Through mehndi, Mansi Mehta has found a way to embrace the sense of togetherness that has been cherished in her culture for centuries.

“Henna has been part of South Asian culture for centuries,” Mansi Mehta said. “Togetherness has been part of our culture from the beginning, that’s why we’re so connected to Henna.”

Narayan transitioned from a career in technology to teaching Indian classical dance, in part “to allow our own culture to thrive through art,” she said.

Anika Dontu, a junior at Rising Santa Clara High School, is a Bharatanatyam dancer who grew up in the Bay Area. She believes her upbringing with dance in the area has allowed her to become more aware of her identity and that of others.

“I’ve lived on the Bay all my life, so I’m fortunate to be in such a diverse area,” Dontu said. “It has made me more aware of who I am and proud while having more knowledge about all the different cultures of the world.”

Foram Mehta challenges the South Asian community and beyond to take a closer look at what differentiates cultural appreciation and appropriation.

“When people approach cultures with humility, they are on the right path to appreciating cultures rather than embracing them,” said Foram Mehta.

Khadeejah Khan is a rising junior at Santa Clara High School.