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Mehndi Missives

Can we all just relax about henna?

It was the hissy fit heard around the country:


Well, it wasn't a tattoo ... it was henna. The child had gotten her little hands decorated with flowers, swirlies and her name—Leah—as part of a school program designed to expose youngsters to other cultures. 

Leah's mom had gotten en email advising that henna would be offered at the event, but to be fair, the school didn't give parents any details about henna ahead of time so that she could make an informed decision.

So, Leah comes home with her hands all decorated, the henna doesn't wash off, so her mom goes to the Internet and somehow manages to perpetuate her own ignorance:

"It's upsetting to go through Christmas with another religion's celebratory symbolism all over my daughter's hands," was the money quote.

How she interprets a flower as "religious symbolism" is beyond me, but the truth is that henna doesn't belong to any particular religion, and Jews and Christians in the Middle East and Southeast Asia use henna as well as do Muslims and Hindus.

Nevertheless, henna can get people nervous and upset. The mom in Texas appeared to interpret an innocent cultural exchange as some sort of nefarious plot to compel her daughter to worship Allah or Vishnu ... and at Christmas! Perhaps the best response to this silly notion came from blogger Nikita Redkar at Brown Girl Magazine:

I've been inhaling secondhand Christianity for so many Decembers that the irony took a moment to register. Here is a little girl who, not unlike me as a child, was curious and learning about cultures and religions different from her own. Her innocence is still untainted by the schisms of race and wore henna for an appeal that's independent of cultural significance, much like I give and receive presents for Christmas every single year. But her mother is upset about a temporary cultural stamp on her daughter when the many non-Christian families in America have been permanently engrained with instructions to consume Christmas culture.

Way to go, Nikita. And while you're at it, could you also advise certain folks from traditional henna-using cultures to stop having hissy fits themselves when they see white people wearing henna?

True story: A friend who I regularly henna—a pale blond who is as white-bread Southern as I am—was being treated for a third-degree burn on her left hand in the emergency room at UAB Hospital. A female doctor who was either Indian or of Indian heritage saw henna on her non-burned hand and completely flipped out.

"Don't you know what that means????" she yelled. 

Yeah, she does and so do I. Go take a Xanax. (I still can't believe she had the unmitigated gall to berate a patient.)

As Nikita Redkar said in her post, "While being cognizant of cultural appropriation, we should be allowed live and learn and be part of the experiences of others when they welcome us with open arms. The best part about cultures is sharing."

Indeed, indeed. And for that sharing to be successful, both sides need a healthy helping of graciousness. Nothing and no one is served by getting into snits. I'll finish with one more fine quote from Ms. Redkar:

"I truly believe it's impossible to not feel a part of someone once you get to know them, because despite our many identities of race, sex, or religion we are, after all, the same collection of muscles and bones at our very core. The paradox of culture is that it has the power to both unite us and separate us, depending on how it's consumed."



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