According to the 2010 Census, there are 2,843,391 Indian Americans living in the United States. That’s slightly larger than the population of Chicago. Some have been here for decades; others are first generation.
Although my dad grew up in the US and my parents are fairly “Americanized”, it’s safe to say that I have felt the pull between my two cultures more than once. I’ve been feeling it more recently, with the rise in popularity of certain aspects of Indian culture in modern pop culture.
Ask any Indian American girl living in the United States what they think of “henna”, and they’ll probably wince at that word.
Many other girls, like me, have grown up going to Indian weddings and painting our hands with mehendi. Not henna. Mehendi. Henna simply refers to the plant where the leaves for the mehendi paste come from. Nowadays, I see “henna” everywhere: the mall, festivals, and even Michaels. You can buy a “Henna Kit” from Walmart. I see girls everywhere walking around with “henna” on their hands and body.
Don’t get me wrong – I love that Indian culture can be embraced by millions of people here in the United States. What I don’t love is the double standards in place.
I remember talking to my cousin several months ago about the “henna” trend. We recounted countless times in elementary school where we would come to school with mehendi on our hands. Always, some insensitive kid would remark, “Ew, what’s that stuff all over your hands?” I thought it would stop after elementary school. But it didn’t.
I walked into Spanish class freshman year of high school, after attending my aunt’s wedding, with intricate mehendi designs all over my hands. As soon as I sat in my seat, my seat partner, a junior, tastefully remarked, “What’s that sh*t all over your hands?” To this, I replied, “Nothing”, and quickly hid my hands from sight.
Looking back, I remember that moment with sadness and anger. Sadness that I was embarrassed to display my culture, embarrassed to reconnect with even a small part of my heritage. Anger that the white girls in my class could come to school with “henna”, and it would be hailed as cool. I remember seeing so many of these girls in the hallway with “henna”, and I felt angry that if I did the same, I would be made fun of. This double standard harmed my sense of identity, and it made me angry more than anything.
I’m all for people of other ethnicities embracing my culture, but what I’m not for is any kind of mockery when I try to do the same. Let the white girls embrace mehendi. But let me do it too – it is my culture, after all.
Another point of anger for many Indian Americans lies in the music festival Coachella.
Visit Coachella and you’re sure to find a diverse group of attendees. With this varied group of attendees also comes a wide range of outfits. In recent years, festival-goers have faced backlash for offensive costumes that have appropriated other cultures. Of course, Indian culture is often appropriated in Coachella outfits. Celebrities like Vanessa Hudgens and the Jenner sisters can don a bindi and wear it for the festival.
After being worn by celebrities, female festival-goers everywhere decided to make a bindi a fashion staple at Coachella. You can even buy “Coachella Bindis” on Etsy. The bindi has been made into a fashion statement, rather than being understood for the cultural symbol that it is. Bindis are extremely important culturally for Hindus, as they are seen to symbolize a “third eye”. When people who are not Indian wear bindis to Coachella, it diminishes the cultural significance of bindis.
Furthermore, it propagates a double standard: let every non-Indian girl wear a bindi, but if an Indian girl does it, then she’s being too ethnic. It’s hard to embrace your culture if you feel uncomfortable doing it. Most Indian people are not against sharing aspects of their culture. We oppose societal norms that make us feel marginalized for trying to embrace our identity; we oppose norms that allow the commodification of our culture with no sort of cultural appreciation or understanding.
Cultural appropriation is not just limited to Indian culture. However, arguing about the fine line deeming what is cultural appropriation is not conducive to any form of change. Cultural values are meant to be embraced by other people. The very definition of culture is to allow people to bond over shared experiences. Erase the double standards and empower all cultures.
Also published on Medium.