I have never been so aware of my whiteness as I have been these past few days…ever since the moment I got my henna tattoo. I was at a party–a lovely graduation party for a dear friend’s daughter–and they had hired a henna artist. This was not the first time that I had seen this particular artist at an event; she has quite a reputation and is sought after by many people. While she is clearly of middle eastern descent, her clientele consists primarily of white folks who like the beauty of the henna tattoo. There is, to be sure, nothing wrong with admiring the beauty of the henna tattoo, nor is there anything inherently wrong with paying someone to put this artwork onto your body. But for me, as the darkness of the ink sunk into my pores, the whiteness of my history grew brighter and brighter.
Macro and microaggressions have always belonged to others. I pride myself on being fully aware of my words, my actions, and my privilege as a white woman in this western world. Until now. In a moment of slightly inebriated celebration, I allowed myself to not just covet that which belonged to another culture, but to actively take it and claim it for my own. I had crossed a line that I didn’t realize had always been so close to where I stood.
I was instantly uncomfortable with my own hand, which is, for better or for worse, permanently attached to me. While this transgression fades slowly away over the next few days, I am left trying to find ways to cover it. I knew immediately that this was a mistake when I remembered that I would be tutoring my Indian student who had, occasionally, donned her own henna ink. Would my sleeves come down far enough to cover the offending artwork? How would I respond if she asked me about it? Would she care? Was it a compliment or an affront? What was I saying to the other students in my class? Would they take this as tacit approval to commit their own acts of cultural appropriation? Or would they consider this an act of cultural appreciation?
I find it interesting that I am forced to confront this dilemma throughout my day, while the rich, beautiful ink slowly fades away, allowing my natural pigment to return and, with it, my comfort level. My comfort with my whiteness. Such a strange place to be. There is a part of me that is in awe of the beauty that snakes around my fingers, which have become unusually elegant in this new dressing. But this is a beauty that I cannot claim. It is not mine nor should it become one more “conquered land” that I inhabit.
There are things that do not belong to us. Every culture has an unspoken language, a way of moving through this world, that is unique to those who are on the inside, leaving the rest of us on the outside. While we may be fortunate enough to be invited in, we must respect the sacred space as such, admiring and appreciating, but not appropriating. There are things that do not belong to us.