Deconstructing Privilege in Online Henna Communities

This article (or series) is not meant to be an academic paper or authoritative of any experience but our own. I have worked professionally within a cultural art for over 20 years. I spent the last 2 years of my professional life working within the diversity and inclusion initiative of California’s largest nonprofit trade organization. But I do not have a background in ethnography or anthropological research; my degrees are in literature. This is intended to be a collection of thoughts that will become the first stepping stone in deeper analysis and broader discussion. I welcome your contributions and collaborations as we work through this phenomenon and seek to address inequities in the informally constructed global henna community. 

My thoughts for this post go back to a specific discussion at HennaCon several years ago. We were participating in a roundtable discussion about cultural appropriation and what we (henna artists from non-traditional henna using ethnic backgrounds including white and Latinx) could do to empower more Women of Color in the community. An attendee raised this point: Many Women of Color in America did not and still do not have reliable internet and the luxury of time to dedicate to engaging in forums and online communities of their hobbies. 

This was the first time I looked at the problem this way, and it was a major “check your privilege” moment. 

In the mid 90s, when the popularity of henna soared, many women turned to the internet to learn more. There were few or no books available in the library on henna. Information on ingredients and techniques could be gleaned sparingly from the owners of import shops and a kind word from a stranger. In many areas of the US, if you didn’t live in a big city, there simply was no way to access henna or information around henna. 

So online communities were formed to share this information, find supplies, and generally fall in love with the henna plant. These communities were predominantly white. In part, this may be because white women were looking to learn about a cultural art that was not documented but was passed on with oral tradition (this is a topic for another day- the failure of scholars to document women’s craft arts). But this was also the result of socioeconomic privilege that meant white women simply had the opportunity to participate in online forums much more easily than their non-white counterparts. 

And while internet equity has improved dramatically over the past 25 years, these early days have had a persistent effect on the makeup of the contemporary online henna community. Women who have been active in online forums for decades re-form these same networks in new configurations with each shift in platform. The unintentional consequence of relying on this established network of colleagues is a perpetuation of inequity in a space which should celebrate dramatic diversity. The consequence is that voices which should have been centered were left on the sidelines.

And we are complicit. This is something that Henna Caravan has been grappling with for some time. How can we support artists of color when our primary mode of conversation leaves so many disenfranchised? We’ve moved this work offline necessarily and have been exploring greater face-to-face community outreach. However, we failed to fully understand and address the inequity in the online spaces which are so precious to so many, and which have been under our care.  

This week, the largest online community of global henna artisans was shuttered. The founder of the group did not discuss this decision with the 20-person moderator team, of which Jessica was a part. This is a huge loss to the community and a decision we strongly oppose. One of the broadest resources of educational material on henna is now no longer a living, breathing community. It is our hope that this action is temporary, and that after a brief hiatus the group can return to full function and enact radical change that deconstructs a decades long hegemony in online henna groups.

For now, Henna Caravan will continue to provide educational resources at no cost online, and work harder to cultivate actively inclusive spaces both on and offline. 


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