Before you read the blog post, please consider making a donation to one or more of the following deserving causes:
- BLAM Charity
- The Black Curriculum
- UK Black Pride
- Black Cultural Archives
- Black Lives Matter UK
- Black Minds Matter
- LGBT Foundation
- Show Racism the Red Card
- Stephen Lawrence Trust
- Stand Up to Racism
- Southall Black Sisters
- Stand Against Racism & Inequality
Two weeks ago I lightly clicked ‘Add to Story’ after editing a screenshot. I wanted to share a mind map I was using to organise my thoughts regarding racism in the henna industry. It was intended in part as a teaser post, to build interest, and also to hold myself accountable. I needed to get the blog post written while the energy for change from the Black Lives Matter movement was still high. Upload, and logoff was my intention.
Fast forward to 36 hours, and +48 text-heavy IG story slides later I had vomited the entire contents of what was supposed to be a measured, interesting, intelligent and eloquent prose for my blog. Instead I ended up with a piece-meal, throw-away shorthand social media version on my Instagram.
Well, that unravelled unexpectedly.
If you follow my social media, and also my Facebook activity you will be aware that the 50 slide emotional story then evolved into a 54-page document. A compilation of screenshots of discussions from my time on the moderator team for the 11,000 member Facebook community: Henna Hub. I held a unique position and insight on the team as the only non-white voice. And the events in the year leading up to my sudden dismissal were emotional and socially abusive, while also a jarring experience in white fragility when I was evicted. I had collected all my screenshots and analysed them, redacted some names, breaking down the power dynamics of the patterns of communication. Primarily I was doing this work to better achieve closure on a painful and traumatic time of my life. I have a counsellor now, and the sessions had given me strength and recovery enough to re-confront past situations that had been lacking in resolution. Once the document was complete I realised that I had created a visual breakdown of the message I had repeatedly (twice) tried to have heard by my colleagues. With my moral compass as the driving force, I decided to make this document available to existing mods on the team, not all of them – but specifically the few that I felt comfortable with sending it to. With the beginnings of a global civil rights movement I was acutely aware that there would never, ever be another opportunity in my lifetime where I could actually, finally be listened to. So I uploaded the document, shared it with a handful of mods, and logged off, physically shaking, fearful of retaliatory attacks, social damage, and professional criticism.
3 days later, after only two confirmed readers, a wholly unconnected (to me) discussion began in the Henna Hub, inevitably questioning the lack of Black representation in the Henna Hub moderator team. As with all topics on cultural appropriation and race in that community, it quickly descended into racist personal attacks along with aggressive white entitlement. I was in live communication with an active mod, so I agreed to release access to my document to all the mods to help them understand the systemic flaws that were generating this problem. Within the following 24 hours and in response to this, the two founders of this international community decided they would archive the entire group and end all discussions. You can no longer find it unless you were a member.
The reaction to this has been creating waves of all measures across the international henna community. It is difficult to now say “It’s just a Facebook group, get over it” as it has become clear that it was valued by a huge number of artists. 11 thousand people had joined and contributed to the building of the community. When the owners arbitrarily closed it down they demonstrated that this was not a community that belonged to the masses, but it belonged to the two individuals at the top, serving their purposes alone. For members without insight of the inner workings of the group, this action confirmed that the Henna Hub was racist and therefore implicated the entire mod team. The other 18 members of the mod team experienced a shocking betrayal as they were neither consulted or given the chance to work on the relevant improvements needed to course correct. They were witnessing their roles being vilified in reactions across social media, and they were uncomfortable with the guilt whilst having no means to address it. A new group almost immediately sprung up to step in to the void that was created, while uncomfortably not addressing the trauma that had created the need for this new space.
Since then “my document”, as I so innocuously refer to it, is now available for all to download. It had started to feel important. The Henna Hub represented a microcosm of our global society, having gentrified a 5000 year old art form, imposing a discriminatory ‘professional standard’ in its social structure which followed the template of white supremacy and systemic racism. My document was being viewed as a working example of precisely how systemic racism, passive allyship and fearful silence all perpetuated the flawed system, enabling oppression and abuse.
My intentions from my document remain clearly stated in the [most professional appearing] opening pages: I want change; I want intersectional diversity; I wanted our henna community to be the proof that progress and revolution is possible, and it could be deeply restorative.
“The objective in sharing this document is to set in motion real and tangible changes to a community which is on the cusp of irrelevance, thus losing the societal changing opportunity to evolve into the future of the henna world.”
Instead what we got was shutdown.
I’ve had to deal with a lot of repercussions. I have received messages – far less than you think – of support. I’ve received apologies – also less than you think – genuine ones, performative ones and rage-inducing empty ones, not from the people you would expect. I have become a signpost for fellow Henna Hub trauma victims – people who had been living with the experience of being gaslighted, excluded, and socially abused, for pointing out racism. I have been drawn into tiring discussions, especially with white people about how difficult but necessary this self-exploration is. I have been blocked, and caught it happening. And I have faced new attacks of aggressive white privilege, white guilt and entitlement- all stemming from the deep discomfort and denial of being called-out as racist.
I can tell you here: I am racist. I benefit from the pervasive system of white supremacy which exercises systemic racism on a daily, hourly, minute-to-minute basis and has done for many, many centuries. I have internalised racism, especially from my family and upbringing. I have been a textbook perfect example of the model minority myth, which means I have contributed to the oppression of people of my own heritage, possibly also oppressing part of myself that I have never examined, but I have also been permitted access to all spaces and elite spheres of influence based on my well-behaved, educated, well-spoken, good immigrant appearance. I have been able to travel the world, and activate my privilege with a British passport. I have used my privilege as a henna professional to judge and condemn others for their henna choices, deciding who is and who isn’t a legitimate “professional” henna artist. And I have enabled the abuse of marginalised people with my silent fear of social damage. The experiences I could tell you if I didn’t feel bound by social etiquette would change the culture of idolatry within henna art, and my silence protects the abusive nature of some of these idols whom I have worshipped – I acknowledge my part in this enduring damage.
So. Are you able to truthfully tell me, or even tell yourself that you are absolutely Not Racist?
My viewpoint is that the sooner we can all face up to our racism (internalised, or well-meaning, or ill-intention, or otherwise), the sooner we can Get To Work on it. It serves none of us to waste valuable energy on denying its existence, believing [wrongly] that it is up for debate. Additionally, your denial is DAMAGING and traumatic for descendants of generations upon generations of oppressed Black, Indigenous, People of Colour. Let’s use the metaphor of the creepy Uncle who molested you – who you have to eat a family dinner with every Sunday. One day the family dinner conversation is to discuss the different nuances of sexual abuse, and a “spectrum” of consent (both words that I have heard to describe racism). Would this be acceptable to you? Would you agree with the dinner discussion that abuse is a spectrum? Or would you simply feel traumatised? BIPOC oppressed by systemic racism live day-to-day with the trauma of racism. It is not up for debate. It is a substantial fact of life that white people simply have never needed to carry. And now is the time to DO SOMETHING about it, not wring your hands worrying about getting it wrong.
Despite all the trauma-inducing repercussions that I naively didn’t prepare myself for, I have also experienced positive responses, reactions and [hopefully] a real chance at change through the ripple effect. I’ve been given a seat at the table to discuss how to make a safer, inclusive, intersectional space for the henna community. I have held deeply fulfilling conversations on understanding the omniprescence of racism. And in my self-education I have learned invaluable insights into the significance of identity and belonging that I have been able to apply not only to my own life, but also to my children’s. And for the first time ever, I am daring to maybe, possibly, tentatively allow myself to dream of a better, safe, and beautiful henna community.