Thursday, February 28, 2008

What's Beneath the Clothes?

So when I should be doing my school work I am blogging. Ah, blogs. A grad student's downfall - along with Facebook of course.

I was having a conversation with a close Desi friend of mine yesterday about the issue of racism. Specifically speaking, we were talking about non-Desis dressing up in Desi clothing (saris, shalwar kameez) for various reasons, the worst of them being Halloween. This Desi friend of mine, like me, was born and raised in Canada and it currently doing her PhD. Her and I both agreed that this phenomenon was extremely offensive.

Previously, I had discussed the same issue with another Desi friend as well as an Arab friend, neither of whom found it offensive, and both of who would consider wearing Desi clothes on Halloween themselves. Why the difference of opinion? Well, my Canadian born Desi friend and I came to the conclusion that it was because they were both born and raised outside of Canada - one in Pakistan and one in the Middle East. Neither experienced the type of racism we did about our Desi culture growing up. They didn't hear "Eww, that food stinks", or "Does your mom wear a sheet?", or "Does your dad wear a towel on his head?" The culture that once was disgusting, gross, and weird is now the thing. Everyone loves Indian food, knows about Bollywood, and is in awe of our saris. But then, when we were growing up, when we were in our most impressionable years, when we were in our identity formation years, it was not cool at all to be Desi.

So I suppose there is some bitterness there. What you once thought was repulsive you now embrace. And as much as we appreciate this new found appreciation, we still cannot forget our humiliation.

However, as bitter as some of us may be, this is not the deepest explanation. I think, a more intense reason for which I am offended at the thought of seeing someone wear Desi clothing on Halloween, is the racist undertones which occur in the presentation. These same racist undertones are present when a non-Desi person, particularly a member of the dominant group, or a White person, wears Desi clothing in other situations. For example, the White Hollywood actresses who wear saris to events, or Madonna wearing saris and decorating her hands with henna.

For years, people like myself and my family, struggled to maintain this culture. We struggled against the sneers and smirks, to maintain a sense of pride in our culture. We struggled to normalize our culture and thus ourselves. Those who grew up in the sub-continent at that same time were never a part of this struggle. They have come here now, after we made our culture somewhat normalized and made others appreciate it. They have it easy. Although they may face racism as well, their struggles will never be the same as the pioneers of our community.

Therefore, when those from outside the community don our clothing as if to say "this is fun, this is cool, this is easy" they trivialize our struggles. They fail to recognize how much we fought, often within ourselves, to make others appreciate our culture, our clothes, our food, our identities. So what we say back is "What we did to get to a point where people respect our culture was not fun, cool or easy. Now you're taking that respect away. You are taking away what is ours through a fight. You are taking away what identifies me. You are taking away what identifies my struggles. You are not appreciating our struggles. You are not respecting our fight. You're saying all that is a fun and funky outfit.You're reaping the benefits of something you never worked for nor could appreciate." And then to make that into a Halloween costume adds insult to injury. Now it's all a costume.

Now I'm not saying don't eat Desi food or listen to Desi music, etc. I am saying there is a limit which should not be crossed. And that limit occurs when you appropriate our culture and deny our experiences. Truly respecting our culture is to recognize the racism we experienced, the fight we fought.


Zeynab said...

This is a great post; I think it accurately conveys the anger, frustration, and irritation we feel at having our cultures appropriated by white western mainstream culture. This reminds me about the posts I did about Halloween costumes & bellydancing for MMW.

Gawd, those costumes still burn me up.

Jehanzeb said...

The West just has a fascination/obsession with anything exotic. Those exotic sarees, the henna's, movement arts (belly dancing, yoga, tai chi, etc.), the food, the music, etc. It's not authentic at all because it's commercialized and the true essence of it is drained.

I agree that people should show an appreciation for the culture instead of poking fun. It's like how white actors used to paint themselves black in television because Africans were not allowed to act at that time. There's a lot of racism in behaving this way.

I can't stand the people who do yoga or put a bindi on their forehead and then claim that they know everything about Indian culture.

Great post!

Pedestrian said...

really really interesting post ... it got me thinking ... I remember when I came to Canada as a 6
year old. Back then, there were very little Iranians, one little Iranian grocery shop in North York we would huddle to from Scarborough every other week to get a taste of home. Today, Toronto is flooded with Iranians (in my opinion, not always a good thing ... but that's an entirely different story) ... Of course, the Iranians situation is far different than yours - not better or worse, just different. For one thing, people don't even know what Iranian costumes look like. We are ridiculed as a state to a point where we are not even recognized as a people. Anyways ...

But I've always loved saris and Indian jewelry/fabrics. My great grandfather, in the early 1920s worked in India, and so their house (and subsequently my grandmother's) was filled with many things Indian. I loved the jewelry, the scents, the fabrics and the stories my grandparents would tell that came with them.

Then, and I don't remember when this was but possibly in 2000 or 2001, some designers, including Gucci I think, brought out their Spring/Summer collections infused with (as they called it) "fusions from India". They'd used the patterns, the jewelry, the fabrics ... and incorporated it into Western design.

At first glance, that may seem wonderful. "Fashion meets the dialog of civilizations" kind of. And all of a sudden, all the singers and movie stars were joining the bandwagon. And I hated it.

I'm not from that part of the world, and I certainly didn't see it the way you describe. I disliked it because it had suddenly become "cool" and "hip" because it had been introduced by Monsieur Gucci (or whoever it was). It's as if as soon as pop culture "brands" something, ... it's wonderful, it's great, it's hip and beautiful.

The day before that, it could have been completely neglected at best, tormented and ridiculed in most situations ... but then VOILA! Pop culture gives people the excuse to embrace something and overlook entirely what they'd been doing to it before ...

Anonymous said...

I'm a gora and I love the Asian culture, All Asia. I practice Bhakti yoga and deeply respect the Hindu religion and people.I know that there are many non-desi who haven't a clue about what trendy clothes they're wearing...a lot of it is done irreverantly.(sp?) I've seen the OM sign on a thong!!! Anyway, we must educate the gora masses, not whine about it.
Plus there are millions of people in India adopting the western style of dress, we don't complain. Thanks
Jai Radhe! JC

Farheen said...


You're right. Education is very important. But my concern comes when people don't seem open to it. I always worry that I might come across as a bitter (which I am in some ways) overly sensitive Brown person who's trying too hard to find people racist.

I had one White acquaintance once tell me about her good White friend who had married an Indian man who had been raised in India. This friend would wear saris to work all the time. I expressed a little annoyance and she said, "Oh no, it's ok. She's a teacher at an art school so being funky and artsy is just fine." I didn't know what to say without sounding rude. Esepcially when she, almost as if in anticipation of my objections, reminded me that her husband was from India and was fine with it. (This goes back to the difference between South Asians raised here and those raised there - which I found pretentious on her part). Saris - funky and arsty?? Hell no be-otch! That's my culture that's centuries old, elegant, and beautiful - not funky and artsy.

And in the same vein - when people in the East wear Western/North American clothing it is not seen as funky, weird or artsy. It's such the norm that people would almost have forgotten that the clothes are Western. They are now the international norm. But not all Western clothes are present there. You will never find a South Asian man in a kilt. Additionally, the West, with their omnipresent media, have played a huge part in the normalization of their own culture around the world.

So I'm at a loss about the education component though I do believe people need to realize the possible offense of their well intentioned behvaiours. What do you think would be a good approach to teaching people?