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.