Your Cultural Attire

Conversations about appropriation sometimes miss the complexity of culture.

| Spring 2018

  • Mannequins wearing robes, chadors, abayas in many colors and patterns to cover women in traditional Muslim fashion on a street in Yaroslavl, Russia.
    Photo by Getty Images/vermontalm
  • Beautiful handcrafted stylish Designer Indian Mojari from Jodhpur-Rajasthan, Styled for comfort Creamish Designer Royal Mojari, Mojari is recognized as the most classic footwear for men.
    Photo by Getty Images/Kailash Kumar

MANY YEARS AGO, when I lived in Washington, DC, I was invited to a party to celebrate the end of the Muslim month of fasting known as Ramadan. Guests were asked to dress in what the host described as “your cultural attire.” It was an odd request—more fitting for a costume show than for a religious gathering—but I wanted to attend so that I could be around other Muslims like me. Still, I had no idea how to dress for the party. I was born and raised in California to Gujarati Indian parents from Tanzania, so I decided to wear what I thought back then best described my culture: a pair of khaki pants, an Oxford button-down shirt, and white Chuck Taylor Converse All Stars. My companion, a Malay woman who was born and raised in the Midwest, opted to wear jeans and a fitted Gap sweater. We took the elevator to the top of the host’s posh apartment building on Massachusetts Avenue, hitting the stop button every few floors to take in the view of our nation’s capitol. When we reached our destination, the guests greeted us with confused stares. Are you sure you are at the right party? Did you not read the invitation, their faces seemed to ask.

Most were dressed in what could be called traditional South Asian attire—knee-length shirts known as kurtas for the men, billowy and brightly colored salwar khamizes for the women. A few from Gulf Arab states wore ankle-length crisp white gowns called abayas. Some from Nigeria wore striking and shiny dashikis from Lagos.

I tried to defend my fashion choice by arguing that most of us in that room, at least those who were born and raised in the US, had been asked, at some point or another, to play dress-up at school, most often by our teachers. Weren’t we tired, I wanted to ask the room full of guests, most of whom were people of color like me, of having to “ethnicize” ourselves for the benefits of our mostly white teachers who insisted we had to dress a certain way to look, say, Japanese? I thought, perhaps naively so, that by wearing khakis that night I was trying to show that being an Indian American is about how I view the world, not about the garments that drape me.

But my argument fell flat—dude, just enjoy these kabobs, the others in the room suggested—so I decided to share my own experience of humiliation. During the Gulf War in 1990, when I was a freshman in high school, I was routinely asked by my teachers to speak about being an Arab. I was even asked to bring Arab food to class, even though I have no roots in that part of the world. In fact, I didn’t even know if there is exactly one type of Arab food, given the multiplicity of Arab identities. I would probably have preferred to talk about my love for Birkenstock sandals, given my style back then, but it was almost always the “ethnic” stories my teachers loved the most from me and other kids of color at my school.

That’s the thing about identity: sure I can claim that my identity is as a Lakers-loving Indian American but that was always trumped by my teachers—nearly all of them white—who insisted to the rest of my school that I was something and someone else. Here, wear these foreign-looking clothes. Talk about being Middle Eastern. And thank us for giving you the chance to speak.

Now, years later after that Washington, DC, party and particularly after having lived for two years in Portland, I finally see the other side: Wearing traditional attire was its own act of defiance, a way of reclaiming pride in clothes that many of us children of immigrants were ridiculed for wearing because they looked “exotic.” After all, my father and mother were born in British-controlled Tanzania and the very act of wearing their cultural garb before independence was seen as an act of rebellion, a way for them to push back against the colonial mindset that to dress “ethnic” is to be “uncivilized.”

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