The #sareenotsorry project uses fashion to speak back to the rising anti-immigration discourse in the United States. It’s time we stop apologizing for our skin color, language, and culture.
The anti-immigration discourse is not simply about ‘illegal immigration.’ It has a long history of using labels of legality as a way to create a white United States. The Immigration Act of 1917 prohibited most Asians and other “undesirables” from entering the United States. In 1923 the Supreme Court barred people of Indian origin from U.S. citizenship and declared Indians to be “Caucasian but not ‘white persons’ in the popular meaning of the term.” Being “legal” is as flexible as being “caucasian.” And although the fear of the ‘Turban Tide’ has shifted from a question of immigration to terrorism, we South Asians (as well Irish, Italian, etc.) ought to have some empathy for our brothers and sisters that are labeled as “illegal” today.
Let’s shift the dialogue.
What would happen if we immigrants stopped trying so hard to assimilate? What if we started to feel as though we were a blessing to the countries we chose to make our home? What would it look like if we actually started to embrace the hyphen? Loving two countries does not undermine either nation, but it does threaten nationalism.
I’m Indian-American. I’m brown. I dream in Hinglish. When I am walking in the rain I sometimes sing ‘pyar hua iqrar hua.’
And I eat beef.
I understand the feeling of not wanting to be the token brown friend in the group. Being the exotic Other gets old. Real quick. So there is the obvious response of “assimilating.” But it can be exhausting to keep your American hat on from 9 to 5. It can be alienating to always make excuses for the smell of spices embedded in your clothes. And it can be confusing to always wonder if you are liked for being you or for being different.
So there is the option of surrounding yourself around ‘your people.’ I don’t see anything wrong with this option. I get it. My grandparents did this in the 1970s. But when you are born and raised in the United States avoiding America can be just as alienating as rejecting your mother’s language. The option of putting America on a pedestal while actively rejecting the food, clothes, languages, and history of your parents and grandparents is more than just alienating. It is sad. When I hear an Indian-American repeat the general American stance on India — it’s dirty, crowded, chaotic, and unsafe — it often sounds like a melody of self-loathing.
I went for the fun option: sharing my culture with my non-brown friends. The majority of my friends are not Indian, but they all know how to eat daal and roti (and they always ask for achaar/mango pickle). And trust me, everyone feels blessed after eating at my mom’s house. Most of my friends have danced in circles at garba, played with fireworks during Diwali, and cried with me during the sappiest of Bollywood films.
Embracing the hyphen is not all fun and nostalgic. We also have to negotiate our relationships with the countries we left. And since starting the #sareenotsorry project I have had to confront several uncomfortable thoughts. As India’s current PM Narendra Modi tries to juxtapose the free market deity with Ganesha and Shiva while also making Hinduism the only acceptable religion of India, I fear the sari will come to connote some sort of allegiance to the current political climate of India. The September 28 Dadri lynching, and Modi’s silence on the subject, is a prime example of the Hindu Right and the BJP weakening Indian democracy.
As a minority in America it is without question that I empathize with the minorities in India.
As a minority in America it is without question that I empathize with the minorities in India, which is why I propose we embrace the hyphen. Seeing ourselves as gifts to America and allies of the minorities in India creates a much more productive space to imagine the future of both nations.
#plannedparenthood #standwithpp #indianamerican #fashionispower #sareenotsorry #saris #sarinotsorry A photo posted by Saree Not Sorry Project (@saree.not.sorry) on
The silks and cottons of India do not belong to Hinduism, nor are they tools of oppression. The sari should not be hidden. It is a symbol of grace. The sari is selfless: it can always be reconfigured to suit your needs. The sari can teach us how to move through this world with more kindness.
Respect the sari.
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The original version of this essay appears on Ummah Wide.
Tanya Rawal recently completed her doctorate in comparative literature at UC Riverside. Her research focuses on credit/debt culture in India, Italy, and the United States. Rawal teaches courses in media and cultural studies, philosophy, and gender studies.