Negative assumptions made about people in ethnic clothing

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By Pradip Rodrigues

Last month a story out of Kolkata about Ashish Avikunthak, a film maker caught my attention. He was reportedly denied entry into a city mall for wearing a dhoti. In a Facebook post he said he was stopped by security who told him their orders were to prohibit entry of people in lungis and dhotis. He would have had no luck entering had he not reverted to throwing a few English words which seemed to work like magic because the minute the security guys realized he knew English, which meant he was educated, they let him pass. In India speaking English and dressing up in western clothing magically separates you from the masses. It also opens doors.

Now this is a fairly common practice in malls and other upmarket places where a vegetable vendor wearing a smartly cut three-piece suit could be allowed in but a wealthy businessman in a dhoti could find himself stopped cold in his tracks.

Even women wearing the ‘wrong’ kind of traditional attire could find herself deeply embarrassed like the case of one Tailin Lyngdoh from Meghalaya who was asked by Delhi Golf Club to leave the dining hall because the club’s staffers believed her traditional outfit looked like a “maid’s uniform.”

Lets face it, all over the world people make assumptions about a person based on their clothing style.

In Mississauga, summertime is when you see women in shorts walking next to a man wearing a dhoti, kurta pajamas or women wearing billowing salwar kameezes and saris. All share the same geography but live in two distinctly separate worlds.

Canadians too have made some impressions of South Asian immigrants based on the clothes we wear. Westerners who find women in ethnic finery especially the kind worn at weddings and other special occasions exotic and gorgeous. The same people are less impressed when they encounter South Asian men and women sporting ethnic clothing in the neighborhood.

Here are some of the assumptions I’ve come across over the years.

One Caucasian woman assumed South Asian women wearing traditional attire were illiterate or couldn’t speak English. This was because she worked retail years earlier the salwar-clad women she approached either directed her to talk to their husbands or simply waved her away or asked their school-going children to ask a question on her behalf.

Another Caucasian is puzzled when he sees South Asian men wearing jeans and tight t-shirts or a smart western suit while the women all wear traditional attire. “Why is it that only South Asian women dress up in loose, gawdy pajamas and crumpled tunics while the men do their best to blend in by dressing all western?” was his question, in his mind he believed the man was educated while his wife was not. It is the same sort of assumption made in India by security personnel and millions of people in India.

When I look around the streets of any western city or at airports, South Asian women often in crumpled and brightly colored salwar kameezes stand out very prominently. Invariably they speak a regional South Asian language… loudly enough for everyone to conclude they aren’t fluent in English. So westerners end up assuming that anyone who chooses to dress like that has to be illiterate, semi-literate or unable to converse in English. They won’t be barred from entering Eaton Centre or any public place, however there is a good chance that security at 5-star Indian hotels and clubs would question their status based on their clothes. Here in Canada most non-South Asian Canadians would simply ignore them.

Oddly enough there are more South Asians in the western world who end up embracing traditional Indian clothing like it was going out of style. It definitely is…in India! In Bollywood how often do you see lead female roles wearing traditional attire? You see more women in traditional clothes in a movie about Indian immigrants set in London, England or New York.

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