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“Can you help me put on a sari? I have an Indian wedding I am attending next weekend!”
That was at least the second time during my career I was asked that question. In both instances, I vaguely knew the person. In both instances, they randomly approached me at work.
There was the time I was in the sandwich line trying to decide between a tuna melt or an egg salad wrap. And then another time, I was walking down the hall, headed to a meeting. I believe there may have been a third time. I have likely blocked that encounter from my memory.
And so why is it that this randomly happens to me? Is it because I have a friendly face? Is it because they had seen me wear a sari before? Or is it because I am Brown?
For the record, I have never worn a sari to work. Because I actually don’t know how to put on a sari.
She asked me to help her put on a sari. So what?
It’s the “so what?” that gets me. It has been part of the narrative of my experience growing up Brown in this country. Of a whole host of things people have asked me and continue to ask me, the list includes:
“Do you know Dr. Raj? He’s the dentist we go to and he is Indian.”
“Do you know our neighbor Anuradha? She’s Indian and makes great samosas.”
“Do you know this woman named Kiran? She’s Indian and she’s also in marketing!”
We are surrounded by labels. And so at work and in our communities, we want to check the box.
Dr. Raj. Anuradha. Kiran. Apparently, I should also know every Indian person within a 50-mile radius. And sometimes the ones out of state, too.
After having worked for many years in marketing, I know we marketers make our living putting labels on products. That’s how we sell lots of stuff. Gluten free. Contains SPF 50. Paraben free. All natural. Dairy free. Made with no preservatives.
We are surrounded by labels. And so at work and in our communities, we want to check the box. We want to put people in boxes. We want to label each other. It’s an easier shortcut for our brains. To categorize, sort, and place people in the appropriate boxes. And stick a label on them.
Let me go and ask the “Korean” person I know where I can get some good bibimbap. Let me go ask the “Hispanic” person I know how to translate these instructions into Spanish for me. Let me go ask the “German” person I know where the closest beer garden is. Let me go ask the “Japanese” person I know if they can help me put on a kimono. Ugh.
When I walk into my workspaces and workplaces, my Brownness enters the room before I even have the chance to sit down and say hello. People put me into a box based on what they see as my identity. Female. Check. Asian. Check. Indian. Check. I am immediately labeled. Because that is the quickest and easiest way to understand my Brownness.
Labels do not belong on people.
If I could go back to that moment in line when I ordered the tuna melt, I would tell her again that I don’t know how to put on a sari. And, this time, I would have been more courageous. I would ask her why she thought I might be able to help her. Why did she ask me instead of someone else? And maybe this would have unlocked a great conversation.
She might also have been surprised to discover that I don’t have any good recommendations for local Indian restaurants. My mom is the best Indian cook I know and we rarely eat out.
I don’t speak or read “Hindu.” Friendly reminder that Hindi is the national language of India and being Hindu is observing the Hindu faith. Hindu is not a language. And so if I watch a Bollywood movie, or listen to Bollywood music, I have to read subtitles.
I don’t celebrate Diwali or Holi, so I can’t help you organize events at work with Indian food and lights. I celebrate Christmas for the gifts and Easter for the Cadbury eggs, of course.
I can’t recommend a good spot to learn Bollywood dancing. (And if you find one, please let me know and I will join you.)
I don’t know how to put on a sari.
I don’t know which way exactly you are supposed to tuck the fabric into your waist. How high to tuck it in and how much fabric to tuck in. How you wrap it around, how you pleat the bottom, how to place the cloth over your shoulder. And where you stick all the safety pins to make sure nothing then later unravels as you are walking. Or dancing.
I do carry a large box of safety pins to any and all Indian events we attend. And find an auntie or cousin who always comes to the rescue to help me put on the sari.
So maybe we watch YouTube together and finally figure it out. Then how about you put the sari on me instead?