These were the exact words my son said to me on the day I was reading my children’s book, “Lights, Camera, Diwali!” to his fourth-grade classroom. I was flabbergasted. I remember feeling embarrassed when my mom wore bindis and Indian clothes to my school – but my school was primarily Caucasian. This is in stark contrast to my son’s school, which is made up of a large number of Indian American and Asian children.
I also felt like I was knocked off my feet, because I had gone ABOVE and BEYOND to make being Indian “cool” for him. I wrote children’s books on Holi and Diwali to help children, like my son, be proud of their culture in their mainstream classrooms. So, I literally didn’t know how to respond when he said, “Mom, don’t wear Indian clothes to my school.”
He stated this the morning of my Diwali reading. This gave me very little time to have an authentic conversation with him about why he felt this way. To respect him and his feelings, I dressed in my “American” clothes and brought in my “Indian” bangles, necklaces, bindis, and diyas to showcase as I read my Diwali book to his fourth-grade classroom.
I realized then that I had put what it meant to be “Indian” on a window display. The kids were able to look at and point to all the things that made being Indian so “exotic.” It was not familiar to them but “different” from the norm.
When I spoke to other parents about this, they all had stories of kids being embarrassed about their Indian clothes. Many mothers stated how their kids did not want to wear Indian clothes to non-Indian or school-related events. They also did not want their parents to wear them to these events. It was interesting because it was the same story! Their children happily wore Indian clothes to their community Diwali parties, but they were embarrassed of wearing them to these other places.
Thinking more about this, I realized that during the school-age years, children perceive the world and their lives in terms of black and white. Black and white thinking helps them understand the complex world they live in. There isn’t room for the abstract sort of thinking that takes place in adolescence, where they can see the different shades of grey. So, in their minds, a Diwali party is “Indian” and going to school is perceived as more “American.”
I also thought about how complicated my son’s shades of grey must have been when he realized that I was going into his classroom to read a Diwali book. My son’s Indian and American worlds were colliding, and he chose to associate himself with being more American. In his mind, he had concluded that you wear “American clothes” to school regardless of what culture you are learning about. Which is often the case at school.
For the next generation, we, as Indians, will need to think about ways to integrate our culture to make it more familiar to all our students. Today, our culture can be “cool” when Hollywood celebrities like Selena Gomez or Beyonce wear a bindi, sari, or henna design; however, when Indians wear these same things, it becomes perceived as primitive, ethnic or tribal.
I believe that we can do this by wearing our “Indian flair” into schools to help children make sense of their bicultural identity. It doesn’t just have to be JUST during Diwali or for special festivals, but can be a part of our day-to-day lives. I still remember when my mom came in to teach about India when I was growing up here in the 1980s. She brought in a sari, talked about the significance of saris in our culture, then asked for volunteers so she could tie a sari on them. All the girls in my classroom wanted a turn!
Today, I think about that time, and how I didn’t think being Indian was “cool” until I was given permission from my “White” friends. Before that day, they had all made fun of my cultural differences. I think these are important conversations to have with our own children so that they can learn to be proud of their culture regardless of what others may think (especially given the political climate today).
Today, when I do my Diwali book readings, I wear Indian tops with jeans (to help children relate to their bicultural identity) and make sure that all the students in the classroom try on the bangles and necklaces. The students also get a chance to make diyas and take them home. We want to engage them in the process, which will help make the unfamiliar more familiar. This will help the next generation understand and appreciate the diverse cultures that exist in our nation today.
Tips to Help Children Connect to Their Bi-cultural Identity:
Preschool years: Preschool years are when children start making sense of the world and noticing color. Talk to them about what it means to be Brown and Indian. Children learn through play at this age. Create Indian “play” food with playdough (e.g., rotis, okra) that can be used in their play kitchens. Have Indian clothes in their dramatic play area. Give them opportunities to try different types of Indian food. Celebrate special Indian festivals with family and friends.
School-age years: Discuss what makes them proud to be Indian. Explain how they don’t need permission from mainstream society to be proud of their culture. Talk about visible aspects of cultures (fashion, food, fads) and invisible aspects of culture (values and beliefs that we live by). This is the age where parents can teach children more about their own worldviews. Talk about how Indians are portrayed in the media (e.g., stereotypes of Indians as doctors, Indians with accents, Simpsons and Apu, etc.) and how this may be influencing their images of what it means to be Indian in America.
Adolescence years: Discuss hate crimes. Talk about the “Dot Busters,” a gang that used to go around harassing Indians who wore bindis. Discuss recent hate crimes against Indians, and why they occur. Bring to their attention how Hollywood celebrities are “borrowing” symbols and elements from the Indian culture today to help them be perceived as “cool” or “sexy.” Teach them about the term “cultural appropriation” and how these celebrities may not know much about the history or customs of the symbols and elements that they are borrowing. Explain how there is a fine line that can be drawn between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Help adolescent children critically think about topics from multiple perspectives. Help them become change agents by being proud of their culture and by teaching others about our culture in culturally sensitive ways. This type of commitment can help promote cultural appreciation and multicultural competence in society today.
(Dr. Amita Roy Shah is an author, educator, and entrepreneur. She is an adjunct professor at San Jose State University in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development. She is the author of It’s Time for Holi! and Lights, Camera, Diwali! She is also the founder of hybridparenting.org, an online platform to empower parents to invest in the cultural well-being of their children. She has a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.)