When I was in India last, I acquired a new pet peeve, one that irritates me far more than it should:
In the USA, sure, we’re different, we’re quaint, we’re ethnic. Salwar Kameez/Kurtas/Saris/Lehngas/Sherwanis are our traditional ethnic (read funny-looking)dress. We’ve all had this conversation with a non-desi at a desi wedding:
“Why is the bride wearing red?”
“Well, some brides wear white, but for others, wearing red or pink is our ethnic tradition.”
“Oooooh, that’s so exotic”
Ethnic means we’re different from them.
But in India, why are Indian clothes called ethnic? Ethnic connotes the other, the habits of the minority, things that are unfamiliar to mainstream society. None of this applies in India for Indian clothing. There is no them to be different from.
Why not call it “Western” vs. “Indian” clothing? Or (although this is not accurate) “Western” vs. “Traditional Clothing”? Or, if you think the term ethnic refers to the fact that various types of clothing have regional roots, why not say “Gujarati Lehngas” and “Punjabi Salwar Kameez” etc? Better yet, why not just say Sherwanis rather than “ethnic Sherwanis”? I just don’t get it.
Then again, if you consider the breadth of my ignorance about fashion, the fact that I don’t understand this one little thing is really the least of my troubles
The word ethnic originally meant “gentile” or “goyim”. This sense that it refers to foreign people rather than all people has been with the word ever since it was in the original greek:
WORD HISTORY When it is said in a Middle English text written before 1400 that a part of a temple fell down and “mad a gret distruccione of ethnykis,” one wonders why ethnics were singled out for death. The word ethnic in this context, however, means “gentile,” coming as it does from the Greek adjective ethnikos, meaning “national, foreign, gentile.” The adjective is derived from the noun ethnos, “people, nation, foreign people,” that in the plural phrase ta ethne- meant “foreign nations.” In translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, this phrase was used for Hebrew go-yi-m, “gentiles”; hence the sense of the noun in the Middle English quotation. The noun ethnic in this sense or the related sense “heathen” is not recorded after 1728, although the related adjective sense is still used. But probably under the influence of other words going back to Greek ethnos, such as ethnography and ethnology, the adjective ethnic broadened in meaning in the 19th century. After this broadening the noun sense “a member of a particular ethnic group,” first recorded in 1945, came into existence. [Link]
What does the word mean to them?
Again, why is putting the word “ethnic” in front of “Sherwani” or “Kurta Pyjama” economical? There are no western Sherwanis or Kurta-Pyjamas are there?
Just a note, and I apologize if this has been already said, but it’s hard to read through 50+ comments: From my understanding (which is based solely on one half of my family) brides don’t wear white because widows have to wear white. It’s kind of like how it used to be taboo for even guests to wear black to Western weddings, but worse, it would be like the bride wearing black.
Right… Isn’t the last thing India needs a bunch of abcd’s pontificating about their English.. I take it as you have atleast finished improving your spelling skills by now.. 😉
i noticed this to when i went to the hyderabad central mall where all the desi clothes were named ethnic clothes. This problem does not exist in akistan as far as i have seen, and i think it is cuz india has taken to western culture way more than pakistan. I think it’s sad, soon enough are samosas are gonna be called “ethnic” dumplings. ahahaha.
i apologize for the awful wording, i just woke up from a nap
Referring to desi clothes as “ethnic” in the desh itself is totally absurd and counter intuitive, but I think it has something to do with the status of the subcontinent’s fashion industry these days and the shifts they’re making
A lot of the designers that debut lines in Fashion Week there are trying to go “Western” with “ethnic” flare read: legitimizing desi fashion in the eyes of desis in the subcontinent by making it western-clothing compatible, making it acceptable for non-desi customers by not being too “ethnic” [read funny looking], and relegitimizing it in the eyes of desis by showing them that the non-desis love it too) all while trying to carve out names for themselves as designers (it also has a lot to do with the rise of the desi ready-to-wear market) bye bye tailor ji!
So…after all this thought & trying to put “ethnic” in perspective, all i’ve come up with is: maybe its just the new buzz word for chic? grrr…annoying
but how is this any different from the way Koreans or Chinese refer to their “ethnic” “traditional” “costumes”? err…is this what we call progress?
Oh, and great book to check out:
Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Indian Dress authors: Carla Jones, Ann Marie Leshkowich, and Sandra Niessen
There’s a whole chapter on how the Shalwar Kameez was made chic and more popular in India & Pakistan after Princess Di wore one on a trip to South Asia in 1997.
Great post Ennis.
I think the word ethnic is used because that is how it was understoof during the Raj when English was first widely taught. “Native” and “ethnic” carry the same connotation. The main problem is the unwillingness of many upper class Indians to shed the remnants of their English educations; my mom for instance still has the idea that nearly anything British is ideal or beautiful, because she went to schools and read books that enphasized this. In once sense that’s why they renamed all the major cities, and in the South the language used on signs has been a major political issue among Dravidian nationalists. maybe the north should catch-up, I’ve never heard Indian clothes referred to as “ethnic” in the South.
Â“I think the only people who would read into this are uptight ABDs and Hindutvadis. Strange bedfellows indeedÂ”
Truer words have not been posted here.
Â…its again the same western-liberal-elitist concepts in the service of a certain ABD-centrism, looking for meanings which donÂ’t exist to the India bornÂ….as we had previously with the debate on the Time coevr.. Â…such contrived debates only throw up insecurities of the real intellectually colonized, even if presented in a barely restrained intellectually superior languageÂ….
In my opinion ABDs often see these issues more clearly than many Indian-born people do. This goes back to a debate I had on this blog several months ago…the irony of young, thoroughly westernised people from Mumbai somehow feeling more authentically Indian than ABDs, simply because of geographic provenance and having physically grown up in India; despite the fact that in many ways they are more ‘confused’ than the ABDs they mock.
The ethnic tag makes me cringe, and is yet another example of how the urban Indian mindset is so influenced by Western ideas (I’m not immune to it myself).
But this debate does make me think that issue of identity is not such a big deal for Indians as it might be for the Indian diaspora (I hope I don’t offend anyone with that phrase). Whatever the degree of Westernization, Indians in India are still comfortable with their identity (most of them anyway) and may not see these issues as fundamentally important.
I totally disagree. If these are not issues in India among “real Indians” as you guys implicate, then why were there language riots? Why is the choice of language a primary poltical issue in half the states in India? Perhaps it is you middle-class Indians that are out of touch with the public due to your social climbing, and not the people on here who are rightly aware of the irony. Or perhaps you simply don’t understand stand the connotations of powers of language. Read Michael Foucoult. Or maybe the people on this site are a poor representation, and there are lots of people in India who see this same irony. Hmm…might be a little of each.
I’ll get my bricks.
I understand what people are saying about the word “ethnic” not having the negative connotation that ABDs are giving it, and I think it’s weak reasoning. I’m sure the advertisers meant no harm, but it is, quite simply, an irresponsible use of language.
As far as I understand, “ethnic” and “traditional” are not the same things. Traditions are a matter of cultural practices not necessarily definitive of all those who practice them. Ethnicity, however, is an explicit identification used to formulate xenologies. Whereas traditions have their roots in practices, ethnicity has its roots in a people’s collective identity, and whenever people’s identities are involved, there will rightly be controversy.
Explicating clothes as “ethnic” to a consumer base that is already of that ethnicity (note also: the language has forced me to tar all of India’s vastly diverse ethnic identities into one “ethnic” group) is othering their identity in the very place that gave them that identity. And that is absurd.
Btw, I consulted no dictionary to define traditional and ethnic. I’m just going off of what those words imply in popular culture.
Preach on, Shruti. Said it much better than I could.
i just checked my passport and the country in question is mine too 🙂
i think the use of the word “ethnic” in india is harmless in some situations, harmful in others, unconscious (and innocent) by some, very conscious (and somewhat derogatory) by others, is no big deal in some cases, is a big deal in others and so forth….there’s truth in practically every single post on this subject. now, back to eating my “ethnic” dumplings and patting my “ethnic” dog 🙂 (those were funny).
You’ve raised a whole other issue in your comment. And if, as you mentioned, you’ve been through this debate a few months ago, I don’t want to bring it up here. But I will say this – Basmati is Basmati because of where it comes from (yup, Geographic provenance). Ditto with Champagne. Ditto with Indians. Now before those bricks are hurled in my direction let me again qualify this statement with ‘In MY humble opinion,’ I believe that culture is meant to evolve, grow and amass. To hold on to traditions in the name of authenticity is counterproductive. Having said that, I agree with your statement that a lot of issues are more clearly perceived from a distance.
uh.. ahem. ok. bring them on.
Have you guys run out of important topics to write about? First there is the squabbling over the Time cover of the call-girl, and now this. If the folks in India don’t make a big deal out of this issue, why should the ABD’s? Granted, it’s a bit weird that Indian clothes are referred to as ‘ethnic’ in the motherland, but is it such a crime? Then again, I’m probably an ignorant European Desi, so I wouldn’t know.
The thing is, we all ‘exoticize’ someone at some point. I’m sure the same would be true for many desis with regards to other cultures. I don’t think it’s something that can be eradicated, much like racism can’t be eradicated.
Contrary to what many may think, there is a clear method and reasoning in place here; trouble is: you need a MBA to understand it. The use of the word ethnic as a prefix, though prone to be misconstrued, is part of an elaborate marketing campaign. By marking his Sherwanis as Ethnic Sherwanis this shopkeeper is adhering to many a principle of Marketing. This small word is immediately differentiating his product from mere trivial Sherwanis sold everywhere and worn by every Ram, Hari, and Gopichand.
An Ehinc Sherwani is for the true, complete, connoisseur; itÂ’s for the noble gentleman who rides horses bareback, whilst reciting ancient Urdu couplets to himself. While he rides by, faceless men wearing ordinary Sherwanis bow in obeisance; unwashed little kids playing with broken marbles on dusty sidewalks, pause mid-game and observe him with admiration; women washing ordinary Sherwanis by the river, blush in unison, and gaze with longing in their wide Kaajoled eyes. Pray, who wouldnÂ’t want to own such an Ethnic Sherwani?
Summarily, Ethnic Sherwani is about Branding and charging a premium for the Brand. A certain American called Philip Kotler has written a rather large book called Principles of Marketing; I bet this shopkeeper has read the book and eagerly underlined most of the chapter on Branding.
Meena, I hope you mean Call-centre-girl and not call-girl. Can’t wait to see an Indian Call Girl make the cover of Time though:)Scandalous…
to answer the question about why ethnic is used instead of ‘sherwani’,’salwar kameez’ etc, there are just too many different kinds of indian clothing. so to sum it up, we use ethnic instead of the different terms. simple, na? 🙂 like someone else said, it isnt a crime. so u say ‘zee’ and we say ‘zed’ 🙂
regards, desi girl
Now seriouly, I guess the usage of the term is absolutely fine in this context. Though India is a single nation and to us “…all Indians are my brothers and sisters…”, aren’t we ofcourse a conglomerate of diverse cultures and ethnic groups?
So a meaning of ‘foreign’ or ‘belonging to a specific ethnic group’ is not all lost on a ‘Mundu wearing Mallu’ when you are referring to Sherwani or Kurta Pyjama.
I don’t see why this issue should be seen as one of ABDs vs. desis…I’ve always been bothered by the “ethnic vs western clothes” tag, growing up in various Indian cities. And I find it annoying when well-meaning Americans ask “is that your ethnic clothing?” when I wear a bloody Fabindia shirt with Indian prints or better yet, “is it a religious thing?” – as if anyone would ask an American if their jeans were “a religious thing.” The implication of course is that the West and its culture are considered universal while everything else is considered a quaint tradition that surely people are holding on to for religious or similarly irrational reasons. It’s similar to when Americans say someone speaks with an “accent” or “unaccented English” as a way of saying they speak American-accented English or not – they don’t recognize the American accent as an accent, it is the default, universal, “correct” way. I don’t get particularly hot and bothered about such things, but I do gently point out that these are just different ways of dress and speech. Similarly with “ethnic” foods, as in “I feel like some ethnic food – shall we go for Chinese or Indian?” I feel like handing those people a copy of a book I saw years ago – the WASP cookbook – with recipes for chicken salad and so on.
Thanks for your comment. I agree that the AVERAGE person from Mumbai is ‘more Indian’ (I know that’s hard to define but work with me) than the AVERAGE ABD. But there is a significant subset of ABDs (especially the ones who blog here) who are well-informed, passionate, and outspoken on various desi issues such as are being discussed here. Many of them are well educated and know how to debate points. I don’t think their opinions should simply be dismissed or discounted merely because of the ABD status. Furthermore, I know quite a few ABDs who would feel MORE at home (linguistically, culturally, etc) in small town Punjab or Uttar Pradesh than most Mumbaikars would, including those whose family origins are also from Punjab/Uttar Pradesh. I’m not trying to get into an ‘authenticity’ contest since that’s pointless and unproductive, but I do feel it’s very easy to dismiss someone’s point of view with a label like ABD or FOB or ‘Indian-born’ or whatever. Look at the content of what the person is saying.
Just to be clear, the ABDs I mentioned who would feel relatively more at home in small town north India compared to most Mumbaikars, are all educated professionals living and working in big US cities, so very much at home in the West as well. However the culture maintained in the home by their parents helped to keep them in touch with their roots.
Aha !!! Their it comes out. The above is what most people think in India. Anything less than an unconditional acceptance of everything western, will be called “hindutva-vaad”. In this the key bad word is “Hindu” which stands for all that is “native” and hence repugnant.
Well spotted RC! For sure, the persecution is ENDLESS and their repugnance for us is depthless and without principle, I feel so persecuted by this commie bastards. We are repugnant to them and for that I fartin their faces. Repugnant saffron farts.
SpoorLam you are a fucking moron. Did I ever say anything about any persecution?? But in your stupid idiotic and fucked up mind the same tape is running over and over and it shows your intellect now.
Desi Girl – if you click on the photo and make it larger, you’ll see that the sign refers to “ethnic sherwani” and “ethnic salwar kameez”. It’s not being used as a short hand (although it would be a strange short hand to use), it’s being used to make these words longer.
This stupid SpoorLam thinks that Myself, the bloggers of this blog and others are against the popular clothing worn all over the world and somehow are advocating people to revert to “kurta pajama”. Ennis’s post was about the word “ethnic”. Ok let me say in the language that you will understand. Ennis is not going to start wearing “Kurta Pajama” from tomorrow. I guess there is no cure for “stupid”.
RC, I think SpoorLam for some reason is confused about your belief system. Those of us, who know you are well aware of the fact that you are reasonable and sensible and do not deserve the mocking. For some reason Spoorlam is lumping you with Moornam. (Not suggesting that Moornam deserves mocking, but Moornam does have some pretty unconventional views)
Spoorlam immediately attacks anyone who stands up for Hinduism at all, and immediately lumps them in with Modi, Moornam, Bal Thackeray and the rest. According to Spoorlam, there is no such thing as prejudice against Hindus, instead we spend all our time strapping bombs to our chests, attacking other nations, and sponsoring a large-scale Jihad against the West. God damn those war-hungry Hindus.
Spoorlam is obviously a disciple of an “Abrahamic” religion as he calls them, but he has simply found a more effective way to voice his anti-Hindu prejudices. Cue the lame attempt at anti-hindu satire right below:
So ‘ethnic’ is derogatory.. that’s news to me.. I don’t think people in India know about all this subtle nuances.. Generally, people who know English and say a few words are respected (and if you say bad words in English you’d gain extra respect.. :-)) )
I was shopping in a mall in Chennai a few years back (I think it is Globus) an English song was blaring out of the speakers, and the words were “fuck me like …” etc.. (I don’t exactly remember.. ). I just imagined what it would be like if we had a Tamil song with such words blaring out and was laughing ..
I for one am thoroughly sick of SpoorLam. I don’t know why his posts don’t get deleted…they are really a relentless barrage against Hindus (and believe me I’m not a Hinduvaad type), veiled in ‘satire’. The moderators (Abhi, et al.) maintain that “if it’s funny then it’s all good”. Are his comments still funny? I suppose now he’ll mock all my posts as well since I dared to challenge him.
Al, Who gave the free reigns to SpoorLam to be mocking others?? If one doesnt agree with someone’s views, does that reason enough to start mocking someone??
MoorNam has been polite to the mockings, I am not.
Amitabh, I apologise if my words were a pointing of fingers. My intention (and work with me here) was, and is, to say that perhaps you are also falling into the trap that you just mentioned I was falling in to. India is not losing it’s cultural identity because it’s youth are wearing western clothes. (yes, there are mind-numbing exceptions of brain-dead west-aping wannabes. I do not talk for them.). Maybe I’m over-simplifying your statement. But as someone who has grown up listening to members of the extended family carry forth on this topic (not the parents, but everyone else), let me just say ‘I cringe’ when someone mentions the clothes and not the (wo)man.
Ubermetromallu mentioned the ‘marketing tool’. Yup, I agree.
So sorry, Ennis, for the tangential remark.
Tarana, If I may jump in (and I dont speak for Amitabh). I dont think anyone is claiming that Indian should not wear the so-called “western” clothing. Thats not the issue at all. And I know that no one in their right mind wears the traditional/ceremonial Indian clothing everyday to work (Let alone doing that in the west). The issue is the use of the word “ethnic”. Use of the word “ethnic” by westerner to describe Indian clothing can be understood but to do that in India by Indians is hard to explain.
Ennis put in the post :
So the issue is NOT the choice of clothes but how its described.
UberMetroMallu, I did indeed mean a call-centre girl, apologies. 🙂
To the rest of you – yes, you do come across as Hindutva supporters. Who cares if someone non-Indian refers to Indian clothing as ‘ethnic’? Yes, from their POV it is ‘ethnic’ because it is from another culture. I am so sick of this nitpicking.
I, for one, would much rather see an article on India’s rapidly decreasing biodiversity rather than trivialities such as these.
Ummm…. you missed the point entirely. I’m asking why Indians call their own clothing ethnic. That question is in bold, right at the beginning of the post.
Sure this is frivolous compared to issues like bonded labor or increasing rates of extinction or terrorism, but that’s why we post on a diversity of different topics here.
The same wrong headed attitude is reflected in describing a dark skinned beauty – the overwhelming percentage of beautiful Indian women. I don’t know how it is now, but twenty five years ago, Femina, Eve’s Weekly, Filmfare and other popular magazines could not bring themselves to describe a drop dead gorgeous but dark complected woman as beautiful. The adjectives of choice were dusky, sultry, exotic (although they were all homegrown) etc. How’s that for colonial hangover?
It’s that way now. I spend a lot of time looking at beutiful indian women on the web, so I have a lot of datapoints.
Don’t think this is an ABD vs “real” Indian issue either, unlike that Time cover. I do however, think this is an urban (read: “modern”) Indian vs other Indians issue – I’m a FOB from Bombay (left 16 years ago) and distinctly remember being mercilessly made fun of by my cousin visiting from Varanasi when I told him I was going to wear “ethnic” clothing to a friend’s 14th birthday party. People who don’t think this is a big deal are likely from urban areas where everything Indian or traditional IS denigrated (oh those “rural” folks or those “villagers” or those “conservative” people). To my intelligent, well-educated-albeit-smaller-town cousin I was the very epitome of a clueless Bombayite with my head up my ass. Needless to say, I’ve NEVER used the word again to describe Indian clothing.
What about clubs in Bombay and Delhi that don’t allow people dressed in Indian clothing? What the fuck is THAT all about? It’s a manifestation of the same problem.
This is a rather odd discussion.
I am from Mumbai. I asked my friends here what “ethnic clothing” meant to them. They just said it was whatever you are calling “traditional/indian” etc. etc. There is no “oh-my-gawd, we are oppressed” connotation to it here. Did any of you talk to anybody in India to ask what it meant to them before waxing your theories of oppression.
It might be a charged word in U.S., but it’s a neurtal word in India. Swastika means differnent things in different places. ‘Oriental’ mean different things. I dont need to be pissed off coz Edward Said said I should. The same word can have different connotations in different places and at different times.
Personally, its just obscene that even though you don’t live here, you gripe about how a word used here ought not to be used coz it means something else where you are. Who are you to tell me what my words ought to mean to me? Who are you to impose “your english” upon me? Oh, I forgot, we are from “there” and “we do not understand the nuances of the English language”. You have a monopoly on the nuances, and I ought to oddly embrace and be senstive to your intrepreations….oh, the gawl! Arm chair colanizers.
Yes, the above is exactly what I meant.
Sameer – the meaning of the word may be different in the US and India, but that’s probably a peculiarity of Indian English rather than one of American English. This is why I presented the origin of the word – ethnic has meant “foreign” or “different” from its introduction into English over 600 years ago. Furthermore, if the word “ethnic” means traditional/indian, why isn’t it used that way to refer to foods?
I think you meant ‘gall’ and not ‘gawl’. Sorry to impose my English on you of course.
Sameer: I understand that in certain circumstances words and expressions can be appropriated by a group to mean whatever it wishes them to mean. (I am of an age that I remember a time when “gay” just meant happy.) Usually, it is to take control of how one wants something personal to be defined rather than letting others define it for you. Sometimes the purpose is to take the sting out of an outsider’s derogatory epithet by making it your own. For example, the words nigger and queer used by African Americans and homosexuals in the US. Sometimes however, an inappropriate word enters the common paralance out of sheer ignorance – because it “sounds” smart or because one was too lazy to look it up in the dictionary.
I grew up in India and came to the US as an adult. Sometimes it helps to leave home to be clear eyed about home. During my high school and college years in Delhi, the smart set frequently put each other down by quipping,”don’t behave like a nate” as in native. You could speculate that they too were being militantly tongue in cheek as in the case of African Americans or gays in America in the preceding examples. Except that they also used words like bhaiyya and behenji for those with similiarly gauche outlook on life. So “nate” really meant “native.” African students were routinely referred to as negroes. Being a tiny minority on campus, most just kept quiet. Just once did I witness a grad student from Nigeria challenge someone saying, “Whom are you calling a negro? I am from Africa.” Chinks and Japs were terms that tumbled out snappily and unselfconsciously to describe ALL students with east Asian features including those from Nepal, Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Some of my friends who had never met a Jew, accused people of “Jewing them down” when they felt that they were at the losing end of a bargain.
So from where did these expressions enter the vocabulary of young Indians if not from alien societies whose prejudices were internalized without a second thought? These are all already “charged” words imported from a foreign language unlike the swastika which had a benign history in India and only gained its sinister connotation in the hands of the Nazis after it was exported from India. The words I have described were used by a certain section of the Indian elite precisely to sound like the Brits and the Yanks (and therefore desirable.) They were not used so much out of ignorance or because the words did not have a significant social impact in the Indian context, but out of thoughtlessness, casual contempt and mindless imitation.
Of course, not all misused words are as offensive as the examples above. But I purposely used them to illustrate that it would be unwise to assert that just because there are not a significant number of blacks, Jews or Chinese in India, those words are not charged and therefore can be used with impunity in Delhi or Mumbai but not in San Francisco. Words do have meanings and some thought ought to go into what enters our daily vocabulary.
As I said, inappropriate usage need not always offend – sometimes it is just plain silly. Calling sari or shalwar kameez “ethnic” within India is silly. Just as it is to call a dark skinned Indian woman “exotic.” How hard is that to understand?
P.S: Sorry Ennis for colonizing your blog posts today. There is no soccer. It is raining in Houston and I am out of blogging ideas of my own.
Unbelievable. Well, are you really serious about expecting consistencies in common usage of language? Then, I have a question – why do we call white people ‘goras’ and not ‘safed’. Apparently, ‘safed’ is the word for white, right? Someone, please explain to me why did we invent a new word for skin color. Is this a latent admiration for that unattainable sanjivini called “white skin”… [Deep Thinking]… I wonder.
Inconsistencies are a dime and a dozen. In the US, why do you park in the ‘driveway’ and drive in the ‘parkway’? Protest this illogical atrocity. Yes, come hither my languge fascists. Let’s purge our languages of all its apparent irrationalities. While you are at it, can you get rid of the phrase – “it’s raining cats and dogs”. Always thought it was absurd. And none of the reasons here are logical enoough.
Uhh..Watson called. Wanted me to tell you that Holmes recomended you for a Pulitzer. He said that he remembers you from the ‘Spelling Bee’ days.
Silly or not. Who cares? Language is what it is. I think its silly to say that something is “cool”… what’s anything got to to do with the tempartaure of things? Silliness abounds in language depending on what you deem logical. I think its offensive to call some one brown or someone refer to me as South Asian. Will the world adjust to this little senstive child? Obviously, the predominant interpretation in a region will prevail. And, the predominant interpretation of ‘ethnic’ is ‘traditional’. It’s just silly to say that there is a metaphysical meaning to this usage. Is that so hard to understand?