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]
As a matter of fact, the word “ethnic” is regularly used in India for lots of traditional/desi aspects of culture including food.
Rather than highlighting or even subliminally demarking any lower, inferior status it does the opposite.
Ethnic is used EXACTLY the same way a Jamaican might use the word “roots” (as in roots cuisine), or one of you young ‘uns in Amrica might use “desi”. Please note that the word “ethnicity” ( which – along with concomittant baggage – goes along with “ethnic” with you lot like daal with rice) effectively does not exist in India. All those word-relationships that make you uncomfortable – ethnic profiling, ethnic cleansing – are basically meaningless in the same Indian English which blithely refers to our cherished feathers and nose rings as ethnic fashion. Different words are used.
If you’ve seen the hordes of holiday shoppers from the Indian diaspora (especially the US and the UK) in Hauz Khas, Greater Kailash and other high-end (at least for the average Indian) areas in Delhi, you’ll know why the messaging in the stores is targeted toward them. The word ‘Ethnic’ is just another way to attract attention from the high-spenders from outside India – what else could explain the plethora of 25-pound sequin-studded dresses for $500-1000 that you see at these stores. In the ’70s and ’80s, these same stores had their messaging in Russian to cater to the Russians who would come to India to buy things on the cheap.
I understand what you’re saying, but I am getting really sick of the whole ‘real-Indian’ vs. ‘patronising and over-sensitive Indians who live in the West’ division that people like yourself make and then attack our poor Oreo souls for supposedly colonising you…
Firstly, it’s pretty obvious that most of the people on this site are bi-cultural, so yes, they will have their own ‘English’ and their own opinions on this post partly shaped by the rampant racism many of us face in western countries. Yes, we have it pretty good in lots of ways, and no it’s not like we’re getting lynch-mobbed, and of course there’s racism in India too.
But (secondly) when you’re a minority in another country, whether you’re driving a taxi or working on the operating table, you naturally feel more sensitive towards ideas of difference and especially tags like ‘exotic’ and ‘ethnic’.
I don’t think that dismissing ‘ethnic’ as harmless is such a good thing to do. Language shapes the way people see each other, and for me when I see signs like that in India I can see that discrimination goes both ways, and the worst thing ever is to have it internalised and then perpetuated.
Calling aspects of your own culture ‘ethnic’ in your own country makes those of us who are trying to have a little pride cringe. No it’s not the end of the world but it sure as hell is right up there with cheesy matrimonial ads, tackily over-decorated Indian restaurants and having people telling you how good your English is for that all-out cringe factor.
I think Sameer needs someone in his corner, so, here goes.
(What these words meant in Greek and what subtle connotations these origins give the words are slightly irrelevant IMHO.)
As far as I can see both usages, as they are used in India, are valid. Things might become a bit clearer if you try and trace the ‘Indian’ identity. As far as I know, the nationhood project started to make sense to the local people somewhere in the beginning of the 20th century? Till today, the nationalist project is riddled with inconsistencies because our identities stem from language, religion, and region, more than anything else. If you ask anyone in India, “What are you?”, the first few answers maybe “I am a Malayalee”, “I am a Hindu”, or “I am a Maharashtrian”, or even, “I am a Bombay-ite”. Within India, we never think of our identity as Indians because it’s irrelevant at some level. What defines us and identifies us are other things like I said before.
I think the ‘Indian’ identity begins to make sense when you displace the Kannadiga, or the Tamilian, or the Punjabi, what do you call a students’ association that has all these: Indian Students Association. The needs to be inclusive deems that this be the name.
So, to call a kurta Indian makes it something of India, and for those of us that are not from TV Serials or the North of India, or from a cultural background that wears kurtas, the kurta is definitely not of my/our India. Similarly the sherwani is also alien to a large percentage of Indians; I have never worn one in my life. And I probably will never. I don’t think of it as ‘Indian wear’. I think it’s North-Indian. And to think that the sherwani is actually not even North Indian in terms of origin. It probably comes from Persia? I’m just guessing here, but I’m trying to point out the problem with calling these things Indian.
Particularly with respect to clothes, the shops need to categorise, and they will look for categories. I’ve seen the western vs ethnic (and less frequently, the modern vs ethnic) categorisation, and I think it works. Otherwise, where would you put the mundu/veshti? Have a South India section? Even better, have a Tamilian and a Malayalee section and have the same clothes with two different names in both sections? Where does the Lehenga go? It’s called a Langa in Kannada. Have it in the North-Indian section? Or the South-Indian section? Or the Gujarati section? Or the rural Karnataka section? Wait a minute, the same thing is called a Paavaadai in Tamil. Oh fuck…
Also, fashion shows in college cultural festivals have two categories, western and ethnic. Another ideosyncratic categorisation, but what to do when you have Marathi people, Punajabis, Gujaratis, and Mizos in the same team? What term would cover all that? (Side note: If you say India in Mizoram, a significant percentage will glare at you. There is quite a lot of resentment towards ‘India’ in the north-east. Blame the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Anyway, that’s a whole other main post. And how many North-East India-centric articles have I seen on SM? Ok, I’ll stop this train now…) The only term that can be neutral and even in the same
ball-parkcricket stadium as accurate is ethnic. You can try regional, but it doesn’t have the zing of ethnic.
A significant point is to note who uses the word ethnic in India? Does the Kannadiga villager know the word or its meaning? Does he even need the word? No. He will go to the neighbourhood store and see Kurta, written in Kannada and buy it if he wants to. The need for the word comes when people who speak English as their first language but come from various ethnicities within India need to agree on a common term to define all their different ‘costumes’ or foods or whatever. And the need for the word arises when you need to sell to these people.
To that end, among the English-speakers of the country, ethnic even has connotations of authenticity.
The same view of India as a somewhat uncomfortable patchwork of different cultures also explains why the term desi is so reviled. It means nothing to anyone who does not speak Hindi. And to claim that it can be used as a blanket term to represent all Indians is reprehensible.
As far as who is more Indian, the ABD who can be more comfortable than a Mumbaiyya (or should that be Mum-bhaiyya?) in a village, or the commie that speaks unkindly of Hindutva, there is no need for an answer. Who said being comfortable in a village is more necessary or positive or ‘Indian’ than being comfortable in Bombay? Both represent India. You just have to decide whose India you are laying claim to. My India is not represented by kurtas, and rotis, and daal, and pulao. My India actually finds itself closer to the cutlet than to the kachori. In fact, the cutlet is probably more ethnic to me than the kachori. And I mean that in a good way. 🙂
(This is a long comment, and I’ve been rambling a bit; very stream of conciousness response to all the 102 comments before me. So, I’ll probably get torn apart. But that’s my bit. Seeya.)
Words are just words.
Maybe most of the people who shop there are visitors from abroad. Besides, you have to remember that in India many terms which can be construed to be slurs for those who have spent significant time in the West, really isn’t intended as a slur. It’s often just the naive use of the language in its un-idiomatic (read non-colloquial) form. Hardly something to get riled up about.
JN – other comments argue that this usage is widespread and not just a matter of tourist stores.
I appreciate your lengthy post and I’m certainly not trying to be hostile to you. But, in the first place I think its rather sad that so many people in India speak English as their FIRST LANGUAGE now. There is something so inherently wrong with that that anyone living in any other part of the world (other than India) would immediately see it. That doesn’t strike you as odd (or presumably strike Sameer as odd but he can correct me if I’m wrong). Yet if we challenge your usage of a word in your precious adopted FIRST LANGUAGE you find that strange and somewhat offensive. Feeling comfortable in a small Indian town is not something everyone can do; feeling comfortable in Mumbai (if you have enough money) is something virtually anyone can do.
Them’s there are fighting words, missy!
But, in the first place I think its rather sad that so many people in India speak English as their FIRST LANGUAGE now.
And many people feel sad that a lot of our intellect now lives outside the country. Don’t you find that odd?
Yet if we challenge your usage of a word in your precious adopted FIRST LANGUAGE you find that strange and somewhat offensive.
If we challenge your assumptions about connotations to words that stem from your precious adopted home, you find that offensive?
I don’t really believe much of what I typed in the previous two sentences. The point I’m trying to make is that language, and how someone uses words, don’t need to be remedied. Maybe ethnic means foreign to you, and authentic and regional to me. There’s no problem there. “Development project” maybe good words for you, but it is a bad word for many Indians affected by them. Let’s not get into evaluating words, it’s a futile exercise. English, especially, thrives on mutation and evolution of its words. Try and following the origin and changing meanings of the words artificial and awful as examples.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with learning English as your first language, the pejorative assumption that such people don’t know any other languages is hasty and wrong.
It is also not a problem to feel uncomfortable in surroundings that are not familiar: a village for city-dwellers, and the city for village-dwellers. I am not saying that one is better than the other; I object to your evaluation of the two, and the positing of one as better than the other.
PS – I don’t mean any hostility towards you or your ideas. Just presenting my side of things.
Like wearing Western suits at a wedding, ‘ethnic’ vs. ‘Western’ is a class marker.
Whoa, this whole ‘real Indians’ vs ‘ABD/ABCD/Oreo Indians’ snarkiness is getting waaaay out of hand… I for one am not a trigger-happy World-Bank hugging neocon monster out to get the real ethnics out there…promise…
fatmuttony, firstly, congratulations on a most excellent nom de plume!
Secondly, unlike what some people seem to think, some of us aren’t spoilt little Oreos who have the luxury to sit around complaining about strange words on the tags of our clothes. Names, words, language –> they all mean something. Where did they come from, why are they used, what do they mean to different people? It’s called poststructuralism. Or getting really pissed off at annoying ‘labels.’
I know that in India ‘ethnic’ is not seen in a negative light, but to some people commenting it’s that very acceptance of the word that’s worrying. It hints at an underlying sense of alienation from something that’s yours in the first place.
It’s called poststructuralism.
Well, if we want to talk about poststructuralism, then this whole post is moot, because there is no one meaning, everyone brings their own meaning and context to an artefact. Nobody can insist that a certain meaning/context be accepted by someone else. There is no original but an endless cycle of equal references to each other. Everyone’s context and meaning is equally valid.
The further extension of that would be to look upon the project of ‘improving’ the Indian use of the word ethnic as essentially a modernist project, and hence somewhat nearsighted.
PS – Thanks for the compliment.
V true, fatmuttony. I see my postmodernism has caught me by the scruff of the neck.
However, I was not saying that it’s bad to use ‘ethnic’ as labelling, just that it worries some of us (which is of course equally as valid as it not worrying others).
What I was trying to say was that often people who defend views that are indifferent to tags like ‘ethnic’ and ‘exotic’ have arguments that seem to reek of ‘you don’t understand what it’s like on the ground for real indians in the motherland’ etc.
Just as people in India don’t find ‘ethnic’ insulting, so Indians living outside of India find it insulting and that should be held as valid too. Being from there, having family there, poss. growing up there and visiting regularly gives people a closer connection than a perceived patronising concern. I just don’t like my ‘authenticity’ being questioned/put up for judgment, since, as you pointed out, there is no one true ‘Indian/Indian-ness.’
So, thanks to poststructuralism, we both get to be right 🙂
I’m going to try one more time and then shut up 😉 You really don’t have to go all the way to post-modern-structuralist-whatever to make this point, it’s far simpler and less subtle than that.
Let’s say that in India, the word “ethnic” is understood to mean “cultural” as in, pertaining to some culture. [BTW, that definition is actually a cleaned up, PC version of the definition I’ve argued for, and a relatively recent one at that, but I’ll accept it] At this point, we have to ask, does this word have any meaning? After all, everything has a culture. You could say Ethnic Sherwani but you could also say Ethnic Trousers. In fact, the word adds nothing if it simply means culture.
So why don’t people write “Ethnic Trousers” the way that they write “Ethnic Sherwani”? Ummmm … because nobody uses ethnic for western, right? But isn’t the west a culture too? But the english never use the word ethnic to describe themselves do they, and we’re speaking english … oh, I get it now.
Let me try one more time. If you go to your local music store in the USA, you’ll see American folk music labelled folk and Indian folk music labelled world. Fair enough. But wouldn’t it be weird to see the same thing in India? You might argue that India is literally in the world, and therefore it’s just as correct to call Indian folk music world music in India as it is elsewhere. And you’re correct. However, the question becomes why is it that western folk music remains simply folk or western folk, but not world? The answer is the same as here – that implicitly English is still spoken with a certain perspective in mind.
That said, I think that an earlier comment was spot on, that ethnic does have a meaning to some extent – it serves to distinguish a more traditional style of sherwani from a more modern style. The fact that “ethnic” is chosen as a vehicle to make that point, however, goes to my general argument. Ironically, though, I don’t think that most “ethnic” sherwanis or lehngas are all that traditional – I think it just means 20 years old as opposed to very modern. I’ve seen my parents wedding pictures from a few decades ago, and nobody dressed in the clothing that is called “ethnic” today …
Over and out.
Exactly!!! I have always wondered (this is a little off-topic) why people in Australia and New Zealand are never called “English Diaspora” (for those who have British ancestory) ??? Why other races are diaspora, but not the British??
I have an explanation. Well its because they get to define things.
It’s very strange that descendents of British people (whether in Canada, the US, Australia, etc) largely do NOT consider Britain to be ‘home’. Where as if you talk to Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Greek-Americans, etc. even Scandinavian-Americans, they all feel some sort of tug from their ancetral land. At least some sort of cultural affinity or sense of identity. I remember when I was in college, this very WASPY friend of mine was going to spend the summer in London. I remarked “Oh so you get to spend some time in your ancestral country.” He was like “What? Oh, I guess so…” Then he shrugged it off. Prior to my mentioning it he had not even thought of it in those terms. I think they consider themselves “American”. “Australian”, “Canadian” etc. without the hyphens.
Although it must be said that “English-Americans” (or “British-Americans”) are largely living in a culture and society which is largely derived from their ancestral home anyway; it surrounds them all the time and is very much (unconsciously) a part of their life. And they are the only immigrant group that has the luxury of still speaking the language of its ancestors.
Well, you’d hardly expect the Aussies and Kiwis to consider themselves British, would you? For one, many generations have passed since the British originally settled there, plus the Australians have their own culture now. It would be like expecting a South African to take pride in his Dutch ancestry.(Assuming he is of course of Dutch descent, not everyone in SA is.) People from Surinam and French Guyana don’t consider themselves Indian either – although they do retain some cultural elements and a strong interest in India, they do not see themselves as ‘Indian’; it’s been 150 years since the first wave of immigration. It’s also crystal-clear that they share little or no similarities with the ‘Indian diaspora’.
As a matter of fact, it delights me to report that Indian music is just labeled ‘music’ in Bombay (or at the worst, ‘soundtrack’) and a lot of mainstream American pop/rock is filed under ‘world’ 🙂
[quote]Do white people ever use the world ethnic to describe their own “national, racial, traditional, tribal” customs? Try using it over July 4th weekend – “Oh, so this is your ethnic potato salad! Mmmmmm and some ethnic hot dogs! I love your ethnic tank top!” and see how people react.[/quote]
Hmm… Change this to “traditional,” refer to national/local dress from most Eastern European countries (also Greece) and you’re more than likely to get a resounding “yes” from folks from those (respective) backgrounds. Language about clothing and fashion is very tricky – for example, designers and retailers often use the term “peasant blouse” or “peasant shirt” to denote something that is vaguely reminiscent of “gypsy” clothing from Western Europe.
I can understand the desi concern re. “ethnic,” but somehow I believe you’re overthinking this re. how the term is actually used here in the US. Anything that’s a bit “folky” is going to get stamped with that word, no matter if it’s Turkish, Nigerian, Indian or Khmer. Strange as it might seem (to me, too!), we don’t seem to have any terms for Other Peoples’ Clothes.
Right on, RC. Great cutting-through-the-crap explanation.
Also with my most unfavourite D-word, does ANY other culture use that stupid diaspora word as much as Indians? I live in NZ but people hardly ever talk about the Polynesian diaspora, or the Asian (here that means Chinese) diaspora. Also for those wondering English diaspora would NOT go down a treat here. Firstly there’s the Irish, Scots and Welsh who lived around there too and are not big fans of Britain poss. for being treated like shit by their bigger, richer neighbour. Also the ‘English diaspora’ in NZ and Aus consists of mainly working-class people who were sent off to the New World ‘cos they cluttered up city streets being all hungry and poor. In fact British-hatred is at the level where the Human Rights Commission published a special report on the use of the word ‘Pom’ as a racial slur.
Also you’re right Ennis, we don’t have to go to post-whatever theories (which are really the easiest theories to remember since they have no logical conclusion or no conclusion at all), but I think the whole problem with asserting ‘western’ culture is that it’s just kind of an anti-climax. It’s not like it’s something new and exotic to discover is it, since it’s pretty much everywhere in some form or the other. That’s what all my white-liberal friends have said when I’ve asked them to have a bit of pride and stop lusting after other people’s cultures!
I do think those post-theories you dislike so are helpful though, post-colonialism at least. Having no ‘ethnic’ for whitey doesn’t just mean different CD store or clothing labels, it means that people like me are forced to study a ‘classics’/historical literature’ component to get an English major to prove that we know real literature, and get to study the ‘other’ stuff in a couple of papers a random collection of non-white writers who are shunted off into in that lovely other category that we all get lumped into – ‘World.’
In the US, people talk much more about the African, Irish and Jewish diasporas.
MG and “Ethnic,” you are right on the ball. The words are used in very different ways in India and in the US: in fact, it took me quite a while to get used to the ‘wierd’ way in which the way ‘ethnic’ gets used in the US + its connotations. Since so many people in (urban) India now wear ‘western’ clothing, the word ethnic becomes a convenient catch-all that immediately describes ‘traditional Indian clothing (encompassing different regions and cultures)’ and has positive connotations. Given that the majority of eateries serve Indian food, they are usually more specific as to the type of food i.e. words connoting South Indian etc food instead of zimbly ‘ethnic.’
I suspect it is only people brought up in the US who are used to seeing words like ‘ethnic’ and ‘vernacular’ used in western-specific ways who get upset by such usage 🙂 as they assume the same connotations for those words when used in India. I moved in ultra-liberal politically-active-in-fact-downright-activist theory-and-cultural-studies-oriented academic circles in Delhi University, and the words ethnic, ‘vernac’ etc are used comfortably and with none of the questioning that so many other (loaded) cultural words are subjected to.
I know from personal experience that the word ‘vernac’ isnt used “comfortable” … its more like with “disgust”. Get real !!!
RC: Well, clearly our personal experiences/circles have been very different. I’ve only heard the word used to describe someone, e.g. whose knowledge of vernac languages is strong, who prefers to speak in the vernac etc. So you might think again about the ‘get real’ bit.
Ms Fink Nottle, ‘vernac’ is an extremely loaded word in India. When was the last time you heared an FOB admit that he/she has studied in ‘vernac’. Its a matter of shame. BTW I am one of those ‘vernacs’. I am not ashamed about it. Its the fucked up Indian system’s problem. Anyways this is my last comment ever on this issue.
I know you said it would be your last post, but I thought I’d respond anyway :). I think it really depends on who is speaking and their particular way of looking at things. I can believe that many wanna-be ‘hip’ kids will use the word pejoratively, as well might SOME of those married to more English/western ways. However, many people use the word simply as a description (as a shortcut for “Indian languages”) as in “more books need to be translated into vernacular languages” or with pride — perhaps especially in South India.
Here’s some interesting info from Wiki, that could explain why some people use/like the use the word ‘vernac’ pejoratively (thereby buying into the high/low hierarchy of languages)(this supports your point more than it does mine, but it was so interesting I had to share :)):
Thanks, Manish, for honouring me with a response! That was a raw nerve, I guess… :))
Sorry. Didn’t mean to create that divide.
Tashe, you are not listening. You are still trying to make me see that the usage of the word ‘ethnic’ is somehow deeply entwined with emberassing inferiority complex. You refuse to acknowldege that we truly, literally, use the word with a different meaning. Let me give you another example. I went to college in Hyderabad, and we used the word “freak out” to mean “going out, having fun, partying”. That might strike you as odd usage. Another example: I use the word ‘smart’ to denote someone who looks good, perhaps dressed well, but my sister tells me that you use the word in the states to mean ‘intelligent’. ‘Ethnic’ is in the same class. Literally.
No, it does not strike me as odd. But, I dont understand why it is ‘inherently’ wrong? Do you feel sad that the population of speakers of ‘indian’ languages will dwindle and they will become extinct? Sorry to bust the bubble, but thats what languages do – they fuse, they flourish, and they die. Most of the colonized countries have adopted the languages of the colonizers. Entire continents (South America – Spanish/Portuguese/French/English), (Africa – French, Portuguese, Dutch, English) have adopted the foreign languages that have become the ‘adopted first languages’. Why is it odd then that we are more comfortable in English than any of the regional languages in India?
Well, you were sarcastic about ‘imposing your language on me’. I made a snide remark. Seems fair to me.
But, it is no way a representation of how indians would feel about their incorrect usage corrected. If it’s valid, I am sure they will accept the correction. But if it’s an imposition like ‘ethnic’ or ‘freak out’, I am afraid you must admit that there exists another dialect of the English langauage. It’s called Indian English. There is a distinction betweenn correction, as in pointing out incorrect usage when both of us agree on the same correct usage, and imposition, where you are pointing out incorrect usage when infact we don’t agree on the same correct usage to begin with.
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