‘Is it acceptable for a white child to wear a sari?’

Our Agony Uncle gives some advice.

Illustration by Emma Peer

Q: My 7-year-old daughter goes to a multicultural school. It’s really diverse, with students from across Europe and Asia. They are planning their first ever ‘international day’ to bring all the different communities together and celebrate diversity. Kids are invited to dress up in national dress for the day. My daughter is British, though one of her grandparents is Israeli. But she’s dead set on coming to school in a sari from Bangladesh that I was given by a Bangladeshi friend.

Should I let her? Does that distract from celebrating the children from minority cultures who are usually side-lined in mainstream British culture? Or should all kids be encouraged to explore other national identities?

Worried of Luton

A: Luton – which was the birthplace in 2009 of the English Defence League, an Islamophobic street movement – was recently identified as one of 52 places in England and Wales that may be at risk of an increase in far-right political activity. The economic downturn triggered by the pandemic, the researchers suggest, coupled with ‘less than liberal’ attitudes to migration and multiculturalism in these places, could be laying the ground for a racist backlash.

So, it’s commendable that your daughter’s school is taking respecting differences seriously. That said, I can’t help but think that there’s something antiquated – a bit old-school anthropology – about ‘national dress’ as a pedagogical tool. It brings a risk of exoticizing people, treating them like objects of curiosity.

It also begs the question for ‘white British’ people: what is the UK’s national dress anyway? An Old Etonian may be able to rustle something up that speaks to their social class, but there’s hardly anything that captures the nation. This means that those school children who aren’t (recently) descended from immigrants will either see themselves as the neutral category – as if national dress is for other people, and they are ‘just normal’ – or as existing in a cultural vacuum. Both of these seem dangerous in their own way.

But I don’t think any of this should pose a dilemma for your child. South Asians – particularly Muslims and those living in deprived neighbourhoods – experience structural and interpersonal racism in Britain. And yes, unthinking forms of ‘cultural appropriation’ can rub salt in the wound. Think of, say, a restaurant owner who profits off the cuisine of a marginalized people while exploiting staff of the same ethnicity, or white Americans dressing up in indigenous-style headdresses at Halloween. But, generally speaking, the Indian subcontinent’s cultures are not seen as alien in the British Isles anymore, as they once were by hostile Brits – that’s a testament to the success of anti-racist endeavours. It also means that no-one is likely to raise an eyebrow at a white child in a sari.

But the key point here is that she was given the dress by your friend. That means it was the result of a genuine relationship between equals. It wasn’t chosen randomly based on its perceived exotic value but was the result of an exchange across boundaries – which is the oxygen that keeps culture alive. This, by the way, is why I don’t have a lot of truck with cultural appropriation, a charge that is levelled too readily: without the appropriate misuse of ‘foreign’ cultures, much music, literature and art would grind to a halt. I would recommend making sure that, together, you do some research into the sari before she goes to school; and make sure that she’s ready to learn from any south Asian classmates who come wearing saris too.

Recent trends in British politics, noticeably the government’s draconian anti-refugee policies, remind us of the need to robustly defend humanity in all its forms. But we should also be on guard against the limits of multicultural discourse – when done wrongly, it can dehumanize. We shouldn’t use culture to reduce people to simple categories but to enlarge them; to grasp the richness, complexity and unity that exists across the word that we all call home.

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