Sari and Samosa Syndrome

“Sari and Samosa Syndrome.” Coined by Uzma Shakir and shared at one of the stops on her visit to Windsor this week , this is what happens too often when people attempt to organize multicultural events. People are invited to wear their “traditional cultural dress” and serve “ethnic” food. There’s music and dancing and before you know it we’re all diverse and tolerant and there’s no more racism. Right?

Shakir argues that these are not transformative, anti-racist events. Without a discussion about power, equality, and social justice — real issues — what are we changing?

Windsor is guilty of this. Multiculturalism is more than Carousel of Nations. Multiculturalism is not a weekend field trip. Who at Carousel talks about poverty? About discrimination, violence, about a woman’s choice to wear or not wear hijab? What about forced marriage? Having years of education rejected, being unable to transfer skills and training? About being both an engineer and a cab driver?

Two years ago, when I sat at a table at a social justice conference with a bunch of high school teachers this is exactly what I witnessed. In attempt to deal with their frustrations with racism in the classroom at their school and a desire to recognize the diversity in the school’s population they set out to plan a Sari-and-Samosa event. I’m sure it was very successful too. So-and-so was a dancer, so-and-so could bring food — it’s so delicious, you know! — but the event was planned to be entertainment not issue focused. Ah well, who doesn’t like a samosa now and then? And at a elementary school last year the local grade school sent home information about their multicultural fair: bring in an ethnic food to share and to tell about your “culture”. Sorry, but culture is a lot more than food. Food is something we share, a point where we can recognize similarities, not a place to emphasize difference.

Why are we so afraid of the dialogue people?


6 Responses, Leave a Reply
  1. » Uzma Shakir Quotes
    02 November 2008, 2:35 pm

    […] is not just food, music, and dance. I call it Sari and Samosa Syndrome. We’re not talking about power — let’s talk about my right to wear hijab, about […]

  2. J.
    04 November 2008, 12:09 am

    I am a high school teacher and every year it is expected that we “showcase our diversity” by having a fashion show. I refuse to participate.
    If we are there to teach students to be critical thinkers, what are they to think of an ethnic group who has no “ethnic” clothing because they arrived as refugees, as opposed to a group that is able to wear beautiful clothing and jewelry?
    It also establishes the idea that the white Canadian students are the norm (because they see themselves as “ethnic culture free”), and that the farther the performing group strays from the “norm”, the more justified the white Canadian students are in reacting derisively.
    I have been talking up an issues multicultural week with foreign films and panel discussions that focus on aspects of the culture, rather than putting the focus on the superficial aspects of the individual, but there is no support for that kind of event.
    People love the “cultural tourism” idea. The idea of dressing up the way my great grandparents did and singing and dancing for a group of students who were there to laugh at me is unthinkable. Talk about racist and demeaning….

  3. Candace
    04 November 2008, 8:34 am

    @ J – thank you for trying. The fashion show is horrible on so many levels: exoticising someone because of their clothing doesn’t help anyone understand another culture and you’re right – white Canadians are not culture free. Fashion shows where women are paraded (only if they meet the ideal) are a problem period.

    You’re idea for a week of film and discussion sounds amazing. I’m sure you could find some support from the women’s studies department at the university. There are some great students who are active in the community. Let me know if I can help.

  4. K
    06 November 2008, 12:50 am

    Often those students who supply the food for these types of Multicultural Fairs come from the most economically disadvantaged homes. Nothing is more sad and embarrassing than cleaning up after an event when immigrant students have proudly brought their favourite food to share, and finding full plates dumped in inconspicuous corners because kids are picky eaters and they are only used to their family’s food.

  5. Candace
    06 November 2008, 8:02 am

    @ K: that is horrible. What a waste.

  6. N.
    17 March 2010, 10:29 pm

    Wow! There have been some great comments here and I am so estatic to learn there are so many wonderful progressive teachers out there! And Uzma, she rocks!

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