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“Sari, Not Sorry”

5 Jun 2023 9:48 PM | Anonymous

by Trishna Nikte

Trishna Nikte is a rising senior and a captain of the SHS Speech team. Her delivery of this Original Oratory piece won her a  Octafinalist position at the NCFL National Finals amongst thousands of students across the country.  - Ed. 

Ok, be honest. What do you guys think of the suit?? I wasn’t really sure about it at first, but my mom liked it; and as I’m sure many of us know, moms can never be wrong.

Now imagine if I walked into this room today in a sari, a piece of traditional Indian clothing. I’d borrow one from my mom, one of her nicest ones, the kind she’d wear to work when she lived in India. Would I be singled out as “that weird girl who wore a sari to a speech tournament”? Would I be taken as seriously? Would I still fit in? Or I actually don’t know how that would go, but honestly, I’m afraid to try. As much as I would love to display a piece of my culture in front of all of you and be unique, I’m afraid of feeling different from everyone else.

Most children in this country, regardless of their background, have felt the need to hide some piece of their identity at some point in their schooling career. This need can plague adolescent minds, especially those of children who don’t fit into the mold of a typical straight, white, cisgender child. Today, let’s try to understand why it's so easy for children with all different backgrounds to forgo pieces of their identities in school. Next, let’s look into the negative effects this can have, and finally, we’ll try to understand some ways we can narrow down the reach of this pressing issue.

Now I’ve learned from a very young age that it’s better to conform to the culture I see around me, than try to be different. In first grade, on picture day, I wore my prettiest Indian outfit to school. It was a bejeweled black blouse with a gorgeous red skirt under. I walked into school feeling so confident that day, like I’d never looked any better. But the second I walked into class, the stares I got, the whispers I heard behind my back, they told me I didn’t belong. I spent the whole day disappointed. I was only in first grade, how was I to know that my “exotic” culture was probably best appreciated only at home? Ever since that day in first grade, I’ve been afraid to try again. I wake up every day, put on my yoga pants and my hoodie, and I sit through my classes, trying to blend in as best I can.

As a society, we teach our kids to conform, instead of embracing their differences. This causes children to start drifting away from parts of their identity, especially at school, to feel more like they belong. Researcher Justin Saldana focused a lot of his time on conformity in schools, and how schools are where children are taught to transmit culture. But one of his biggest questions is “Whose culture is being transmitted?” More often than not, the culture students are taught to follow in schools is hyperfocused on straight, white, cisgender students, and doesn’t leave much room for anyone who doesn’t fall into this niche. Children who lack these commonalities then start distancing themselves from parts of their own identity, just to chase a sense of belonging. Saldana says that if “schools have a certain set of beliefs regarding how students should look, think and behave, then students will be stifled in their opportunities to discover, share, and take pride in who they are.”

Many children of color in schools battle with this issue every day. How can we go to school and leave half of our identity at home? In an article from Beachwood High School in Ohio, written by Hiba Ali, students were asked about their thoughts on assimilating cultures, and how they felt their home cultures and their school culture came together. Ali wrote that “students feel pressure to hide certain parts of their cultural identity to be more like the people around them”. Student responses aligned with this, as many of them talked about how trying to assimilate caused them to give up parts of their own identities, and instead try to be like the rest. Sophomore Amelie Cotta had said that the culture in their school was white, privileged, and much like High School Musical. Senior Prerna Mukherjee had said that “People don’t always feel like they can be themselves,” and that there was a constant pressure to change. As Ali writes, this pressure is created by the fact that society brings forth “a sense of shame regarding differences, causing minorities to feel a need to hide them.” And trying to fit in has its own repercussions as well. In the school space, the slang term “white washed” is often used to describe peers who act more like their white peers versus how they would act within their own culture. Students use this term to tease others who may be hiding their ethnic identities behind American culture. Pejorative terms like ‘coconut’ (brown on the outside and white on the inside), and ‘banana’ (yellow on the outside and white on the inside), are thrown around to imply that someone is betraying their race. But coming from a cultural background myself, I know how hard it is to amalgamate cultures and create one single identity.

This problem is only further exacerbated by the school system itself. Let’s look at my school district. Across nearly 6,000 students in our district, 33.6% of the body is Asian. 9.5% is Hispanic, and 3.4% is African American. Of our 450 teachers, I know of two Asian teachers, one Hispanic teacher, and just one African American teacher, none of whom I’ve studied under. I’ve never had a teacher who looks like me, celebrates the same festivals as me, or speaks the same language as me. Consciously or subconsciously, our school systems continue perpetrating exclusive cultures that don’t reflect the students or their backgrounds. The majority white staff teaches white values, making students feel that there is only one specific school culture that they must conform to.

But there are many important steps that we can take as schools and individuals to help students in school realize that they do belong in their classrooms. Michael Petrilli of Education Next establishes several steps that schools can take to try to eliminate the restricting cultures that have emerged over the course of many years. One of the solutions he mentions is to adopt culturally affirming instructional materials. In simple terms, this means to teach students about the diversity in America, and show them how to celebrate our differences. Another way to tackle the problem right at its root would be simply to hire more teachers with diverse backgrounds, making it known to students that they can be themselves.

On an individual level, it’s important to immerse ourselves in environments where we can thrive and flourish, and continue to support the people around us. Earlier this year at my school, student council decided to hold Culture Day as part of spirit week, where students could come to school dressed in their cultural clothing and celebrate their differences. When I first heard the idea, I was genuinely excited to share the Indian culture that I am so very proud of. But the more thought I gave it, the more scared I became. What if people thought I was weird, or treated me differently? After much deliberation, I decided that I wouldn’t dress up. That was until I talked to some of my friends, and realized that I wasn’t alone in my reservations. We were all afraid to be different. And so, we decided to be different together! Around 50 of us, out of 2000 students, decided we would all come to school in our ethnic clothes, and celebrate with each other. I’ll admit, 50 out of 2000 isn’t a big number, but that’s all it took. We all walked into school feeling so confident, just like I had in the first grade. And I didn’t feel left out for even a second. I felt so proud to display my exotic culture once again. Bringing my Indian culture into my school has helped me realize that I don’t have to hide who I truly am. I’m lucky to say that I am so proud of my culture and traditions. I am lucky to say that I love the clothes we wear and the food we eat. And I’m done hiding all of that behind my westernized behavior. My cultural identity is my strength. Not my weakness. And I’m done holding myself back. Writing this speech hasn’t magically expelled all my fears from my life, but it does mean that I’m going to start tackling my fears, one by one. I hope that one day I feel brave enough to wear a sari to a speech tournament. But until then, I hope to continue creating an environment in which no first grader is afraid to wear their hijab, or their kimono, or even, their sari.






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