Growing up, anyone who brought anything other than a PB&J for school lunch was vilified. By now, we have all know how we felt alienated we felt whenever we brought our Idlis or Dosas for school lunches. I remember how I felt when I was told that my Pulihora was smelly or gross looking. It didn’t feel good.
We also know that oppression runs deeper than this, by now. It isn’t about the smelly lunch for which we were made fun of for, or the coconut oil in our hair that white girls have now adopted as “healthy hair masks”. These aren’t individual choices to hate, but rather invitations to think critically about how power systems make immigrants feel so very small.
You may be thinking, “wait, what? Lalitha…this is too far. How do you go from not wanting to eat idlis at school lunches to dismantling oppressive power imbalances? This time, you’ve certainly lost your marbles.” To that, I say: the marbles have long since been lost, but this is true. Stick with me.
Let’s break it down. We have been having so many conversations about yoga being appropriated by white women, but appropriation isn’t just about taking a culture from individuals. It’s a consequence of the Capitalistic exploitation of land, resources, and people. Under Capitalism, even sharing culture under a model to exploit is violent– that means even the cultural shows, dances, and “cultural day” at school are forms of colonization. Because Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the oppressed, any attempt to reclaim culture is futile — where there is a chance for profit, there will be exploitation of culture. Often, this is not the intention but becomes the outcome. This is why, no matter how often we complain about yoga being stolen, it won’t stop the white Yogis from eating, preying on, and loving our culture. But not to worry, this sounds like we are doomed forever, and cannot escape our own colonization. That isn’t the case.
We don’t need to stop white people from accessing our culture. We just need to be steadfast in it. This is why eating idlis in a public place is just one small way of dismantling oppressive cultural norms. I write this, sitting in my college building, facing a sign that says my (mostly white) administration is committed to “nurturing a diverse and inclusive environment,” eating my mini idlis dipped in sambar. Several people have passed by me, asking what I’m eating, and all I say is that it is Indian food. They say it looks great, and move on. What more powerful statement is there, than to be open with and normalize our food?
And besides, I think it’s high time that we shed our high school insecurities. Yeah, Sambar smells – it smells good. In the fight for our space in this world, perhaps the easiest, and most powerful thing we can do is eat our idlis in public. The thing about power moves that is important to remember is that we need to make them, not to insert our power over others, but to dismantle tyranny and oppression.
And what better way to do that than through food?