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On Wearing Indian Clothes to Work

This is a story about clothes. And culture. And a memoir. And feeling seen. And — well, let me tell you the story:

“Actually, I never wore saris”

I’m reading the fantastic memoir My Life In Full by Indra Nooyi. She shares that during her consulting years in the 80s, she was asked not to join her team at client sites. Why? Because what would it look like to have an Indian woman in a sari on site!?

Even when Ms. Nooyi became the CEO of PepsiCo, the press would often focus on her exoticism and the saris she “always” wore to work. She writes, “actually I almost never wore saris. Maybe they thought my scarf was a sari?” 😂😭🤷🏽‍♀️

The issues faced by one of the world's most powerful women feel too familiar for many women of color, even today. We can either hide our identities — the clothes, jewelry, hairstyles, and food that make us feel most authentic — or bring them to work and face the barrage of comments, looks, and lost opportunities because they — we — don’t fit in.

So I wore a salwar-kurta to Google

I thought of Ms. Nooyi when I addressed an audience last week of women in tech across Google’s Asia-Pacific region. It felt like a homecoming to speak to an audience in the region where I grew up!

But I also felt nervous, because I decided to wear an Indian salwar-kurta (by the amazing Indian designer, Masaba). Even though they could only see my shoulders (it was a virtual event), it felt like a big decision. The way we dress has so much meaning — and risk.

I remember growing up in Singapore (my Indian heritage is a minority there) and feeling worried about being stereotyped as someone who couldn’t fit in. Those feelings only increased when I moved to the United States. So I made my best effort to “dress the part.”

And then, something like this would happen:

I’d be waiting in the lobby for a meeting with a global organization. A group of white women employees would walk by wearing visibly ethnic accessories from countries in Africa or Asia. “I got this on my last trip to Tanzania,” one would say.

The women would celebrate each other for styling these “exotic” clothes and jewelry and wearing them to the office. Yet these were overwhelmingly white organizations, where only white people could wear “exotic” clothes and not have it impact their perceived competency or “culture fit.”

This kind of cognitive dissonance is common. Cultures with a history of colonialism are often comfortable extracting and appropriating pieces of culture from other places. But if I took my meeting wearing a sari or kurta, I’m confident I would be considered “not a good fit” for the organization.

I see you.

When will we — as a global community — reach a place where we can bring our full, authentic selves to work without being exoticised or seen as “not a fit”?

That’s a trick question, because there’s no date and time I can give you as an answer. But this is what I know:

As more women of color and underestimated people demand to be embraced as we fully are, and find solidarity with others like us and the allies who celebrate us, we will rise.

Indra Nooyi won’t be the last immigrant woman of color CEO on the Fortune 500 list.

Somedays, It feels like an uphill battle; I get that. And all the cumulative years of being asked to stay home from client sites, of belaboring our hair and accessories choices, they take their toll. After all, it felt revolutionary to wear an Indian kurta to an event in Asia!

But you know what happened after I did? A woman who heard me speak messaged me. I could see from her profile picture that she wears a hijab (she shared how she, too, grew up as a minority in the country she’s from). She told me how much it meant to her to see a woman of color as her authentic self on a Google stage.

I have days — we all do — when the uphill battle is exhausting. Days when I ask myself, why?

That message from the Google employee who really saw me as myself? That is exactly why.

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