Diversity & Inclusion and Cultural Cocoons
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There is an IKEA Holidays commercial that was doing the rounds which some believe is a splendid championing of Diversity & Inclusion. It shows a South Asian family in Canada celebrating the “Holiday Season”.
On the surface it’s a rather charming and benign commercial, but as a Canadian of South Asian origin very proud of his Indian cultural heritage (born, grew up, and spent my youth in India, in Canada since twenty three years), allow me to offer a contrarian perspective. One that will not be easily found in the uber-Woke bubbles.
I find this commercial disheartening and disappointing.
Every single cliche and stereotypical element you can think of about the appearance at home of a South Asian family is added here. The colourful traditional dresses and hairstyles, the woman rolling rotis, the steel multi-spice container, the lamps and flowers, the rich, traditional Indian food, etc.
This family may well have been celebrating Diwali or some other South Asian festival. But this is supposed to be a Christmas Season commercial, right? I know we call it Holiday Season, not Christmas Season, but the basis and center of this Holiday is Christmas, is it not? I mean it’s not Diwali, or Eid, or Hannukah, right? The essence of it is the Christmas spirit, isn’t it? So where is anything Christmas about this commercial? Oh, the ‘art-directed’ Christmas trees shown in the background a few times. Right, that takes care of it. Seriously?
Hey Ikea and Rethink, if anyone is listening, I got news for you. There are many of us South Asian origin folks here in the Western world that do celebrate Christmas the way it is traditionally celebrated, maybe not the religious aspect of it — though that too by those who believe — but certainly all the wonderful, lovely, unique elements that make it Christmas; the particular mood, that delightful, heartwarming cheer all around. The Christmas lights and decorations. We love putting up Christmas trees (not Holiday trees), but it’s more than just the Christmas tree, and all the decorations. We also, believe it or not — get ready for this — like to dress up in Western clothes! Including the women. We are not always dressed in traditional, extra-colourful Indian clothing every single celebratory occasion (though we do that too with pride and gusto when the occasion calls for it). We play Western music — Christmas or any other, during the season. Our celebrations include Western libations and food when we meet up for Christmas or other Western festivals. We don’t just eat Samosas, Rotis, Daal, Tikka Masala, and Biryani at every event. We also enjoy French, Italian, or general Western cuisine when the occasion makes it more appropriate. We can appreciate a good Merlot or a Chardonnay to go with Christmas dinner. And even beyond all this, we are curious about and explore Western literature, art, theatre, films, and enjoy quite a bit of it. Many of us have grown up exposed to it even before arriving in the West.
So on Christmas gathering you will find us being a part of all this, not a bunch of “South Asians” stuck in our traditional cultural cocoons.
The minds who come up with commercials like this mean well I have no doubt, but seem incapable of imagining that South Asians could be so Western in their modes, outlook and behaviour.
I appreciate they are trying to be progressive and help advance gains in Diversity & Inclusion, but this is not progress, I am sorry. This is just an updated, slicker, more Woke version of the same old condescending, pandering that has been going on for long. They can’t imagine that South Asians could be more than the stereotypical, loud-mannered, boisterous, over-the-top, colourfully dressed folks we typically see portrayed in the media. The soft racism of reduced expectations (a terrific term I once heard on a CBC radio program many years back). This kind of token stuff does not actually further inclusion, on the contrary it separates people and keeps them confined in their cultural ghettos.
The inclusion of some South Asian origin folks in key roles for the making of this commercial may may be reassuring to some, but it does not persuade me. I know the culture first hand. And probably much more of it, with all its immense depth, richness, and expanse, than the wiz kid agency creatives whose knowledge of it seems limited to a very pop, superficial level.
And why is the Director of the commercial not South Asian? But we’ll set aside that bit of irony and hypocrisy or the moment. (Why are in fact directors of mainstream Canadian commercials never South Asian? Producers, even agency Creative Directors, yes, but not Directors for some reason.)
Of all the music tracks they could have picked they choose one that has been used so often already that it feels done to death. It’s a great, catchy song no doubt (like many others by A. R. Rahman of who I am a fan by the way) but to use it here again? An Indian song that has already been used by Western content creators and filmmakers multiple times (including Spike Lee for ‘The Inside Man’) is now being reused again for a commercial to show inclusion. So much for originality.
If only the initiatives toward making the world a more diverse and inclusive place began to extend beyond superficial tokenisms.
Perhaps in the New Year.