The South Asian Celebrity Parade at The White House State Dinner

By Julianne Hing Nov 25, 2009

You ever had the experience where a white guy invites you over for dinner? And you show up and he’s cooked you a Chinese buffet to show you just how much he respects your cultural identity? He thinks it’s a compliment, but you’re (okay, I’m) just creeped out. That’s what last night’s White House banquet to honor the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, and his wife Gursharan Kaur felt like. First of all, I want to say that I wasn’t looking to pick a fight. I had parked myself at the Huffington Post to check out the red-carpet arrivals at the Obamas’ first official state dinner. I had to find out what our fashion plate First Lady was wearing, and she looked beautiful. Desiree Rogers, the White House Social Secretary, was equally stunning. Wearing Comme des Garcons in stuffy D.C.? That woman is serious about her fashion. But I also saw several white women wearing embroidered lenghas, or fashion that was clearly Indian-inspired, and a part of me cringed. A country’s cultural dress isn’t a costume. And I read this about the fashion and decor:

Magnolia branches native to both India and the U.S. adorned the tent’s inside walls, along with ivy and nandina foliage. Guests were seated 10 apiece at round tables draped in green apple-colored cloths and napkins, offset by the sparkle of gold-colored flatware and china. Floral arrangements of hydrangeas, roses and sweet peas in plum, purple and fuschia evoked India’s state bird. [The First Lady] expectedly wowed everyone with a strapless silver, embroidered gown made by the Indian-born designer Naeem Khan. She wore her hair swept back and had piles of sparkling "churis," traditional Indian bracelets, on her wrist.

Should I take these gestures as a sign of our respect and generous disposition toward foreign countries? We do live in the multiculti Age of Obama, after all. But why does it still feel like the whole dinner was carried off with a touch of unnecessary and culturally fetishized pageantry? But then, what was this? Ah, just Dr. Sanjay Gupta at a state dinner. I suppose there’s nothing alarming about that. After all fellow broadcast journalism personality Katie Couric was there. And Kal Penn! Well that makes sense, he’s the Associate Director of Being Awesome and Good-looking, or whatever that post is called at the White House these days. There was Louisana Governor Bobby Jindal and his wife Supriya. I saw Kamala Harris, San Francisco’s DA, on the list. (Her mama is Tamil, didn’t you know?) But then I saw mention of famed composer AR Rahman, and ahoy! There was director M. Night Shyamalan. And fiction writer Jhumpa Lahiri, too! Was that really Deepak Chopra?! Deepak! A veritable South Asian Celebrities Summit! I was hoping I’d get to see Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi swoop in. Maybe she was too pregnant to fly. So I know that by its very definition, a state dinner is supposed to be opulent. And I’m sure the intention was to be welcoming and to show consideration for our guests, but it felt like a tawdry pick-up attempt. Like the Prime Minister of India can’t see a decent Indian dance performance where he lives? And on the off-chance that we ever host the president of China at the White House? A note to the white women on the guest list: please don’t consider it your invitation to wear a cheongsam.