New York City Council member Shekar Krishnan (L), FDNY firefighter Furhan Ahmad and Epicenter’s publisher S. Mitra Kalita (R) at the White House earlier this week.

The White House celebrated Diwali this week in a big way. The biggest way. 

So much of diversity, equity and inclusion work tries to find ways institutions might adapt to meet us who have historically not felt a part of them. There was just something about the hallways, lined with paintings of white men—literally these are the corridors of power—suddenly transformed by marigolds and diyas. 

I was among hundreds of other South Asians who were invited to attend. As a veteran journalist, I’ve covered fancy events with famous politicians and celebrities my whole career. It’s different, though, when you find yourself in these spaces among your own. I called my actor friend, who also had attended, to dissect how we were feeling. “We took over the White House,” she laughed. “It was a total takeover.”

One of the favorite photos someone snapped was of myself, New York City Council member Shekar Krishnan and FDNY firefighter Furhan Ahmad, all residents of Jackson Heights. Our neighborhood boasts one of the oldest Indian business districts in the U.S.; Krishnan became the council’s first Indian-American, and the significance of him representing the area that launched countless Indian-American families’ dreams (including my own father’s) should not be lost. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of our parents, once shopping for electronics at Sam & Raj followed by a bite to eat at Shamiana, imagined their children would one day be greeted not just by the president and the first lady but a vice president whose mother emigrated from India to California in 1958. 

Epicenter’s creative director Nitin Mukul (L), publisher S. Mitra Kalita and community manager Daniel Laplaza (R) at a Diwali celebration at Gracie Mansion.

The day after the White House event came a Diwali celebration at Gracie Mansion. Even that landed differently. Notably in years past, there’s been a featured speaker, usually a prominent Indian celebrity to greet the crowd. This year, there was no need: the dais filled with South Asian politicians and political appointees, also a sign of the changing times. 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has pledged to observe Diwali as a public holiday, pending approval from state lawmakers, and give schoolchildren the day off. This is also a nod to the city’s large Indo-Caribbean population; Trinidad and Guyana remain among the city’s top sources of migration. To be sure, celebration cannot undo a grim stat that surprises a lot of people: Asian Americans are New York’s poorest minority group, with more than 27% saying they need a full-time job. There’s a cynical side of me that wonders if all the hype over Diwali is where our energies need to be focused. 

But you cannot be what you cannot see. I am the first in my family to be born in the U.S., and have spent an unhealthy part of my adult life wondering when I cease being from somewhere else, whether my U.S.-born children might ever shake that same question. This week, some of that was replaced by a new feeling: of belonging. 

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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