What Are You?

Today, I attended the Women of Color Institute conference at my school. While this conference was very inspirational and empowering, I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated by my awkward position as biracial. Most of the speakers and attendees were African-American, with a few Latina and Asian-American participants. And then there was me, half Indian and half White. I don’t believe that I was the only biracial or mixed race woman there, but if there were others present, I wasn’t able to distinguish them from the group. Most of time this doesn’t bother me, but I quickly grow silent when the topics such as African-American hair care come up (and it always comes up). I don’t quite fit in.

Most people who are biracial choose to favor one part of their identity over the other in order to participate fully in that race or ethnic culture. I don’t have that ability. Sure, technically I’m Asian-American, but no one thinks of India when someone says “Asia”. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know that India is part of Asia. Even some Asian-American people I have met look confused when I try to identify myself as Asian. Then, when I say I’m Indian, people ask me what tribe I’m in and I have to further clarify my racial identity.

Trying to pass as White was never really an option for me either. Living in the US, it’s easier to identify more with the majority culture, but no one ever looks at me and thinks, “That girl is white.” I’m not white, I’m half white; historically and culturally, there’s a huge difference. I can’t ignore the Indian part of me and I don’t want to. Nor would White people accept me if I tried.

Coming to a predominantly white institution really emphasizes my otherness, so I never felt comfortable hanging out with huge groups of white students. Nor did I feel welcome in the small Black community on campus. Even though I’m a woman of color and feel some affiliation with Black culture, when it comes down to it, I am not Black and I will never know what it’s like to be a Black woman in the US. And while I do look Hispanic, I’m not, so it’s not as though I could insert myself into their organizations or social groups either. In fact, it bothers me when people mislabel me as Hispanic, because it emphasizes the fact that I don’t really look Indian, even though I am.

I know what you’re thinking, “Why aren’t you making friends with the Indian students?” Well, reader, I cannot participate in the Indian culture completely for two reasons: I don’t know Hindi, and I’m a Christian. Knowing the language would open up new opportunities to participate in the shared stories, songs, and traditions of India. Because I have not yet learned the language, participation in these aspects of culture, shallow though they are, is more difficult. I listen to and sing Hindi songs and I watch Hindi films, but my understanding of them will always be through a Western and English filter. Much of Indian culture, values, and traditions also come from a shared participation of Hinduism. I’m not Hindu, so many of those aspects of Indian culture are lost to me. So yes, I am Indian, but only half Indian, and other Indian people tend to ignore me because I cannot participate in their culture fully.

So, where does that leave me? Nowhere and everywhere. I don’t fit into the ineffective and over-simplified categories of race in the US. But, this is what sometimes makes me feel frustrated and sometimes fortunate. I have a double consciousness and I can code switch really well. I know what it is like to be a minority in the US. I also know what it is like to not be a minority in the US. As a racially ambiguous person on the surface, I am faced with discrimination and racism. However, because I am not a part of a historically marginalized group, the stereotype threat I face is not as well-defined as that of African-American or Hispanic people. In other words, people are racist, but they’re not sure what I am, so they can’t make specific negative assumptions about who I am. This is good because it gives me more opportunities to define myself before others try to define me. This is also frustrating on days like today, when I wish I could identify easily with one race or another in order to feel a stronger sense of community and sisterhood. I love being biracial because I am proud of both sides of my racial identity, but if you don’t learn how to navigate around racial barriers and code switch, it is a lonely existence.

Beck

Why America Should Not be a Melting Pot

I have a problem when I hear people describe the US as a “melting pot” of races. First, it’s not true. Our country has not lived up to that image. Second, I don’t ever want it to be true.

I read an article recently about an African-American woman who was so fair-skinned she could and did pass for a white woman occasionally growing up. For her it meant better jobs, housing, education, and more respect. I’m not criticizing her for this (code switching is very useful), but I think it’s a shame that she had to deny part of her identity in order to be accepted in society. That’s what the melting pot does. It makes you shed part of your cultural and personal identity in order to fit the mold of the white majority. It teaches you that the part of you that is different, that is non-white, is not valued or worth recognition.

Patricia Williams, when she spoke at my school, said that the US has waves of minorities that eventually get pushed to be either white or black. Italians and other Eastern Europeans that immigrated to America were once discriminated against, but are now considered white and enjoy those privileges. They were assimilated because they were able to pass. What happened to the rich culture and traditions of those assimilated? They were abandoned and replaced with other traditions more suited to the majority. For me, that’s a sad thing. Everyone deserves to be valued for their differences and be able to maintain the integrity of their culture, without it being denied or watered down by a desire for better jobs and treatment.

race-white-german-assimilation-cartoonSource

I’m reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison right now and there is a part of the book (CH 10) that I think applies here. The main character gets a job at a Liberty Paint factory where they make the purest white paint in the world. How? They put ten drops of a black chemical into each bucket. They mix it in until it disappears. I don’t want black culture to disappear. I don’t want any ethnic culture to disappear.

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t speak Hindi around me or my sisters. They wanted us to learn English. How I wish they had taught us Hindi too! I know a lot of families that do the same thing. Perhaps if I had learned Hindi, I would feel a stronger connection to that part of my identity. This is an example of culture being watered down, and it was a result of my parents wanting a better life for their children by emphasizing their white identities.

So no, I don’t want America to be a melting pot. If we really desire to be a multicultural nation, we have to accept each culture as different but not deficient and see the value in diversity. We need to become a salad bowl of awesomeness.