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

Blueberry and Toothpicks

The nature of blogging is very self-centered. “Everyone look at me and read what I have to say. It’s super interesting because it’s about me and I’m super interesting” said every blogger ever. To avoid the “I’m awesome” trap, I want to say something a little different; “Look at us and how interesting we are”. I want to share the stories of other people as well as my own because we all live interesting stories every day. With this in mind, I want to share a story my sister told me recently.

My sister’s work place has the makings of a perfect office sitcom. She works at the Academic Support Center at a local community college as a science tutor. The center includes tutoring services in math and science, a writing center, and a computer lab, each of which is overseen by a coordinator. The cast of characters includes such classics as the old racist white man, the sassy black woman and her posse, the loner who eats the same lunch every day, the foreigner, and the two young friends, who are the cool ones. (Guess which one my sister is.) Just think of all the funny situations these characters could get into, let alone the weirdo students who come in looking for help. I really want to write that sitcom.

One day, Mac, the loner who eats soup and crackers every day for lunch (he sometimes eats goldfish for variety), was given two beautiful blueberry muffins homemade by the baker of the office, Linda. Linda loves to bake and brings in goodies for her coworkers on occasion. But Mac made a fatal mistake. He left his blueberry muffins in a sealed container on the counter of the office kitchen without any label or friendly eye to watch over them. Will, the old racist, and Sarah were both in the kitchen for their lunch break soon afterwards.
“Want a muffin? They’re for everybody.” Will said.
“Are you sure? There’s only two.”
“Yeah. Why else would they be on the kitchen counter?” Will opens the container and begins to shove warm pieces of muffin into his racist mouth. Sarah eyes the second muffin and decides that Will must be right. The muffins looked too delicious for her to listen to the small voice in the back of her head that told her she may be about to commit muffin theft. “That muffin was delicious” she thought as she took her seat and waited for students to arrive. Meanwhile, Mac discovered his loss and decided to confront Will about the muffins. Will isn’t even sorry.
“You shouldn’t have left them on the counter, man. They were delicious.” He grins.
“Linda baked those for my birthday!” Mac said. Sarah listened on in horror and regret as the scene unfolded behind her table in the tutoring center. Her friend, Cara, heard this too and doesn’t let her forget her shame.
“I can’t believe you stole Mac’s birthday muffin, Blueberry.” She shook her head in mock disappointment and proceeded to email Sarah a collage of blueberry muffins for her enjoyment. Thus, Sarah got a snack and a nickname at the same time by stealing a muffin from a coworker. Poor Mac.

***

Cara likes to play pranks, especially on her guy friends that work in the building. One day, her pranks went a bit too far. While instant messaging through the staff network, Cara asked a friend to get her four menus and seventeen toothpicks from a local Chinese restaurant for a “project”. Her friend believes it is a prank, but Cara is so convincing and urgent that he decides to do her this favor anyway. Cara, distracted from her computer, doesn’t see his message until it’s too late to tell him she was joking. He proudly walks in to deliver his menus and toothpicks while Cara tries to think of a project that would require such odd ingredients. She even pretended that what he brought wasn’t enough and she would have to go back for more. To this day, she hasn’t told him it was a joke and told Sarah, “I will never use my powers of manipulation for evil ever again.” We’ll see Toothpicks, we’ll see.

Beck