August 13, 2013

Brown in America

My sister was born 4 years before me and a few shades darker. Just enough to cross the color line in the United States. When she tried out for Tom Sawyer, they cast her as Injun Joe. It didn’t matter that she was a girl; she was the only brown kid in the cast. East Indian or American Indian—they were both brown.

On a given day, I might call myself South Asian. To a more discerning eye, I’d add I’m Parsi, my father is from Mumbai. My mother was born in Germany. Her father came from Italy. She is white.  My mom is the immigrant to America, but I am the one who gets stopped on the street. What are you? Where are you from? But what they really mean is what makes you brown?

De colores. Of color. I am a woman of color.

In my younger years, I “blended in,” a.k.a. passed as white. My blonde-haired best friend once whispered to me, I don’t think of you as Indian. You are white to me. It was a gift, like a vanilla cupcake frosted with sprinkles on top. One of my mom’s boyfriends, who was the lightest black man she dated, told her she had to stop raising us white.  I think of that now—of what it meant to be raised white. It has something to do with entitlement, with power structures, with seeing pieces of yourself in the images around you.

White identity is not just about discrimination. It’s about belonging. This idea that we all fit in our place, but white is on top. For years, I cultivated whiteness and when I got it in friends and boyfriends, it felt like success. I was raised white, hiding those darker sides of myself, making fun of Indians. I want to push those memories away. I want to wad them like used tissue and toss them into a bin. I wish I was a better person. But racism is a part of me. I remember one of the Indian girls came to our class from India in second grade. Her name rhymed with super. I called her the super, duper, pooper scooper. Because her skin looked like poop. I wanted to rub every bit of brown out of me. I did everything I could to distance myself from my roots. Images of white teeny bopper boys plastered to my room walls, anemic, bulimic barbies, porcelain dolls. In the summer, I swam until the sun bleached chlorine blonde in my hair. My father was onto his second marriage and wore white Velcro shoes and billowing American shorts. The Indian almost scrubbed right out. We went to India and stayed at five-star-hotels. Madam. Droves of men stared at the spectacle I had become at 15-years, baggy pants, a Bob Marley shirt and Indian nose with such light skin. America.

I went to one of the whiter colleges in the state—UC Santa Cruz, but as life is laden with ironies, it was where I grew to love my brownness. Found my roots. When I walked into a room there was so much at play—race, gender, class, sexuality, age. I watched the factors play out and found that I could see things from different sides. It was new, recognizing the discomfort of the assumption that white was better: a law I’d grown up worshipping. It was one of my boyfriends who taught me to see my own whiteness. Made that lens visible to me. When we walked in a room and everyone was white, his shoulders tightened, he went out to smoke a cigarette. There were some terrible moments we went through, bridging race and class as we brought our families together. One of the worst times was when my German grandmother asked him if he knew any poor people that she could give old underwear away to. We never spoke about that moment. But even now, I can see the hurt and pain in his eyes—that helpless stare. Is that what she thinks of me and my people that we want her cast-off underwear? My stomach tightens, I wish the moment away, but every part of him said—I endure this hurt because of my love for you. It was this love that let me see whiteness as a sort of blindness. An inability to see—to really understand how your presence silences another. Just by walking into a room.

In 2001, the twin towers came crashing down and I became brown. The type of brown that people stop on the street and ask Are you from Afghanistan? I get stopped all the time. I thought that most people did. Once a man went jogging by and actually turned around and jogged right back to me ask where I was from. Too many places, he said, and jogged away. When we bombed Iraq, the question changed: Where are you from, Iraq? Finally, when George W. was fomenting about Iran’s nuclear program, they hit a vein of my lineage. Are you from Iran? Yes, I’m Parsi. My ancestors left Iran 1,000 years ago and settled in Bombay. I’ve been thinking of doing like an Israeli and making off for Iran, building a wall and settling to reclaim my homeland. Since U.S. bombings aren’t making headlines these days, I’m back to the gamut—the guy asking for change at the stoplight came right up to my car window asking if I was Greek. In Italy, they think I’m Sicilian or grab their wallets tighter in case I’m a Gypsy. In Germany, they are sure I am Turkish. In the south of India, I must be Kashmiri. Everywhere I go, I am other.

I could spin the globe and land on Italy, India, Germany, Iran, California and legitimately go home. But none will be my homecoming. The thing about being mixed is that you understand both, but belong to neither worlds. Infinite possibilities at your fingertips, but nothing at your feet. Nowhere to call home. But my people are everywhere. Can you see a bit of yourself in me? There are more of us. As we band together—we are not a minority. Our otherness makes us the majority. We are the new global citizens here in California—Azteca, Asian, African, Arabic. Different shades of brown blending together. We are the living possibility of a people without borders, an identity beyond the nation state. The heartbeat of freedom.


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