I remember the first day that I arrived at my university, a small, predominantly white campus in the heart of Connecticut. I was quite surprised to find that even after coming from an international school in India, I felt very visibly out of place. Everywhere I went, I was amidst a lot of people I was conditioned to believe were better looking and more sophisticated than I was. I noticed the handful of other Indian students in my year scrambling to befriend their white peers and eagerly post about their new friendships online. Even as a short-term resident in the U.S., I could feel the immense pressure to assimilate and “revamp” my identity – an experience I am sure is vastly compounded for those who leave India behind permanently, perhaps more so for those from marginalised communities, whose identities may already be a source of social hardship.
Understanding race in the United States of America is no easy task, and it is a far greater challenge when layered with the way race, privilege and caste are constructed within India – a country with social divisions that outlive America itself.
My time in the U.S. gave me a lot of insight into how we, as Indians, often cultivate our own identities in relation to other people, places and objects. The food we eat at home, the neighbourhoods we live in, the last names we have, how we wear saris or what our complexions are – all these tiny details are unflinching markers of our place in society. And for those of us who come from certain sets of privilege, these realities remain on the periphery as gossip fodder or convenient go-tos for our liberal arts theses, but rarely manifest into our daily lives.
For the Indian diaspora in a world that’s rapidly changing, however, the particularly unique struggle of being visibly Indian is a lived experience like no other. I had the pleasure of speaking with Sharmila Sen, executive editor-at-large at Harvard University Press, about her new book Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America – a fascinating memoir that captures the beautiful, everyday process of finding identity in a multicultural, intergenerational context. Having moved to the U.S. with her family in 1982 when she was just 12 years old, Sharmila retraces her fond childhood in Calcutta, her journey into white America and her witty introspections on assimilation and race.
“When we moved, I was much more attuned to Halloween coming than I was Durga Puja. We didn’t live near any other Indians, so in a world before WhatsApp, everything connecting me to India at that time kind of faded away. But around September, I’d sometimes look up and see this amazing, big full moon and I’d know it was time for Laxmi Puja,” she tells me as we discuss the initial days of her shift to America. I can sense the smile in her voice as she recounts her visits to her grandparents’ sprawling home in Allahabad, sleeping on the razai in front of the barely-functioning air cooler in the hot summers and splurging on as many mangoes as she could get.
“The India I left behind was solidly pre-liberalisation India, without malls or any foreign goods, and the United States I was entering into was in a period of racial restructuring, both countries very different from what they’re going to be in a few decades. So what is often left unsaid is the texture of moving,” she explains. Whether it was having to self-identify her “race” in legal paperwork or adjusting to new school customs in Massachusetts, Sharmila experienced many of the changes theoretically similar to what a young immigrant might experience today, only in a pre-social media moment with different social realities.
For Sharmila’s mother, who was 35 years old when they moved, the change was naturally more difficult; not having family members around during festivals – even if they were third or fourth cousins – was culturally isolating. “The many colourful “Happy Diwali” messages that come on WhatsApp now is a good dose of diasporic nostalgia for all of us, especially for my mother who has lived half her life away from her home country,” Sharmila says.
For her three teenage children – who are legally considered “third generation” immigrants, born in the United States – the question of identity gets blurrier. I asked Sharmila, who has worked and lived in India even after she moved to the U.S., what relationship diasporic Indians have, or should have, with India. What are the challenges of balancing the need to assimilate with preserving a family heritage that they may barely know or care about? What does being “Indian” mean to them?
‘They have a Punjabi Sikh father, who left India for the U.K. when he was three or four years old, and a Bengali Hindu mother. So it’s very easy for them to think India is either this or that – the two things their parents represent. There’s a narrow kind of vision that India represents what your family does, and I think diasporic Indians particularly get into that groove. We were very conscious of it and didn’t want to be like those second generation immigrants that have a distant relationship with India but still have very strong convictions about what Indianness should be. So in maybe a sort of perverse way, I wanted our children to never know what being Indian means and to be exposed to all sorts of India,” she says, detailing that on every visit to India, they made it a point to seek out other ethno-linguistic regions and educational experiences beyond those in just their ancestral homes.
“My children look more Indian than me, and they often joke that I am basically a white person with an accidental Indian past,” she laughs. Even as a professor and writer herself, she is wary about taking the time to understand India holistically, which includes learning other Indian languages and cultures beyond her own, rather than merely presenting something clever to a Western publisher as “the key to understanding India’s poverty or economic successes.” Although scholars in India also fall into the same traps of presenting a broad narrative that lacks nuance, this problem is particularly persistent in Western academic circles, which – in my opinion – include college students.
Going back to my college days, I know that those of us who were privileged got to pick and choose what parts of our Indian identity we wanted to showcase and what we wanted to brush under the carpet – we were quick to wear pretty saris but quicker to shun the “uncool” parts of our heritage. In my experience, this was as true for diasporic Indians as it was for international students, except that the latter seemed to be a lot more conscientious. Given the recent surge in conversations around political correctness and cultural appropriation, I asked Sharmila if she thought Indians abroad can “culturally appropriate” Indianness.
“Just like the debate among African Americans who have no direct ties to Africa on whether or not they can wear the kente cloth – it’s a relevant question for the Indian diaspora. It does seem appropriative in some ways, like flattening out and homogenizing the entire (sub)continent into one consumable identity for others who don’t understand it. If you were an Indian American wearing a lehnga on Halloween, would that be self-appropriation if you didn’t otherwise wear the lehnga? I think at the heart of lot of cultural appropriation is commerce and economics – if there is some kind of economic or social gain attached to it or not. When an Indian performer puts on a bindi and includes some Indian beats, their record sales will be crazy. But the aunty strolling down Jackson Heights has been wearing a bindi her entire life – there’s nothing cool about it, she’s an immigrant and an outsider who has to work a minimum wage job and her bindi is a marker of her ‘otherness.’”
For a country built on immigration and diversity, the U.S. is an incredibly xenophobic nation, particularly today. Whether or not there are more specific categories for Indians other than “Asian” on a legal form, the experience of those that are not quite white, not quite black, not quite Hispanic, but also not quite Indian is an issue that millions among the diaspora grapple with. Even for the elite of India, moving to the U.S. means automatically climbing down a few steps on the ladder of privilege. Anyone who is not white in America is – to varying degrees – marginalised. What is the experience like for those immigrants whose marginalisation is compounded? For those with darker skin, from lower castes, “backward classes”?
“Obviously, not everyone who’s upper caste is light-skinned and everyone that’s darker skinned is not necessarily of a lower caste, but most Indians wear caste on [their] bodies in inescapable ways. When you sit around a table among other Indians, you’re aware of caste. There’s a bit of cultural legibility with things like last names, something Brahmins will never hide even if others do. Many of my white American colleagues will be told by these other Indians they meet in the U.S. that India is ‘post-caste,’ but India is ‘post-caste’ the way that America is ‘post-race’ – which is to say it is, very obviously, not,” Sharmila says simply. “Not seeing race – or caste – doesn’t make the reality of its institutionalized disadvantage go away.” For immigrants who come from lower caste communities, the process of adjusting and moving up may be harder, but as Sharmila rightly asks: “if your sending country has historically put you in disadvantage, and you have the slightest opportunity to shed that, wouldn’t you?”
Ultimately, that’s the promise of migration: moving to a better place with better opportunities that allow a fresh start. But global structures of power and inequality have corrupted that idea and repeatedly pushed forth a myth of equal opportunity when the playing field is far from level. Every Indian experiences “Indianness” differently – if at all – and depending on the different spaces we occupy, the way we construct our identity within society changes. With a fresh, personal take on the wider socioeconomic histories of hot-button topics like immigration, Sharmila Sen’s book is a wonderfully written and extremely relevant account in understanding the complexities of race, identity and culture in our time.
‘Not Quite Not White’ is a must-read for all audiences, published by Penguin Random House. Read more about the book and buy it here.
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