How to Tell if You Might Turn into Rachel Dolezal

Race for Life by Vinoth Chander
Race for Life by Vinoth Chander

Newly arrived to America, from the ethnocentric post-doc community of Canada, was like being thrown in a pile of snow. “Report to the library to talk to the reporter about Martin Luther King Jr.,” my elementary school teacher said. In Palo Alto, CA of the ’80s, being Indian meant non-white. I trudged to the library with two or three other classmates, sweating at the idea someone was going to ask me about a man I had never heard of.  The reporter was frustrated with my monotone answers, gleaned from the text of the children’s picture book we had been posed around for the article’s accompanying photo.

“He went to jail for what he believed in,” I said. The (white male?) reporter’s brow furrowed.

“What else?” He asked.

“Going to jail is hard,” my eight year old self said.

I grew up as the child of immigrant parents in the United States. I was brown. But this identity gave me no footing in the black-white American racial landscape.

My parents, when the piece was published in the local newspaper, chuckled at the photo. When I asked what was funny, they switched topics. This was the beginning of my introduction into an invisible space: that of the model minority Asian, hovering somewhere between the pigments.

“I don’t think of you as black,” my white friends would say in college, as though bestowing a compliment.

“Dot, not feather,” was another popular shortcut.

When I moved to the Middle East in my mid-twenties, I was exchanging a binary for inquisitive. Or so I thought. Despite sharing trade routes with India and many customs I had been raised to think of as Indian: henna, eating with your hands, samosas, Arabs had the perfect place for me: housemaid.

In the minds of strangers, I went from being good at math, possibly a doctor, to knowledgeable about scrubbing toilets and obviously an excellent cook.

Many times during these vacillations I thought about how I was the wrong race. I wasn’t black enough in America to have a shared identity – Indians were few and far between in the suburbs I lived in – and I wasn’t white enough in the Arabian Gulf to merit respect.

The more I started writing, the more I bemoaned this stateless purchase. Western publishers were headlining the works of Anglophone Indian writers of Bengali descent in particular. I was Tamil.

Gulf Arab characters dominated my novels but I wasn’t eligible for any of the competitions because I wasn’t Arab.

Here’s where I differed from Rachel Dolezal: I saw power in being the me that I was. Though it often felt unjust, and belittling, I clung to the me that I was. If I could influence my network, let them taste fish curry, see that the Middle East wasn’t all bombs and blood, then I was doing my part. Most of my life in America had been an incognito mission of raising awareness. In my 30s, as a writer, through fiction, I tackled these major issues head on.

Tim Wise explains, “Allyship involves, at its best, working with people of color, rather than trying to speak for them.”

I learned this lesson the hard way, as Wise says it must be learned, through struggle and disappointment at getting it wrong:

               …the process is messy as hell, and filled with wrong turns and mistakes and betrayals and apologies and a healthy dose  of pain. I suspect she didn’t have the patience for the messiness, but armed with righteous indignation at the society           around her, and perhaps the one in which she had been raised out west, she opted to cut out the middle man. To hell with white allyship (or as my friends and colleagues Lisa Albrecht and Jesse Villalobos are calling it, “followership”), to hell with working with others; rather, she opted to simply become black, to speak for and as those others…

Recently I sat through an entire book club where the members told me that I had gotten Qatari society wrong in Love Comes Later. Prior to arriving to the meeting I had told everyone they could share with me any views, positive or negative. And boy, did they.

“I love Egypt but I would never write about Egypt because I’m not from there,” one earnest speaker said to me.

“If writers only wrote about their own worlds, we would be improvised,” I said.

Make no mistake, if I could say that I was part Arab, my work might benefit. I write about Qataris, and housemaids, and migrant workers, and many of my main characters are male because in exploring their experience we understand more of what it is like to be them. Fiction gives us that elusive power that perhaps Ms. Dolezal was in search of all along: the honest way to shed one identity and assume another.

When we put down the book (or pen), however, we go back to being ourselves and working with our new understanding of those we aim to help.

I am an Indian American writer who has lived in the Arabian Gulf for ten years. And I hope I’m making my corner of the world a better place.