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.

On Being Brown in MLK Jr's America

Mindy Kaling on the cover of Elle magazine.

The third Monday in January may mean a ski holiday for those grew up in the United States in the 80’s. For 28 years, this has been the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the long weekend commemorating his birth, and his fight, as a private citizen, for civil rights for great grandchildren of African descendents in America. He is more than a soundbite and a day off, however, even to those of us who were not on his mind when he was marching or sitting in jail.

The history of race relations in America has been dominated by a black/white dichotomy that often ignores the multi-hues that make up the famed “melting pot.” I’m not saying that the history of slavery, plantations and an agrarian Southern economy is not important. Nor that the resurgence of Hollywood interest in examining this dark period, from Django Unchained to 12 Years a Slave, isn’t artistically and thematically significant.

I am saying that to grow up in-between black and white in America, brown in my case, meant knowing your place was next to impossible. Many of us could use professional support in unpacking the cultural support we grow up in.

I remember moving to Palo Alto, California before it was the home of Facebook or Google. A few weeks into my new school, the teacher sent the three black kids and the one brown (me) to the library to meet with a reporter to talk about the importance of MLK Jr. and the relatively new holiday. This was circa 1987/88.

I was terrified.

All the way down the hallway to the library, I racked my brain about this man I knew nothing about. I had never heard of him before.

The other kids, if they had, said nothing to me, the new girl, about anything.

We were posed around a children’s book, me standing at the shoulder of a girl, who was holding two pages open, one of them with a black and white photo of a man with a wide forehead and regal smile. I scanned the page, desperate for clues.

The caption said something like Dr. King went to jail several times for his beliefs. The reporter asked me later what I thought of MKL Jr.

I dutifully repeated the only semi-fact I had at hand.

“He went to jail for what he believed in.”

I wished there had been more print on the page, or I had a few seconds more to flip through that book and read up on this man everyone was sure I knew a lot about.

The reporter was disappointed that I didn’t have more to say. He (she? A 9 year old’s memories are not that reliable) moved on to someone else.

But the spark had started: I knew I was different from other people. And they were different from me a hereto unexamined fact. What I thought up until then was unclear. Had I thought the whole world was Indian? I knew people looked different than my family; my teacher didn’t dress like my mother after all. I had led an unexamined life, despite moving from India to Canada at a young age.

I went around school, asking classmates, what made this unknown category of black.

“They can’t have red hair,” someone said. The wisdom of 9 year olds only left me with more questions.

Like Harriet the Spy, one of my childhood heroines, I wrote that and a myriad of other semi-facts down.

I wrote it down, despite knowing that with my South Asian man, red was a color I couldn’t aspire to either. The world was no longer as I knew it.

As I grew older, and moved across America, from California to Texas, to Florida, and then North Carolina, part of a family of nomadic academics, my on-the-spot racial education continued. And what I was learning was even more conflicted.

Being Indian, I was part of the “Model Minority” as an Asian. Our type of immigrants were white collar professionals, assimilated into American culture by speaking English, owning homes, sending children to good schools.

My friends in high school and college, whose parents wouldn’t speak to them if they dated a black person, would welcome me into their homes, hold my hand at dinner, and smile hellos to my parents.

“But I don’t think of you as black,” they would say if I mentioned how uncomfortable I felt about being brown in the South.

“But I’m not white,” I wanted so desperately to say. During a classroom enrichment activity, designed to highlight class privilege, I stepped back with all the black kids, even though my parents had taken me to museums. I couldn’t fathom stepping forward and being ahead, in line with all the white kids.

Instead, I wore lots of (hot pink) lipstick to hide my brown lips, complied when a friend asked to see my gums (he wanted to see if they were the same color as his), and fretted I was not as attractive as my white girl friends*, doomed to spend the rest of my life alone. White men, I knew, would not find me attractive. And living in central Florida, then the capital of North Carolina, my future stretched long and lonely.

Which brings me to the recent media storm around women of color appearing on high profile magazines.

In their rush to democratize the notoriously Caucasian magazine industry, and hopefully open up notions of beauty, the editors of women’s magazines are making obvious blunders in whitewashing the very women they’re hoping to honor. There’s Mindy Kaling and Elle debacle, where the gorgeous, regular woman size 8 Mindy was not only cropped, instead of full length, she is the only cover to appear in black and white. Or the speculations that the luminous 12 Years a Slave actress, the rising star, Lupita Nyong’o’s skin had been lightened in a Vanity Fair spread; whether or not it was the lighting or Photoshop, the effect is the same. Lighter, the beauty industry keeps telling us, is more beautiful.

All of which was brought to my mobile device when I cropped out my own toes in an Instagram photo. That’s right; they were too dark for me to think they were lovely. I did the same with my fingers holding the baby (whose face is very white, like his East Asian father’s).

You’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I am an otherwise confident, educated, credentialed published author, mother of two, wife of seven years. And yet when I see my skin, the darker on my hands than my face, I cringe.

Different people have different tributes to Dr. King Jr. For me, as a brown person growing up in America, by starting the process of living black and free, he and all the other fighters in the Civil Rights movement made Gandhi a part of everyday American parlance. A fact I will be forever grateful for as an Indian American adult. Gandhi’s own political consciousness was stirred in South Africa, when he saw the treatment of blacks and browns under white supremacy.

Both demonstrated that people with dark skin can and should occupy public spaces – both literally and figuratively – like anyone else.

A black president, the first Indian American Miss USA (she’s darker than the average almost white Bollywood star), and I’m still a teenage girl, worried my fingers are too dark to be attractive.

From this MLK JR day forward, I vow not to hide my hands or feet from Instagram or anywhere else. A small step to be sure, but if we can resist the assertion of governments to own our bodies, how much more insidious is the beauty industry, in cahoots with the media, gaining our permission, voluntarily, towards self-hatred?

Tupac Shukur immortalized the saying, “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”

I’ll do my part to say I know this to be true.

*For more of these ruminations about growing up brown are in my books; fiction An Unlikely Goddess, and memoir, From Dunes to Dior.

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