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Home / Books / Excerpt: Not Quite Not White by Sharmila Sen

Excerpt: Not Quite Not White by Sharmila Sen

Sharmila Sen’s family moved to the US in the 1980s and she spent much of her early life there attempting to pass as white. Her book is the story of discovering that ‘not-whiteness’ can be what makes one American. In this excerpt she uncovers Indian American attitudes to colour

books Updated: Sep 21, 2018 20:28 IST
Sharmila Sen
Sharmila Sen
Hindustan Times
The one who was wildly successful at passing. No, not Gable: Hollywood star Merle Oberon (1911-1979) with Clark Gable (1901-1960) in 1939.
The one who was wildly successful at passing. No, not Gable: Hollywood star Merle Oberon (1911-1979) with Clark Gable (1901-1960) in 1939.(Getty Images)
         


Rs 599; 191pp
Rs 599; 191pp

My family is no different from the majority of Indian families who immigrated to the United States after 1965 in at least one aspect — our anti- black bias is strong. When I tried to pass as white, or silently accepted the badge of honorary whiteness, I was trying to proclaim to our neighbors that I was Not Black, that I was Not Hispanic. Every news story we saw on television, every innuendo Ma and Baba picked up around the workplace, every suspicious glance we spied in grocery stores, every gesture I clocked in the schoolyard taught us that blacks and Hispanics occupy the lower rungs of American racial hierarchy. As aspirational immigrants we aimed for a higher rung, desperate to impress the dominant culture with our work ethic, family values, and the antiquity of our culture. Emigration itself is risky enough. Having embraced one kind of risk, the immigrant needs to assess all other risks judiciously. The black figure, etched against the backdrop of white respectability and normalcy, stands for preposterous risks — economic, political, moral — from which the new immigrant, regardless of the exact shade of her skin, tries to inch away. Once you see the American racial hierarchy through the newly arrived migrant’s eyes, you will understand why Toni Morrison once wrote that the road to becoming American is built on the backs of blacks. Many first- generation Indian immigrants in America boast of their low divorce rates and high household incomes; their old gods and their new-construction homes. Beneath these claims is a singular, fearful drumbeat refrain: We are Not Black, we are Not Black, we are Not Black.

Some older Indian immigrants worry that their child will marry outside caste or religion or linguistic group. Others worry that their child will marry a white person.

But the greatest anxiety is that their child will marry someone black — the person being arrested for drug possession on countless television dramas; the person politicians tell us inhabit hellish inner cities and have nothing left to lose; the person who is shot by the police with frightening regularity.

Immigrants from developing countries such as India are often afraid of the negative images associated with black America. These images remind them of the daily degradations they hoped to escape through immigration. The white- collar Indian who desires the symbols of American success — the right accent, Audis in the garage, an upscale suburban home, granite countertops, freezers with enough food to last an entire winter, a wine cellar, en suite bathrooms, backyards with barbecues, second homes, and even a foreign au pair — also wants to distance himself from the symbols of American failure. Sometimes it also means steering clear of one’s fellow immigrant who has found less economic success in the promised land. Indian taxi drivers, gas station attendants, waiters, or hot dog vendors become less visible to the first-generation Indian immigrant who drives luxury cars, sends her children to private schools, and summers in Martha’s Vineyard, just as the children of the Calcutta basti disappeared into the background when I held Ma’s hand and walked down Gariahat Road.

Sharmila Sen
Sharmila Sen ( Rupinder Singh )

For most of my life I have heard vulgarities such as Chinky, Negro, Red Indian, and even the N word casually used by many educated Indians without any sense of regret. Racist attacks against African students and tourists are a tragic reality witnessed regularly in major Indian cities nowadays. Anti-black bias is present among Indians in the home country as well as in the diaspora. In some cases, such as in the British West Indies, it was a result of social engineering by the European colonial masters as slaves were replaced by coolies on the sugar plantations. In the United States, the anti- black racism that many Indians bring with them from the subcontinent — a mixture of homegrown color bias and Made in Europe racism — is hardened by the prevailing myth of the model minority. These new immigrants, as well as some of their children, envision themselves as the embodiment of neoliberalism’s promise. Judging their professional success to be a well- earned reward for hard work and merit, they remain blind to the historic disadvantages that prevent others from attaining similar success. To the white population the first- generation Indian immigrant wishes to say, “We are the model minority. The doctors who will heal you, the lawyers who will prosecute crime for you, the investment banker who will make you richer, the geek who will invent new technologies for your pleasure. We are the legal immigrants. Please don’t confuse us with illegal ones. We’re the good brown people. Please don’t confuse us with the bad black ones.”

Read more: Let’s talk about racism | Why Indian Americans have a white skin fixation

Not Black. Not Quite Asian. My pale complexion — once of great value in the Indian matrimonial market— gave me an advantage that many other Indians do not have. Ma is darker than I am. My husband, a Punjabi Sikh, is darker than I am. So are my three children. I inherited my complexion from Baba. His accent is distinctly Indian. His name is unmistakably Bengali. Yet, Baba is often mistaken for white on American streets. As a teenager in America, I realized I could pass. And it felt good to disappear into whiteness, to become invisible.