When I was 17, I won an essay contest for writing about how the concept of the melting pot is over and how we are, instead, a “bubbling stew of recognizable, though diverse, ingredients whose flavors are deepened by the mix.” “For only by celebrating our differences,” I wrote, “will we enrich our culture, our economy, and most importantly, our individual lives.”
What a bunch of crap.
I’m not saying the concept of a stew is lacking. I’m hardly the first to try my hand at yet another food metaphor to describe the unique American experiment. Although I thought I was being clever, the stew idea has been around for a while (although “celebrating our differences” sounds more like a cheese plate). But for 17-year-old me to have been writing these words was more than a bit disingenuous. I wanted to win a contest and I knew how. But I certainly didn’t believe anything I wrote.
Growing up Bengali-American in the rural South, I aspired to be like every other small-town southern Virginian, actively rejecting any cultural marker that pegged me as different (including the hyphenated identity, which I only use above for clarity). In terms of derogatory labels, I was not even close to an “ABCD”—American-born confused Desi. I truly believed there was nothing confusing about it for me. I was a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside). At the time, for me, it was cut and dry.
That’s why Priya-Alika Elias’s recent Gawker article, “No Indian Friends,” resonated with me.
Like Priya, I rejected the premise that every brown person had to be the same. I valued individualism over a fate determined by my skin color. I’ve been accused of self-hatred, of—almost literally—whitewashing my history.
My Life Has Mostly Transcended Ethnicity
Here I should admit I’ve learned a bit since then, and that it is possible to still be a country-music-listening Republican while acknowledging the richness (“Rich,” like “black forest cake,” jokes Priya) of my heritage. That, too, would be disingenuous. At the most, now I can look back and acknowledge perhaps I was more confused than I thought, and that my choice of identity was not as cut-and-dry as it was to my teenage mind. But for the most part, I’m content with my choice. It is what it is, and it has served me well.
I’ve always said I benefited greatly from not growing up in a diverse area, and that I was majorly influenced by where I went to school and who my friends were. I was not ever one to notice or care that I was the only non-white person in the room. I would joke that I forgot I’m not white (I really do forget). In college, where I did have one or two South Asian friends, it threw me off when people felt weird at parties because they were the only brown ones there (Dude, no one cares).
The same thing applied to gender. When I approached my dean about joining the intelligence field, he noted I’d be one of very few females, a statement that didn’t faze me one bit. It turned out to be untrue, post-9/11, at least for the home offices, but in male-heavy deployment environments, I just adopted the language and attitude of the dudebros and aspired to be one of the guys.
But when I dig down and explore why I gained this quality of assimilating with the crowd, there are deeper cultural forces at work.
Conformity as an Antidote to Marginalization
First, I cannot pretend I spent most my time around other white southern Americans and that’s why I am the way I am. Bengali cultural traditions include a lot of time spent in the community. Exposure isn’t the issue here. Just as fitting in to the mainstream is important to any high-schooler, fitting in to the larger Bengali community is very important to them, too. Here, however, you get two very conflicting sets of values.
As stated by Devjani Banerjee-Stevens, “A chief task of adolescence is the search for and development of one’s identity, This is undoubtedly a tricky process for many, but individuals straddling two cultures may feel compelled to choose the values and beliefs of one culture over another; integrating their two cultures’ values may not be feasible or condoned by either the majority or ancestral cultures.”
For me, instead of walking the line, it was easier to pick one or the other. One might see the outlines of my life story and call me the ultimate conformist. Stability, two kids, marriage, joining all the right community organizations—all the signs of milquetoast conservatism are right there.
But when one accounts for my wholesale rejection of Bengali culture, I was a countercultural hurricane. I argued against arranged marriage with a friend’s father at the age of six. At 18, I took a sip of wine in front of every assembled auntie and elder while they stared in shock. As a preschooler, I hung out with my dad and all the other men at parties instead of gossiping with the women in the kitchen. I married a white guy.
There was a rumor that I spent my summer after freshman year of college being a cocktail waitress down in Norfolk (I had a paid internship with the Port Authority). In other words, I didn’t just blindly follow the herd. I very actively chose to follow a particular herd.
Not every second-generation South Asian went about things my way. However, the experience of anxiety and marginalization appears to be a common experience. In S. Mitra Kalita’s book “Suburban Sahibs,” she discusses how her non-South Asian friends made fun of “IFS,” or Indian Food Smell, and how she and her siblings made an effort to mask the smell of their home before friends came over. She also talks about her embarrassment when her parents would show up in full Indian sarongs at her school functions. These experiences are echoed throughout literature and scholarly work discussing the second-generation South Asian experience.
We’re the brown version of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Which is to say that second-generation confusion and anxiety isn’t exclusively a South Asian thing.
The Problem with Binary Conceptions of Race
That being said, one thing the main character didn’t have to deal with in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is her second-generation immigrant status wasn’t tied up in the color of her skin. There was no discussion or question of whether she was a minority.
That, of course, is a change from early American history. For example, Irish immigrants and those from Southern and eastern Europe were not considered white until well after their arrival in the United States. But whereas the Irish now are white, and Japanese, for example, now fit into a pan-Asian ethnic identity, South Asians are still negotiating their ethnic identity.
Asians don’t fit on the black/white binary so prevalent where I grew up. Even when dealing with more diverse populations, “many Indians feel the South Asian category does not usually fit into American categories of race: Asian, Black, White, or Hispanic,” says Cynthia Sinha. Goodness knows how many times I’ve looked at the “Asian/Pacific Islander” box on surveys and thought, “Well, I guess so.”
What happens next depends on the person and their environment. Some South Asians find themselves being treated either as black or as white. Others are treated as “ambiguous non-whites.” The result? When forced with the dichotomy, Indian psychologist Monika Sharma stated, “I had created my own version of a race war in my mind. I had divided the world into White and Other, and during my childhood I had made a choice about on which side I wished to belong.”
Rejecting Minority Status
The stereotypes of being a “model minority” further exacerbate the need to reject minority status and, in my case, take it a few steps further to not acknowledging racial differences. From a larger point of view, many South Asians don’t feel as though they could speak on minority issues due to their perceived class and educational advantages.
In my case, those advantages were real enough, but the “model minority” myth often does gloss over disadvantages and problems various segments of the Asian-American population face. In return, students internalize that myth and themselves reject help or discussion due to the belief they do not deserve minority status. Finally, when dealing with teenagers, the stereotype of a model minority spills over into a stereotype of a dowdy nerd, something a teen would do well to reject if he or she wants to fit into the dominant culture.
From a personal point of view, not fitting within the black/white binary meant I had to choose one with which to ally myself. I always defend the South—I love the South—but my formative memories of race in the South center on extremely racist attitudes expressed by children who just didn’t know better. What I heard, both explicitly and implicitly, from those children—in the middle of saying incredibly horrible things about black people—was that I was different. I wasn’t one of “those” minorities. I belonged with the white crowd and therefore was okay.
Sinha continues, “Racial ambiguity can marginalize groups of people because it seems that in the U.S., one needs a distinct category to be understood.” And one antidote to marginalization is to attach oneself to a whole different group.
Don’t Pretend You Know Me Because of My Skin
Not every second-generation individual reacts that way, and many (if not most) eventually choose a hybrid, hyphenated identity. One reason many South Asian Americans choose a hyphenated identity is brilliantly covered in “Negotiating Ethnicity” by Bandana Purkayashta, in which she discusses how non-white Americans cannot pick and choose a symbolic ethnicity as easily as a white American because their race is ever-present. In terms of many South Asians, in addition, some of their cultural values are negatively perceived by the dominant culture, and therefore, “being ethnic negatively affects their ability to be American.” The hyphen, she theorizes, symbolizes this tension.
For me, though, it still goes back to the visceral reaction when I meet someone and they start talking about the rich culture of India. First, India and Bangladesh are not the same. We’re the dowdy conservative religious stepcousins of the subcontinent. Second, you just met me. I resent that the color of my skin immediately hearkens back to something that has nothing to do with me. Hyphenating my identity, in my mind, only encourages that.
Not only is it frustrating for my ethnic heritage to be lumped into the dominant Indian culture that is as alien to me as Japanese culture would be, the glossed-over version of South Asian culture—with its monsoon weddings, henna, and chai—ignores a large part of reality. South Asia has beautiful parts, but especially coming from Bangladesh I see the darker underbelly: the absolute poverty, the attacks against women, the political dissent, the entitlement complex, the bribes and corruption, the lack of ability to form a freaking line. Without a real understanding of South Asia, any cooing discussion of my culture—again, having just met me and without my initiation of the conversation—reeks of cultural appropriation.
Try Interacting with Me as an Individual
Why do I love Elias’s article so much? Because she not only encapsulated my younger self’s desire to conform to the dominant white culture, she forced me to examine why. And she hit upon an uncomfortable truth: you can’t completely erase a part of yourself. As she writes,
“Being Indian didn’t mean that I was exactly the same as the other billion people who happened to share that characteristic. It didn’t mean I’d automatically love wearing saris. But in affirming that as loudly as I did, I made another grave mistake: the mistake of thinking that I could find the entirety of myself in the white experience. Like a child jamming a piece into the wrong puzzle, I wouldn’t accept that it wouldn’t fit.”
From something as innocuous as learning how to write thank-you notes (not exactly common in Bengali culture) to watching from the sidelines as my friends went out on their first dates, I struggled during my formative years to “pass” as white and never quite succeeded. How sad that sounds, written out that way. “I didn’t understand that I was erasing myself till I saw somebody else doing it as well as I had managed to,” writes Priya. “Because brown kids are nothing if not good at spelling bees and assimilation.”
So I will state this. If you are just meeting me and you note my color, please don’t tell me about the time you went to a yoga retreat and found your nirvana. Definitely don’t ask me if “Jen” is short for something “totally cooler and more ethnic.” But once we get to know each other, after we discuss my love of beaches, our high school bonfires, and the part of my soul that will always live in the South, I might also tell you a bit of the real story.