indiatopia

The Indian Identity Question Part II

I wrote a bit about this previously. It is a deep, complex topic and I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface, I know.

I’ve lived longer outside of India than in it. And, for much of the time that I lived in the West, the need to fit in and assimilate often conflicted with the need to just be who I am. This is not a unique phenomenon for the Indian diaspora. Adnan Khan recently wrote an excellent essay on the concept of “brownness” in Hazlitt for Penguin Random House Canada.

Some bits to whet your appetite:

Brownness has become a regular part of Western interrogation—what is a good Brown? What is enough Brown? Is it the kind that resembles Whiteness with just a bit of color thrown in? Is it the kind that resembles Whiteness with just a bit of color thrown in? Republican governor Bobby Jindal is a perfect example for many: he has assimilated deeply into White, American, conservative culture, and makes continuous, painful attempts to isolate his darkness from himself. In his quest for power he has rejected the “Indian-American” tag, saying, “My dad and mom told my brother and me that we came to America to be Americans. Not Indian-Americans, simply Americans … If we wanted to be Indians, we would have stayed in India.” The core tenant of this type of assimilation is that Brownness is foreign and will never belong in the West, past the occasionally chic set of thick eyebrows and appreciation for our spicy foods. Our Brownness does not belong here, we’re told over and over again, until it is bleached enough to resemble everyone else’s version of acceptable Whiteness.

The closest we came to a current sense of self was made simple with bad language—either you were a FOB (Fresh of the Boat, a recent immigrant who adheres to old-world practices) or a Coconut, (Brown on the outside, White on the inside) with little room to navigate between.

If they were being gentle, the perpetrator might call you an ABCD, American Born Confused Desi, a term that writer Vijay Prashad says is utilized to “emphasize to the accidental Americans that they are confused. The homeland is wielded by all these people against the next generation, who are forced to feel culturally inadequate and unfinished.” There is also the potent White Washed, somehow stronger than Coconut, and now often lobbed at targets like the political jinns Bobby “Piyash” Jindal and Dinesh D’Souza, evoking images of a cleanse, and suggesting a total transformation away from Indianness.

The laziness of these terms leaves a confusing sting, especially since they’re used almost exclusively within Asian communities.

And, for those who still think Modi’s recent comments about Indian shame is unfair:

But I felt there was a deep shame at being Indian, some of which came from my father, who spoke badly of the country whenever he could, and some from the “smelly Indian” legacy that trails us: our body odor, our stinky food, our houses marked by a mash of unknown spices. I tried to pass as Arab. Since I was born in Saudi Arabia, I thought I could latch onto that, even though we were like mercenaries in the country, living in an isolated compound and only there for work opportunities India didn’t have. I couldn’t escape my brown skin, but at least I could be rich like an Arab. The distinction between Arab and Indian was messy, but I didn’t know that—I was only looking for a way out. This fell apart when an Egyptian asked if I could speak Arabic and I replied, no, Urdu. To be Indian meant nothing good. I had picked up enough from stray White culture to understand that the “smelly Indian” stereotype had real world implications and that we were somewhere near the bottom of a structurally explicit hierarchy.

He cites the work of Vivek Bald, who wrote on the issue of Indian identity in the West, among other things, in “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America“:

What are our options to locate ourselves in the present? Bald suggests that the idea of belonging in the West isn’t something that needs to be earned from Whites, or even from the generation preceding us, but that it was earned a long time ago when the West was young. He reveals the fluid nature of our identity and the way it was shaped and pulled through migration and interaction with POC communities. Notable South Asian-American figures like Jindal and D’Souza strain towards the idea of whiteness for mainstream acceptance, but Bald shows us an alternate, cohesive, path that nourishes and can be held as a progressive standard moving forward.

The popularity of terms like Coconut and FOB reveal a group stuck in time. An essential idea of identity is that it’s fluid. Its ability to morph, and remain the same, and for these two opposite strands to remain intertwined is what makes a person recognizable. Coconut and FOB strip that and, like any slur, turn the individual into a caricature. It’s also the primary way that so many Brown kids view identity—either they are on this side or on that side. With the ties to the “homeland” cut off, and a dominant White culture violent towards any attempts at fringe identity, we’re left to rot or escape into the shelter of other groups.

Despite all that, Khan seems to have finally made it to the other side of darkness, no pun intended.

The disastrous adventure of being out here in the West is levelling out. What was revelatory to me about my friend’s comments about my “Whiteness,” tucked away underground in the Financial District, was not its content, but that I wasn’t bothered. I moved past it. I claimed an existence of my own.

While Adnan Khan doesn’t quite get into it in this essay, I believe that, for many in the Indian diaspora, “claiming an existence of my own”, or managing the push-pull of deciding just how brown to be for one’s own comfort still comes at a certain personal cost. This is because of the conflicting expectations from both brown and white communities. And, as much as many of us would like to be independent loners, there’s no escaping the fact that one needs to have various ties within both communities for practical reasons like work and family, if nothing else.

Still, while the need to belong and the need to be accepted will never really leave us, Adnan Khan is right that brown people don’t care quite as much anymore about living up to community expectations. Partly, this has to do with communities themselves getting a bit more diverse. But, mostly, it is because they are also, increasingly, online and/or virtual. Identities, in these contexts, can be as fuzzy or as specific as we want them to be.

The only real question that we need answer is: who would we ideally want to be if there were no restrictions or expectations on us? And, then, just BE.

Me? I’m the kind of brown person who loves to eat Indian food but not necessarily cook it; who enjoys old Bollywood songs but doesn’t watch any Bollywood movies for months at a time; who prefers reading Victorian literature and watching British period dramas; who loves American comedy and the Pacific Coast…. you get the idea.

More reading below and I’ll add to it as I go along.

On Being Brown in America by Amitava Kumar (New York Times, 2013)

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