Being dark-haired and olive-skinned has always made it difficult for people to place where I come from. Often, I have been mistaken for a Romani, a Latina, a Syrian, and more recently, a Sephardic Jew. To be completely honest, it makes me happy that so many people look at me and think I’m one of their own.
But there is a flipside.
As a very obvious person of color, I am subjected to a variety of racial slurs. I’ve been called a “Puerto Rican Bitch” and was asked to show someone my “dirty, brownie a**hole.”
I never bothered to correct my racist attackers. I never said, “Oh, I’m not Latina… I’m Indian.” To me, it is devastating that these people actually meant to hurt someone based on their identity, no matter what it was… and never mind that they weren’t really targeting an Indian.
And that is why, when I joined groups campaigning for racial and social justice, my motivation was to fight for my friends who were actually the intended targets of racism. Inadvertent ones like myself were unimportant. I did not want to make it all about me when there were other people getting hurt for who they actually were.
But that changed when a little over a year ago, I narrowly missed being hit by a cup filled with stale coffee. “Go back to your country, curry face,” the man yelled as I hurried away. And even though I didn’t see his face properly, I will never forget his words. And that was only the beginning. Few months later, an immigration officer at the JFK international airport said casually to me, “there must be no schools in India, that’s why you’re here, right?” I patiently explained to him that I had a bachelors and a masters from India already and that this was my second graduate degree. He remained undeterred and proceeded to tell me that it was because of people like me that Americans were losing out on jobs and opportunities that rightfully belonged to them.
A few months later, I was called a “Bloody Paki,” and this one hit home because no matter what was meant, racially, I am a Paki. Had my grandmother chosen to stay back in Pakistan in 1947, had she been called Shahin instead of Surjeet, I would have indeed been born a Paki. And in that moment, I realized that I was fighting racism not just for my Black, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, and Jewish brethren but also for myself.
But despite that realization, I wonder why I see it but so many others don’t. I am often told by other POC and by people back in India that I don’t belong in the race conversation because I had economic privilege while growing up and because I chose to come to America.
I don’t understand this.
How did my economic privilege change the color of my skin? Did I lose a drop of melanin from my body for every extra rupee I gained in my bank account? And sure, I chose to come here. But where on the visa form did I agree to have coffee thrown at me in return for my fancy MA degree?
I don’t want to hijack the conversation about race. It is true that the history of race is a lot more complicated for other groups like African-Americans and Native Americans. But at the same time, racism is not black and white. It is a spectrum and not being included in the conversation invalidates my brushes with racism. As a brown person from India, I cannot simply erase the history of colonialism in my country. I cannot do away with the obsession with fairness. I cannot turn a blind eye to the colorism my own sister has experienced for being a shade darker than me.
In a softer form, everyday casual racism against my kind is not even recognized as racism. Even if I write grammatically correct English, potential employers assume that because I have an Indian name, I must sound like Raj from Big Bang Theory. And then of course, in a prestigious magazine design competition at school, the entire panel of judges said that there was really nothing unique about a magazine for Southeast Asian women. Fun fact: I had spent at least ten minutes of my presentation addressing the problem of lumping South Asians and Southeast Asians in the same category.
By the way, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) and Southeast Asia (Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam) are VERY different from each other. But somehow, to all three judges, I looked exactly like my Thai classmate, Tanya.
I wonder if they would be so callous about confusing a Latina with a Black person? Even after being told the difference by a Latina herself?
In another instance, I voiced my frustration to a Teen Vogue staffer at a Race and Media conference. And his response was that he is very careful about representing other cultures well. And that is why, he has an Asian (South Korean) girl on his team who makes sure that anything and everything about Asian culture is accurately reported.
I wanted to laugh.
Asia is the biggest continent on the planet. It stretches from Japan in the east to Israel in the West, and encompasses extremely different countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, parts of Russia, parts of Papua New Guinea, Oman, Qatar, Bhutan, Laos, Bahrain, Iran, China, and the two Koreas. But one token Asian on the staff is responsible for making sure everything about Asia is represented accurately.
Don’t get me wrong here. Personally, I do believe that as long as a research editor is good enough, they will be able to keep things accurate even if they are not from that particular culture. But this sort of Tokenism annoys me.
You want to tell me that you are so careful about representation that you hire Black people to tell their stories and Muslims to tell their stories and Asians to tell their stories. Except– you paint ALL of Asia in one color and completely negate the sheer range of its diversity. Basically, you are against discrimination, misrepresentation, and all forms of appropriation– but Asia doesn’t count– because Asia is too big and it is not black and white. So you choose however you want to color it because it’s just simpler that way.
Some people back home tell me that Indians are among the worst racists in the US. To some extent, they are right. I too am very critical of some of the things my fellow countrymen do. For instance, I am repulsed by the fact that a lot of Indian-Americans vote Republican, compare their own privileged situation to the plight of the DACA kids, support extreme and unfair vetting, donate to communal right-wing parties back home in India, and insist on holding on to caste hierarchies even in their luxury apartments in Brooklyn, New York.
At the same time, there are other Indians and South Asians like me who recognize our privilege in our home countries but who came here for a better education and career prospects. In my case, I came because the patriarchal, misogynistic culture in my home country was stifling and because there were very limited opportunities back home for my area of academic interest. I love my country but I wanted to experience more of what the world has to offer.
And yet, I am stereotyped, attacked with racial slurs, and made to feel small for who I am. Further still, when I speak up against it, I am asked to shut up and sit down because my experiences are not important enough.
I don’t have the answers. Only questions that I am not allowed to ask.