Light Sent Home Through the Prism
America’s shut mouth opens after decades to reel in a long breath and by 1998 pulls me over white
clouds to streets and mirror towers in New York—the world upon landing, also White.
Pre-school is a time for learning fundamentals—how my name sounds snapped with an extra
syllable and eating plain things everyone likes, like applesauce, swallowing its whitish
mush teaches the far-propelling habit of not biting. On September 11th 2001 I bet Nickelodeon
is still showing cartoons, not news, and win. But on CNN, the flag plugged into debris isn’t white
and Lindsey’s parents tell her to tell me that she can’t come over anymore.
I print this into a new picture of myself and in 2004 beg to avoid white
hot shame in the sullen gurudwara, surrounded by who’s to blame I hate
all of our nothing-in-common, I’m already too full for langar. White
light fractures in a prism and dissipates, and by 2008 I stamp my mother a new blueprint
for her body too, “normal” jeans and shirts from JC Penney. Those years her new white
hairs are more coarse and sinewy, alive and thrashing with the demanding, white electricity
I wire to light our home. I promise Emily in 2011 that I’ll never kiss an Indian man, white
knuckled, knowing them only as men like my father, who gave me this body
I can’t hide anywhere. Push the like-poles of a magnet together and they will peel apart
with enough White electromagnetism it will levitate the face of a continent, a nation. In 2013 I ask Rachel
if I am white and she says no. I finally start to pin the blame.
How do you learn to hate yourself, and why? What do you do with this hatred, to whom—and for whom?
When I was three years old, I left India and moved to New York City with my mother and father. I didn’t know I had a “culture” to learn or forget, an “Indian self’ to reconcile with, or to conceal. All I knew was that I had parents I loved and school to go to, fundamentals to learn: what to eat, how to dress, when Halloween was, English, and pronouncing my name a new way. I had some sense that I was different than the other students in my majority White Catholic school, that I’d have to catch up, like—what were Christmas trees and why were they asking what I put on top of mine? Still—I didn’t hate what I did have, didn’t hate my mother and her embroidered shalwar kameez, grabbing its silky folds under my hands when I met her at the end of unfamiliar schooldays, didn’t hate the lilting softness of her Hindi, I still loved the sounds that made the first grooves in my heart and mind. How did I learn to hate myself, and why? In first grade, I had a best friend, Lindsay: a ginger-haired, White girl across the street, she had a razor scooter I loved, and we loved playing with rocks. Finally, my uncle got me my own Red Razor Scooter, a week after 9/11, and when I crossed the street to show her she gave me these words: “My parents told me I can’t hang out with you anymore. Because of what happened to the towers.” This message: it is bad to be brown: brown people are terrorists: you’re brown: people think you’re a terrorist: get away from everything and everyone that could give you away. What do you do with hatred…I annotate the years in violence: shame and discomfort going to the Indian temple, shame and discomfort for my mother’s clothing and her accent, shame and discomfort being seen with any South Asians, ever…To whom? I slash a rift heavy and deep: I became a person my parents couldn’t recognize, couldn’t talk to, an “American” in their home suddenly, a child aspiring to Whiteness. A rift: if they are on one side, I am on the other: if I hated myself for being South Asian, I hated them for being the ones that gave me this identity. For whom? For whom?
This moment is not new or original. It is a common story in Asian America—we are marked perpetually foreign, marked with the violence of American war abroad. In 1882, it was the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting the entry of Chinese laborers into the United States. This was the first American Law implemented to prohibit a specific ethnic group from entering the country, and it was not repealed until 1943. In 1942, it was Executive Order 9066. The government interned Japanese Americans for the duration of World War II. First, second, third generation—it didn’t matter if they were American citizens, didn’t matter if they had never been to Japan, didn’t matter that the State Department itself commissioned an extensive document on Japanese Americans called the Munson Report and did not find a single piece of evidence to garner suspicion. The violence of internment still reverberates. Masking racism as attention to national security is not new. After 9/11, it was Sikh Americans, Arab Americans, South Asian Americans—the list goes on and on and on—anyone that fits the image of a Muslim in the White gaze was, is, subject to physical and emotional harm. The new mask: a war on “Radical Islam.” The new laws have started coming and will not stop.
The violence is intimate: teaching folks of color to hate ourselves, to divide and weaken our own communities, to build internalized racism that takes years, lifetimes to recover from. The violence is vast: immigration bans are breaking apart families, hate crimes are destroying lives, extreme surveillance and vetting like the Muslim registry are taking away our basic freedoms. The violence is urgent: in this political moment we must not reinscribe these mistakes, we must imagine otherwise, we must resist.