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Whole Wheat Girl in a White Bread World

Opinion | October 10, 2017

In my grandparents’ house, a statue of Ganesh, one of the many deities in Hinduism, sits proudly on the mantle. Its bronze coloring echoes the pillows and other decorations in the house, invoking the spirit of their Indian culture, a myriad of bright colors and elaborate designs. My grandparents speak to each other in Hindi, their words forming into a melody that I cannot understand. If I look hard enough, I can see pictures of their younger selves with their families in India, a life they left behind in the late 1960s for the greater opportunity in the US.

It is easy to spend time with my grandparents because after a five-minute drive, I am home. This area has been my home for my entire life—a suburb an hour north of Houston, Texas. My house has no traces of Ganesh statues or Indian décor; rather, there are oil paintings of American beaches and pictures of our family, happily smiling in the Texas outdoors. My parents speak English to each other, the only language I can understand. When I look out my bedroom window, I see mainly White families walking along the streets, with the whirring of cars donning their Republican car stickers and the occasional Confederate flag.  If I scour school yearbooks and photos with friends, I see a similar sea of White faces.

From a young age, I tried to be White, distancing myself from my Indian ties. The implications of this US Southern culture polluted my mind without my recognition. I would listen to country songs, men with their raspy and deep voices, bellowing declarations of love to their desired women. As a little girl, I would close my eyes and envision a beautiful woman, confident in her poise and a sly smile upon her lips. And every time I would imagine this woman, she would be White.

I remember in the third grade, every day before I went to school, I treated my ears like they were a forbidden object, always making sure that they could never be seen. I believed showing my ears made my appearance uglier because they made me look too Indian. If I covered my Indian identity, maybe I would be more favorable in the White eyes. As I got older, no matter how I “modified” my appearance, I could never emulate the same country song beauty—I could never be favorable in White culture. I learned that conforming to Southern cultural norms would never make me feel beautiful, so I tried to tune out the White noise.

On the flip side, I never felt Indian. My insecurities towards my culture further blossomed at my uncle’s Indian wedding, at the age of ten. My parents and I were the only ones to wear American clothes. I wore a purple dress, synched at the waist, with a gemstone neckline at the top. Hanging on the rack was a blue sari especially picked out for me, but I refused to wear it for its discomfort—not only in its physical feel, but in its significance—this sari seemed to be only a foreign top and skirt. When I walked into the wedding, I observed the waves of women and men in their Indian dress. These people were supposed to be my “aunties” and “uncles,” but they felt like mere strangers to me. I did not possess that special connection that ties a culture together.

Looking back, I envied one young woman delightfully dancing in her sari, appreciating the beauty of the event. She came up to me and asked me, “What type of wedding would you have?” I shrugged and declared, “I would have an American wedding.” I saw the disappointment in her eyes, a look that resonated with me. She replied, with a distant look of certainty, “Only an Indian wedding for me.”

Growing up, I was asked questions about the Indian food, clothes, and celebrations—in a White America, only the superficial components compose a culture. This toxic belief only drove me further away from my Indian identity because when I answered, I felt like I was giving an outsider’s perspective. But it was the deeper part of my Indian heritage that I most identified with—the culture of perfection, the aim for education and success to come above all else. As Americanized as my parents were, this instilled motivation was a cultural tie that linked me with them and my grandparents. My grades became the common thread that connected generations together. The emphasis on school helped me achieve and always strive for more knowledge. But, sometimes, the insecurities that stemmed from my grades equating to my wellbeing boiled over. Recognizing that part of my stress stemmed from my cultural upbringing made it easier to understand the pressure.

I decided to take action to further understand my identities by joining my school’s Student Diversity Committee. My White dominated student body perpetuated a culture of colorblindness—they ignorantly believed that race was not a relevant issue in our community.  Organizing and leading race-based activities was always the hardest because no one wanted to face the discomfort of their privilege. This sentiment was especially noticeable when our committee wanted the theme of our Equity and Inclusion Symposium—a half day dedicated to diversity activities—to be White privilege. When we presented our idea to administration, it was immediately shut down. Their reason was it would make students feel too guilty, but more importantly, make tuition-paying parents beyond angry. Instead, we employed useless metaphors to portray privilege in a way that students never processed. The student culture and lack of dialogue sometimes made me feel as if my racial issues were figments of my imagination.

My full exodus from efforts of trying to assimilate into Whiteness began with the recent election. Never before have I felt so self-conscious about my skin color. As a brown woman, the result of the election was a message from America saying, “We do not want you here; we do not appreciate you.”  In my community especially, the overwhelming majority voted for Trump. I never thought of the racist implications of my community until the results of this election. The most horrifying moment for me was a picture posted on Facebook from a nearby neighborhood. The photo was a list of ethnic groups that should be kicked out of their neighborhood; among the groups listed was Indian. It left me with a sense of discomfort that never quite dissipated, even in my last months at home. When I walked in the grocery store, I would see the White, suburban moms stare at me—what were they thinking? When I sat in my majority White church, in the same minds that absorbed the lectures of love and acceptance, were the poisonous whispers of White Supremacy. Even though I would never hear them express it, I couldn’t help but feel like I was tiptoeing on broken glass.

Over the summer, I went with my grandparents to an Indian grocery store called Raja Sweets that was a 45-minute drive from my house. In the past, these places usually made me feel uncomfortable due to my insecurities with my Indian heritage. But that day, something felt different. I watched an Indian wife and husband pushing their shopping cart. An old Desi woman was slowly eating her samosa. A young couple talked in the aisles that stocked a variety of rice. Being surrounded by other Indians, for the first time, I did not feel that same wave of isolation. I felt a relief I can’t quite describe—a great respite from my daily jumbled thoughts about race.

Being at Tufts, I have felt this same type of solace as I still explore my cultural identity. The diversity here has been a splash of empathy in my usual White washed world. Some of the Desi people I have met also do not have a singular culture—they too exist in an in-between world of Indian culture and American expectations, some to different extents. There is a new pride I feel, not only for being Indian, but for being in a gray area of my cultural identity. Because sometimes the beauty of being Asian American lies in the unknown middle.