Perceptions of Blackness from an Indian-American

This week’s post was supposed to be for last week, to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have written on various black writers and artists as well as mentors. But there is one other area I can comment on, and that is on perceptions of blackness by someone who is not white. I am the daughter of South Indian immigrants whose father did a PhD in the pre-civil rights deep South and encouraged black students in his career as a chemistry professor in the Midwest. I wish to make my points sensitively and with great consideration, but also with honesty, as I can only speak from my experience. 

I have no vested interest in taking sides, or reason to take sides, and perhaps have a more neutral perspective. Like most black people, I have brown skin and know all too well how difficult it is to be a different-looking minority and have suffered discrimination. But like many people in the white elite, I have a prestigious education and move in very cultured, educated, well-read, and well-traveled circles. And my own ethnic group is considered the most successful in America, my sub-ethnic group even more so (the second most powerful person in the country has maternal heritage that is the same as mine.)

First, I must say that I don’t always understand the polarization of black and white. Some people may call me naïve or stupid for saying this. In the Metro Detroit area, for example, there is intermixing, and many white people have grown up with blacks and black culture (it is the seat of Motown, after all). I grew up in a small town in the Midwest where many people found black culture “cool,” and in general, my perception of race in the Midwest has been that black and white are considered more “real American,” with immigrants of all colors being considered the “outsiders.” Both cultures have the common bond of language and Christianity, and many blacks and whites identify as “Americans” who lack connections to- or knowledge of their roots overseas. This is not to say that there isn’t racism in the Midwest: we cannot forget the Detroit riots and white flight. Milwaukee is notoriously segregated. Tensions still exist with South Side Chicago and whites. Gentrification threatens black neighborhoods in Rust Belt cities. There were certainly many people in my hometown who had antiquated, racist ideas, who wouldn’t want to sit next to someone with dark skin. However, all of this is meant to point out that there has been a long history of black people in the Midwest, starting with the Underground Railroad and then the Great Migration, as well as educational institutions that were integrated from the beginning.

In the West Coast, one generally feels there are few blacks. Proportionally, this is true as per census figures, though metropolitan areas such as Oakland, California have significant numbers of blacks. On a recent visit to San Diego, I saw only one sign in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on the car of an Asian driver. But given that so many California suburbs are full of immigrants from different countries, especially from South and East Asia and Latin America, I believe there is a good deal of ignorance of the suffering of many black people and of the civil rights movement that ensured rights for all people. Sometimes I am furious at members of the Indian community who stay only in their narrow little prosperous suburbs with only people of their own kind, taking everything for granted and assuming all blacks are criminals. 

Having lived in New York City and spent a lot of time in the East, I can say that race relations there are very complex. There are notorious ghettos, and yet there is tremendous knowledge and activism and effort made by people of all backgrounds to support black people. Given the presence of mass transit, a democratizing factor, and densely-populated cities, one feels that society is very diverse and more integrated than in other parts of the country. I have heard some black people say that the racism up North is worse, because it is covert, compared to the South. The intersection of class and race is so visible in big cities, and yet, there are black communities that have been there for decades and even for centuries, prosperous black neighborhoods and professionals and the black elite. I have often encountered a certain kind of self-righteous white liberalism in the East in which people are good and supporting causes in an organized way and spout rhetoric, but in their day-to-day lives, might not even say hello to a black doorman or worker. At other times, this type of liberalism becomes like a quota, with people feeling they need to have black friends or be activists to check off a box that says they are Diverse with a D.

I did my MFA in the South outside Asheville, and while I only spent brief periods of time there for my residencies, I got a strong sense of the deep roots of history in a way that one does not in the agrarian/20th century industrial Midwest. North Carolina’s political history is quite ugly and frightening in the way black people were treated, and there are other states and even more frightening histories. The South was indeed the bastion of slavery, and though black people form a significant percentage of states in the south, there are still examples of everyday racism as well as institutional and historical racism. A friend who taught in Alabama spoke of microaggressions that seemed right out of the 1950s rather than the 2010s. Poverty cuts across all races in the south, to be sure, and just because someone white is from the South does not mean that they will be racist. It is important to distinguish history versus the actions of current citizens. Many Southerners are offended when the finger is pointed at them alone for racism and will give numerous examples of the KKK and other hate groups all over the country (in the recent past, we have seen this in Oregon). A significant percentage of white Southerners have black blood, and vice versa. Many blacks distinguish between Northern and Southern blacks, which makes sense when we think about the socioeconomic waves of migration up north during different time periods. I believe that many of our institutionalized, racist policies stem from plantation culture and the history of the South and became codified up North. One can still feel the palpable presence and reminders of the Civil War down South. However, it is imperative for Northerners (liberal and otherwise) not to approach the South with a condescending, holier-than-thou mentality. 

These observations may sound simplistic due to space limitations here. There are still non-geographical reflections that I also wish to note. I believe that some white people have an irrational, visceral hatred of black people that I cannot understand, a violent impulse that is inexplicable. (These people often also have a gut-level hatred toward Jews.) For many immigrants and traditional communities, including those from Africa, we are puzzled by the family structure of many African-Americans and lack of the nuclear family/two-parent households (which is a statistical fact). A friend in Fort Wayne mentioned that African immigrants will tell their children not to associate with African-American children, due to the differences in values. Many Asians feel that blacks do not place the same emphasis on education as they do. And yet, there is often much solidarity between minority groups and (an expression I personally dislike) People of Color. A South Asian or Latina woman writer may feel more of an affinity with Alice Walker or Toni Morrison than with David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen.

In sum, I want to point out the complexities of perceptions of blackness, especially by people who are not white. Often it is the white liberals who feel there should be one way of seeing and interacting with black people, when there is really a great diversity. I get tired of “white vs. non-white” or “white vs. black,” as if whiteness and blackness are monolithic.

There are no easy answers; all we can do is continue to work together, really listen to each other, allow people to say what they believe and have constructive dialogue, and most importantly, take action to create a more just society for a group of people who is as old as America, but who have not been treated equally and still live under the daily threat of horrifying violence.

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