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.

The Minority Report

This post is a rare personal reflection, though I am not entirely drawing on my experience but on the experiences of others as well.

There is much necessary discussion about minority groups and rights, policies affecting those who are not part of the majority. But it is also important to simply discuss what the experience of being a minority is like, not in terms of a group, but in terms of being a minority individual and on a daily basis. “Minority” can take on a variety of different meanings, as one can be an ethnic, religious, etc. minority. Sometimes minorities may not even “look like a minority,” so we must understand what the experience means. 

I am not a fan of the phenomenon of “cultural politics” or the current paradigm in which we discuss race and culture, although I am a big supporter and practitioner of diversity and cross-cultural education. I am not always a fan, either, of pitting white against nonwhites, as this often leads to very simplistic understandings of race and culture, not to mention social policies. Here are some characteristics that people may not be aware of in what it means to be a minority.

-Looking different. For those of us who are not white, the simple truth is we will stand out and not appear like the mainstream. The darker the skin color, inevitably, the more likely we are to suffer discrimination. This can happen even within ethnic groups (such as Blacks, Filipinos, and Indians), a phenomenon known as “colorism,” where lighter-skinned people are admired more than darker-skinned people. But being nonwhite in a predominantly white society is a hard thing. I am extremely critical of a monolithic, blanket definition of “white privilege,” because I do not believe all white people are the same, but this is the one aspect in which I would say it is true–if you are white-skinned, you are at a visual advantage in America. Even when one does not face discrimination, sometimes it is frustrating to be the only “yellow/brown/nonwhite” person in the room, the one that people can remember that they saw even when you don’t remember them.

It is also important to mention that transgendered or queer-identifying people may also face this issue to a great degree. For people who are not born in the right body or to the right gender, how one feels and presents to the world maybe two different things that results in great dissonance within oneself.

-Different language. This is especially predominant in immigrant communities. Some of us come from cultures where our parents grew up speaking English or from Anglophone countries, or our parents were highly educated or did advanced degrees in the United States, and this puts us at an advantage. However, there are many minority individuals who do not speak English well and have trouble integrating into American society. Sometimes schooling does not provide adequate resources for these children, and they struggle throughout their lifetimes to “catch up” and to functionally communicate with the Anglophone mainstream. Or there is another experience that is also difficult: the children of immigrants learn how to speak English fluently as a native, but their parents do not speak it. Many people will say that their parents speak to them in their native language, but they respond back in English. Yet another scenario is when these American-born children do not even speak the native language, and therefore have great difficulty communicating- and interacting with their parents and relatives. 

            We also see the challenges of being a linguistic minority in indigenous communities where people still speak their native languages, and also with many African-Americans who use AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). Many African-Americans discuss how they are discriminated against and misunderstood in writing workshops, job interviews, and public transactions because of their speaking patterns and even because of “sounding black” (likely a reference to a particular timbre of voice.)

            In sum, when one speaks a different language, even when one is fluent in and/or a native speaker of the dominant mainstream language, one automatically feels different. Language is perhaps one of the greatest means of connecting or disconnecting people from society.

-Different religion. This is something that is personally very significant to me. For anyone who is not Christian or Judeo-Christian, there is a very different outlook on life and way of thinking. I do not include atheists or agnostics in this group, for they were inevitably raised in- or come from a specific background. Christian concepts of sin, guilt, etc. that influence mainstream life, even in non-religious settings, are sometimes puzzling to those of us of different religious backgrounds. We are expected to concur with many ideological and philosophical paradigms, or we are assumed to be of them, and this can make it difficult to speak our minds, lest we be misunderstood. We observe different holidays, even if we enjoy celebrating secular aspects of Christian ones. Even with being People of the Book, many Jews experience being a religious minority (and the statistics certainly prove it). They have faced centuries of discrimination, persecution, and genocide. Muslims, also People of the Book, have customs and traditions that are distinctly non-Western (even though there are Muslims in Balkan Europe), such as the very visible and often controversial issue of face-covering. Growing up as a non-Christian, Hindu minority, one could feel the threat and disrespect for our religion more strongly when missionaries came to our doors. What was wrong with our faith? Although it is easy to laugh about it as an adult, these things are very difficult for a child to navigate.

            It is of note that even within a minority group in the United States there are religious minorities. Albanian Catholics, for example, are a minority group, as are Indian Christians or Sikhs. And we cannot neglect the very traditional religious communities such as the Amish or Shakers who live outside of modern life in general.

-Dietary habits. This is self-explanatory, but one’s foods, meal habits, and even ways of shopping very greatly. Many people come from traditions where they do not buy food in a supermarket, but rather from individual vendors, much like a farmers’ market. Immigrants, depending on where they live, may find it very difficult to obtain foods and ingredients from their homelands. Many cultures do not eat the standard breakfast lunch and dinner at American times, perhaps having a light or negligible breakfast or conversely a hearty meal first thing in the morning. Many cultures take a late dinner. Notably absent in most traditional immigrant cultures in the United States is a lack of processed food, or at least a disdain for it. Many immigrant communities have a strong preference for fresh vegetables and fruits and use ones that are not typically found in mainstream American culture. One of the things that adds to the richness of American culture is ethnic supermarkets, where one can find a myriad foods, ingredients, and delicacies to try. 

-Cultural spaces that belong to your own group. This might be a community center for activities your culture engages in (such as folk dancing); a non-Christian religious space such as a synagogue, mosque, or temple; a beauty parlor that caters to your type of hair; or even sub- groups in larger organizations (such as the myriad student groups on a large college campus, in a conference, or even an alumni association–i.e., women engineers).

-For immigrants, not having deep roots in the United States. Therefore, some people may not feel entirely part of the culture. Some immigrants assimilate well, and are thrilled to be American–most Cubans, for example, given the dictatorship they escaped from. Others long for their homelands, never quite feel a part of American society, follow the news back home thoroughly, missing the beauty of a red-tiled roof city on the Mediterranean, the centuries-old history that can be seen daily, the heroes who have shaped their homeland. Therefore, it is worth mentioning that there a lot of media specific to immigrant communities. We often see the big name media institutions, such as Telemundo, but there is much that flies under the radar, so to speak, and only those in the know or in particular regions would be aware of it. There are both print and online newspapers both in English and in native tongues. There is a Bollywood radio station in the Bay Area. There are many ethnic programs on local/community access TV channels. And the Internet provides a treasure trove of non-English media. 

-Different values. Russians often sneer at American smiliness, seeing it as insincere and lacking in “Russian soul.” Asians may find that American child-rearing practices too lax, uninvolved, more into image than education–hence the “tiger mother” stereotype. More conservative immigrant groups believe American women’s clothing (and values) to be too vulgar and sexual. 

            Western Europeans who come from highly socialized societies where individuals are taken care of cradle-to-grave shake their head in disbelief at our dysfunctional healthcare system and the American obsession with guns. For many Americans, living with cognitive dissonance is a part of daily life.

-One thing that is common to ALL immigrants (and that forms a significant thread of American literature) is the story of their journey. Popular programs such as the wonderful “Finding Your Roots” on PBS trace the histories of celebrities who usually have deeper roots in the United States. But there are many people who have no idea about the journeys their ancestors took. Conversely, for many of us who are first-generation US citizens, our families’ stories are very fresh: our parents came over in the 60s/70s/80s and on. It is sometimes almost comic to compare our immigration stories with the lengthy ones of Americans who have been here for decades or centuries (I can tell you the months and years of my parents’ arrivals at JFK!) 

These are just some of the ways in which those in the American mainstream can understand what it is like to be a minority/immigrant. It is true that I have not commented extensively on African-Americans or Native Americans, whose minority experiences are radically different than those of immigrants. In those two populations, I would vouch to say that it is perhaps an even more difficult experience, as they were respectively brought over against their will and had their land taken over when they had lived here for millennia. To be “minoritized” against your own choosing is indeed a tragedy, and much is being discussed and done now to make reparations for these dark deeds of history. 

             It is also important to mention that even within minority communities, there are minorities within minorities.  If you speak a Dravidian language, you are outnumbered by Indo-European language speakers in the Indian-American community.  If you are an Albanian Catholic, you are considered a minority in the Albanian community in America.  Even politically, we can see Latinos and Muslims who supported Trump.

I still believe, however, that there are many people within the white mainstream who are incredibly liberal and genuinely caring, and that America is one of the most open-minded, diverse, and amazing cultures in the world, even when it takes a lot of work to understand each other.

Truths about American Culture

Life in the United States is very often misunderstood, especially by those who come from countries that are fairly isolated from American influence, or that have a very old history of which its citizens are proud. Needless to say, the American media does much harm (and perhaps some good) in portraying life in the United States, full of stereotypes. One can only wonder how many American-hating terrorists have ever set foot on American soil or ever interacted with Americans before waging a campaign of hatred against them. Here are some characteristics about American culture that those overseas may not realize:

-Americans really ARE that friendly. Many visitors to the United States are surprised to find out that Americans in general are nice. They don’t usually have some agenda, ulterior motive, or centuries-long opinion by which to judge someone. American culture places a high value on being “nice,” friendly, pleasant, and smiling. (Americans are probably the only people who smile in their passport photos). Of course this can vary from region to region in the United States, with the brusqueness of the Northeast contrasting with the take-your-time-to-get-to-know-someone manner of the South. One must not read into the friendliness of Americans too deeply. Rather, it must be seen as the necessary social glue that holds us together, a country of nearly 320 million people made up of every imaginable culture, spread out over thousands of miles.

-All people in America are considered “Americans.” It is sadly true and hegemonic that race is based on a white standard in the United States. But the most insulting mistake foreigners make when coming to America is not understanding that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and it relates to birth and living here. This is especially difficult for Western Europeans, who generally come from extremely ethnically homogenous societies, to grasp; in their societies, nationality and ethnicity are one. Even those who accept that African-Americans are also “legitimate” Americans along with those of European ancestry fail to realize that the fabric of America is multicultural. People overseas might be astonished to find that even white Americans have a diversity of cultures in their ancestry: it is not uncommon to have German, Irish, English, Scottish, and perhaps some Native American blood in one’s “white” background.
And now, with the racial mix of America increasing further, many people have a mix of white and non-white ancestry, or a mix of non-white ancestries: many half-white/half-Asians in California, Hawaiians of European/native Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry, many individuals whose international parents of different races who met in graduate school or the military overseas (Indian and Filipino, Persian and Italian, etc.), and modern Americans of mixed races who marry others of mixed races which produce truly multicultural children (for example, someone who is half Korean, one quarter white and one quarter Cuban, someone who is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish, etc.).
President Obama has brought some awareness globally to this issue, but still, American diversity is extremely difficult for many foreigners to grasp. It is of note that there are indeed other countries and cultures that are arguably more progressive with matters of race, such as Brazil, and with the recent spate of police killings of African-Americans, we still have a long way to go with creating a more harmonious society.

-America is not the same country everywhere. Many visitors or foreigners who come to the United States do not realize how regional America is in character. A Bostonian is as different from a New Mexican who is as different from a “Hoosier” (Indiana citizen). Midwesterners place a high value on community and non-confrontation; Californians value personal fulfillment and ambition; Washingtonians (from DC) value family name and status. Even among ethnic groups, one can contrast, for example, Indians in other parts of the country and Indians in California, or Jews around the US and New York Jews. Again, the homogeneity of finding the same McDonald’s, Target, or Trader Joe’s in different places may be what helps unify us when we are so physically spread out.

-The American education system, at its core, is about teaching students to think flexibly and differently. Many countries in the world, such as former colonies, place a high value on rote learning and a more hierarchical system of imparting knowledge (think Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education). Communist countries focus(ed) on history and ideology (the verb in both present and past tense, given that there are still a few remaining communist countries). Western European countries focus on tracking students at an early age and specializing in high levels of sciences, humanities, etc. and ground students in their culture and deep-rooted history. The Nordic countries value academic as well as vocational education, and developing the whole person.
But here in the United States, what matters most is your individual opinion, even if it means challenging the system. Our heroes are individuals who did that–Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George Washington defying the British. Being creative and innovative are highly valued traits.

-Religion plays a significant role in the United States, even if many people are atheists or not religious. The irony is that we are by law a secular society. America has a strong reputation overseas of having a very conservative, Christian right-wing religious streak. However, there are many Americans who live quite to the contrary who oppose the religious conservatives and fight ardently for a culture free from religion. They oppose the teaching of religion in schools or even wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There are also many Americans who practice a variety of religions, who are Christian as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American, etc. who are rooted in their traditions and also respectful of other traditions. Many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, fail to realize that America is a haven for the religiously persecuted from around the globe. Diana Eck of Harvard has done much to shine light on America’s religious pluralism.

-Success is not a taboo. Granted, this will differ in degree in different regions of the country. More traditional parts of America that are highly community-based may frown on being too successful and regard it as being “too big” and a betrayal of one’s humble origins. But generally speaking, one is expected to be a success, there is no sin in being upwardly mobile or a social climber, countless courses, websites, seminars, and TV shows focus on how to improve oneself. The “can-do,” positive spirit is something that always takes foreigners by surprise, but again, like American friendliness, it really is true.