Can race and colour really matter in a country like the US, where the non-whites will eventually outnumber the whites?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes race as “America’s original sin, one of its founding pillars”. In his essay on Barack Obama, Te-Nihisi Coates says, “Whiteness in America is a different symbol—a badge of advantage.” For the majority, privilege is not something they miss; America’s 43 presidents were never described as white, but Obama will always be described as a black president. A 2016 Pew Research report showed that compared with about four in 10 black Americans, only one in 10 white Americans were doubtful the US would ever achieve racial equality; they had little idea of life beyond the pale of privilege.
Yet, race in America is not simple. Unlike Henry Ford, who was okay with all colours for his car as long as it was black, many think race in America is quite like that sentence—just substitute black with white. It isn’t. The nation that most of the world sees as an immigration heaven has a daily struggle with assimilating a myriad of skin colours between white and black, the not-white, the persons of colour. Sharmila Sen, who emigrated to the country as a child, explores her personal history in four long and interconnected essays to unravel and intelligently articulate some of the complexities of race and her gradual evolution into a Not Quite Not White American.
Sen says that race was something that was thrust upon her, like a disease, and was something to be defensive about as she grew up, but she eventually ‘got’ race; “race was the immigrant and I was the homeland where it came to rest”. It was definitely unlovely at first. At age 12, Sen arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family; her father would do any job to get by, and got one at a garment store—Sen admits later in the book to hiding the fact from her schoolmates, though she didn’t do it for her mother who worked at the Harvard Library. The family had had a reversal of fortune, and it was important that they fit in, especially the young girl at school, and learn to become American as fast as possible—by acquiring the accent, adopting the food and drink, spam and jell-o, learning how to make the right mistakes while speaking, adopting the values, flying the flag, and never ever smelling of curry and spices.
At university, she hid her burning anger and “tried to fade into the dominant culture of the campus. I wore whiteface”. While she got accepted, because imitation is the best form of flattery, she knew she would forever be the light-skinned foreigner at the table and pose no threat to the white elites. Just like the Bengali babus of the British era, she had become one of Macaulay’s children, basking in the borrowed privilege of the white. Even some of her friends told her that they saw her as white. The arrival of children changed everything for Sen; they were ‘people of color’, which became a celebration and an affirmation replacing “colored people” and the ‘N’word.
From a model minority and the invisible foreigner, to use some of the many names that the Asian, mostly high-achieving community, is known as in the US, Sen decided to finally evolve into a ‘not white’ for her children. “Not whiteness dares to name whiteness. It refuses to fly the flag of color while allowing the dominant culture to retain its powerful invisibility.” In naming whiteness and her lack of it, she decided to announce a refusal, a belligerence, a negation. Sen’s book sheds light on the role and emotions of the Other in America’s racial melting pot, and shifts focus away, at least for some time, from the black and white binary. White, historically, evolved as a social category, as the European American settlers required more of their own kind to effectively dominate the natives of the continent. Indians, in fact, had first arrived in droves in the early 19th century in the new world; they were brought by the British as indentured slaves to work in plantations. Indian immigrants received the right to naturalise only in the 1940s. In about 25 years again, census statistics say, America’s minority-majority situation could change dramatically; assuming the minority African-Americans, Asians, Latinos and Arabs came together to embrace a united non-white identity, they would overtake the whites.
Reading this book made me think of Sujata Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants. A Dalit from India, Gidla had never known privilege as Sen did, living on Dover Lane, with a family lineage to be proud of. Although the book is subtitled Losing and Finding Race in America, Sen is emphatic that race is something she didn’t have in India and was assigned only in America. This is in striking contrast to Gidla, who found it easy to use her caste discrimination experience to “get” race when she landed there, and explain it to others. She did not find it difficult to easily assimilate with the blacks.
Semantics apart, even the best fans of India would agree that if we don’t have race, then we have many other forms of discrimination to overcompensate, and that includes skin colour, which may not be official and used in forms, but is used in various other ways to oppress various groups, especially tribals and women. Sen herself talks about it later, when she describes the marked Indian fondness for white-skinned foreigners over dark-skinned, curly-haired ones. In an otherwise well-written book, Sen’s existential dilemmas may seem fussy, overanalysed and repetitive to Indian readers, exposed to discrimination on a daily basis. It’s not just the blacks here, we have so many castes to be disdainful of, so many religions, genders, tribes, even sizes and shapes of people. However, if the target demographic is Asian-Americans in the US, especially the community that has successfully competed with the Boston-Brahmins, the book nicely captures the confusion and evolution of this class and, perhaps, like Sen, their ultimate realisation that being Not White is also being American in essence.
Paromita Shastri is a freelance writer and editor