“Are you even Indian?”

 

“You’re so light-skinned, you must be half.”

 

“Why do you listen to so much white music?”

“He’s a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside).”

“She’s barely brown, have you seen who she hangs out with?”

 

To be honest, I’ve said some of these things before, and I’ve been on the receiving end of them. But I have no clue what they even mean. Lately, I’ve been stuck on one thought: What is a “whitewashed Indian?”

 

It doesn’t exist. 

The term “white” refers to people of cultures across Europe, particularly Western Europe. Someone who is white could have ancestry coming from Italy, Greece, Poland, Switzerland, France, Germany, etc. Today, white people live across much of the globe and make up the majority of the population of America. While their ancestry can often be traced back to Europe, this global residence can be considered a result of imperialism and migration patterns. 

Being white in America often refers to someone’s fair complexion, and the term “whitewashing” often refers to the erasure of culture using whiteness. An example of this can be seen in Hollywood when a character of color is portrayed by a white actor, such as when Matt Damon was cast to play the role of a Chinese soldier in the film, “The Great Wall.” However, in the context of a saying someone is white washed, the term is applied to people to claim they have stripped themselves of their color and adopted “white culture.” But there is no standard of how cultured you can be to qualify as a person of color. 

 

Furthermore, the term “whitewashed Indian,” doesn’t make sense, since there is no one culture associated with the term “white.” So when someone refers to you as a “whitewashed Indian,” are they saying you are immersed in Italian culture? Greek culture? Maybe you could say that they’re referring to American culture, but the last time I checked, the term “American” does not equal “white.” 

 

Let’s say they are referring to American culture. “Hey Prisha, you, an American who is of Indian descent and a first-generation immigrant, are so immersed in American culture.” To be honest, I’ve called my friends whitewashed before, never realizing the implications of it. To my friends, I apologize, there is no shame in being immersed in the culture of the country you live in. 

 

Who are we to judge how someone else chooses to interact with the culture of their family? What are the qualifications of being “cultured” or “whitewashed?” If you speak your native language, but haven’t kept up with pop culture and Bollywood, what do you qualify as? If you eat daal roti sabzi for dinner every night, but can’t handle some spicy sambar, what do you qualify as? If you prefer the Jonas Brothers and One Direction over A.R. Rehman and Shreya Goshal, what do you qualify as? 

 

When you are a first or second-generation immigrant, there is no standard level of information and culture you ingrain from your country of origin. There is no checklist to follow that quantifies what percentage of the culture you practice. You simply learn from what your family does and from what communities you live in. You develop your own culture based on your childhood experiences and use it to guide your life. And whether your personal culture is derived mostly from Indian or American culture is not up for someone else’s judgment. Not being able to speak the same languages that your parents or grandparents do doesn’t make you any less Indian than someone who does. And it doesn’t make you “white” either. It just makes you a person who has varying degrees of involvement in different cultures. 

To reiterate, being American does not mean that you are white. On the same note, you can be white and practice the culture of your country of origin and at the same time be immersed in American culture; the same goes for being from any other ethnic group. You can be an Indian American who proudly practices the cultures of both countries — it does not take away from the validity of either identity that you choose to live your life with, nor should it provide you with any shame to love both cultures. It is a wondrous ability we have to sport the red, white and blue right alongside the kesari, green and white — how much you choose to carry each identity is completely up to you.

Prisha Grover can be reached at prishag@umich.edu.

 

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