I am my bedroom: neat, colorful and diverse. There, my two cultures collide. Covering my bed lies a 49ers blanket overlaid by an Indian shawl. Painted on the walls are my favorite sports teams’ colors amidst a portrait of Hindu idols, like Sai Baba and Ganesh. My closet is the same. On one side hangs a traditional kurta and on the other, a simple suit: both tailored for the appropriate occasion.
Raised in America, I did my best to connect with my Indian side; I loved visiting the temple, celebrating Diwali, attending Garba and other Indian functions. Even though I had never been to India, I never felt lost. I always felt connected to both my heritage and my place of birth.
When I first settled in Ann Arbor this past semester, I was delightfully shocked by the amount of Indians here, which I thought would be few based on my misconceptions of the Midwest. I was excited to join organizations like the Indian American Student Association and meet new people who share my heritage. In many of my conversations with students in the organization, we discussed what traditions or customs we grew up participating in and what it was like growing up Brown in different parts of America. Whenever the question about what part of India we were from arose, I would enthusiastically answer that my family was from Gujarat, but hesitantly add that I had actually never been to India.
Typically, when I tell people that I’ve never visited India, I receive comments like “So you’re whitewashed,” or “You’re basically white.” I would uncomfortably laugh off the joke, not knowing how to respond. However, this time, after telling my new friend at the University of Michigan that I had never been to India, I got a new response: “So you’re a coconut.” I was confused. I’d never heard that term before. I paused for a second, and before I could answer, my friend replied, “You know, white on the inside, Brown on the outside.” That phrasing seemed familiar. It then hit me; I recalled numerous instances when people throughout high school would use different colored foods interchangeably to describe people of color.
Coconuts. Apples. Twinkies. Bananas. Oreos. What do these foods have in common? While these items are all just harmless foods, when used in the context of race, they become insults used to demean people of color who don’t conform to conventional or model minority stereotypes.
Now, I have heard all sorts of interactions in which people hurl these words at one another. I’ve heard people from the same minority communities use them to describe each other; I’ve even heard people use these phrases to describe themselves.
When people within the same communities use these metaphors to describe each other, they are effectively telling others that they are not good enough — that they don’t fit in or that they sold out. Just because I don’t watch as many Bollywood movies as you or speak as fluent Gujarati or Hindi as you doesn’t mean I’m any less Indian. On the other hand, this same logic applies to people who think others are “too Indian” or F.O.B.s, meaning fresh off the boat. It’s ironic, isn’t it? If you are seen as “too” Brown, you are pressured to assimilate. If you are seen as not “Indian enough,” you are mocked.
So why do we feel the need to put groups of people into distinct categories? Henri Tajfel, a prominent social psychologist, suggests that it’s because of the social identity theory, which states that a person’s social identity gives them a sense of dignity; thus, they subconsciously develop an “us versus them” mentality. When terms like coconut, bananas or Oreos are used, it is implied that someone has fallen out of the social groups they identify with, causing them to feel as if they don’t fit in anywhere.
Whether or not someone has racist intentions, using these foods to describe someone is racist. It undermines our individual identities and assumes that all minority groups are the same. While terms like coconut or Oreos aren’t as blatantly offensive as other slurs, we need to understand the negative stereotypes these words validate. Using foods as racial metaphors based on the physical colors of our skin is not only dehumanizing for people of color but it is also illogical since our identities aren’t reliant solely on our skin tones.
There is no “right” way to be a person of color. By creating such narratives, we restrict people into boxes and only perpetuate the model minority stereotypes we fight so hard to break. Just like my bedroom, I encompass pieces of both my cultures. It is important to acknowledge our history and ancestry, and there is no one way to do that. Let’s take ownership of what it means to be a person of color and recognize that existing as a person of color varies for everyone.
MiC Columnist Deven Parikh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.