I’m shook: millennials, cultural Identity, and privilege

Monday, September 17, 2018 - 5:54pm

I’m shook: millennials, cultural Identity, and privilege

I’m shook: millennials, cultural Identity, and privilege Buy this photo
Illustration designed by Betsy Stubbs

Apart from soberly functioning every day, introspecting into the quirks and the charms that we hold informs how we respond to the pressure campus culture puts on defining who we are. Our campus is filled with millennials, and it’s no wonder that one of our privileges over previous generations lies in the formation of self-identity. We’re caught between a wealth of human and internet resources and the impressionability of our years. The decisions we make about what campus spaces to belong to, and what to achieve for ourselves, eventually build into each other. They develop into another layer of our identity — like secondary, permeable skins. At their best, these skins filter out those earthly forces — relationship issues, mental illness, financial burdens — from deconstructing stable senses of self. Though the relative ease with which we define ourselves doesn’t enable an immediate facility in answering the age-old question of “Who am I?”, it does make it tempting for us to feel entitled to expressing that answer when we think we’ve found it.

Cultural organizations on campus particularly urge millennials with minority identities to express their ties to their own heritage. I think one reason why such organizations emphasize cultural expression is to assert that the connection between national and ethnic identities remains intact, despite the marginalizing attitudes to which minorities have historically been subjected. For instance, the Indian American Student Association’s annual cultural show connects the meaning of being Indian-American with traditional Indian song and dance, for a more than enthusiastic audience. Thus, I understand that minorities’ resistance toward systems of silencing is a gratifying one — and rightfully so. As an audience member of IASA’s shows, however, the extent to which I share in the auditorium’s atmosphere of cultural pride has an unfortunate catch. At each show’s conclusion, I think about how I am Indian-American, but not Indian-American in the way that is portrayed on stage. Leaving the auditorium, in fact, marks the moments in which I don’t feel very Indian-American at all. During my sophomore year, my cousin visited campus. We planned to attend a show, and walked without sharing our thoughts for a while. When we reached Hill Auditorium, he took it all in: the bold kurtas and jugis, the unashamed laughs and glittering salwar kameezes, muttering “Y’all are here with the glamor, huh?”

My desire to connect with my heritage has grown, but I have avoided doing so by participating in IASA. This is because IASA has the capacity to both define and reinforce what the most expressive elements of Indian-American identity are, and exclude all that doesn’t vibe with that expression. I interpret IASA’s influence, a bit regretfully, as a monolithic reference point for a lot that lies outside of my experience. The Indian-American identity I inhabited growing up did not incorporate Indian culture, which was isolated to destination places: Once a year, my family would journey to the suburbs of Indian stores and Hindu temples. Of my bare smattering of Bengali, I still fail to pronounce the words like a natural. And Bollywood’s tendency to intertwine wealth, lighter-skinned leads and the escapism of romanticizing an Indian existence reaches an excess I find unrelatable. I’m still figuring out how to incorporate these contrarian views into an identity that determines its own kind of pride and confidence. One that is comfortable in singularity, not being of a normative sense of national pride. It can thus be difficult to separate my critiques of Bollywood from my critiques of IASA’s cultural show, as it incorporates Bollywood-esque music and dance. As I think the show neatly deflects from the bruises that come with the territory of being Indian-American, I tend to spend more time dwelling on these than on the honorific spaces that have been afforded Indian culture in America today. These spaces are not conducive to the upbringing that has shaped my understanding of what being a first-generation Indian American entails.

Having immigrated to America during the 1980s, my parents had experiences that I still consider when figuring out the extent to which I desire to adopt Indian culture. They came to live in a small town. My parents often felt cut off from the larger South Asian community as they struggled to assimilate into the rural place of their new home. Apart from the previous ones in which they would share their story, the moments when my parents publicly acknowledged their nationality were typically of defense and passivity, in reaction to racial hostility. Their acquirement of American citizenship began a process in which they lost cultural solidarity and gained ambivalent experiences. These characteristics are part of the bargain that citizenship offers, and come in an invisible package compared to the obvious benefits that being an American confers. The steps they took in consolidating their ethnic and national identities happened to lag behind those that strengthened toward a visible, prideful harmonization between ethnicity and culture. Dwelling on how they became Americans, I realize the privileged dimension of being able to form the public presence of one’s cultural identity. I understand how my quiet pride of not identifying with Indian culture is marginal to the expressive freedoms that being Indian-American entails today.

All of this is not to say that I don’t have a certain love for the show. As the performance of cultural fusion hits the mark of entrancing crowds, it allows me to become distracted from a divide that has introduced me to more ambivalence than clarity. Within a sweet period, I would observe how performance enables an extreme of cultural pride, and focus on the brilliant lengths that culture-based pride can go. However, I think a crucial aspect of IASA’s shows is the construction of a space that allows Indian-American millennials to temporarily forget moments that have negatively defined our own minority experiences. These experiences, I would argue, distinguish Indian-American culture from Indian culture. Thus, I believe that cultural shows would carry more constructive messages if they were to publicly discuss the meaning of the very American bruises that have, at some level, defined who we are. As I do not recognize an elaboration on the hyphenated distinction, which has been central to at least my understanding of Indian-American identity, the show apparently subordinates such bruises to its Indian-centric pride. This subordination would be problematic, as it would neglect to represent a fuller range of Indian-American experiences. To me, IASA’s show is not merely a celebration of cultural songs and dances. It’s a representation of how I have yet to touch upon a radiance of feeling similar to that which IASA members dance on stage with. Within my hands, such a spark would further promote an identity that is diametric to the idealized traditions of IASA’s celebration.

It is unfortunate that I do not have an uncomplicated attachment to the cultural show — to the rhythm-scape of our campus’s Little India. But as regional and psychological differences dynamically stitch the intra-ethnic experience, they produce lives whose cultural practices intersect and superimpose as lines and patterns do. I often think about this comparison in a crude way: I grew up in a small town far away and haven’t formed strong or even partial heritage ties. I hesitate to embrace the University of Michigan’s provision of a cultural capsule’s yearly parade to the center of the stage.

For the sake of tempering performances with realism and expressing the triumphs of hyphenated American nationalities, in addition to the moments that have silenced them, I would love to see a certain space emerge on campus. In this space, cultural organizations would acknowledge and expand upon the privilege of many millennial minorities to culturally express themselves, if they think doing so is fundamental to their sense of ethnic and national identities. Not only would such a space better attract those who come from muted channels of expression like I do, but also help more millennial minorities stand up and respect the bruises our immigrant forebears first experienced.