Michigan in Color: Brown and White and Never Enough

Family Portrait

Family Portrait Buy this photo
Elise Jayakar

 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 11:20pm

Brown and White and Never Enough

I grew up hiding behind my mom's light, long legs at grocery stores, burying my head into the cart-made skid marks and hoping no one pointed at the spectrum that lay between our skin. Meijer was terrifying. I worried that my big-hearted mother would again be labeled my “nanny” by some lady juggling a box of Cheez-Its and toilet paper.  Even today, I can still feel the sting of the word “nanny” branded onto my mother’s heart, in the same way that it did mine.

As I grew older, I learned to manage. I maneuvered my way through the fruits and vegetables aisle without shame. I let my sassy first-grade confidence lead me. No one dared to hurt me again. I thought my poise and our matching bouncy laughs would discourage strangers from dividing us because my mother and I have the same cheeks, smile and heart. We speak the same language of love above all else. She taught me how to make lasagna and friends, and to love your family before yourself.

But Meijer became my enemy again when I was in middle school. The day that I became afraid of my best friends coming along to the grocery store was the same day I lost hope in strangers. Once again, I began to doubt intentions and replaced admiration with jealousy. My best friend’s skin tone always matched the same porcelain color of my mother's, and another ordinary shopper would tell my mother that “her daughter” is beautiful or how they look so much alike during checkout. They were never talking about me and my brown skin.  So I stood at the empty cart, empty-hearted and betrayed by the soft “thank you” my mother returned. I wondered why I was so easily forgotten. I wondered when race became the thing that could so easy divide us as family.

The divide split deeper. I noticed how “being tan” was only beautiful if you were olive after a thick hot sun. I noticed how bushy eyebrows meant nerdy, dirty, unkempt. How white boys never liked brown girls. I noticed that my body would never be lusted over with its dark skin and round features. My crooked middle school smile broke when I was 12 and a boy made fun of the dark hair on my legs. A hairy Indian could never be desirable and half white only counts when you have green eyes and porcelain light skin. My prepubescent mind didn’t understand much, but it knew that Lizzie McGuire was what was beautiful: blond hair and striking blue eyes. Those eyes, the blond hair and the hairless legs were the same eyes, hair and legs of all the friends around me. I have dark, tangled hair. My left eye is brown while my right is almost black, and my knees and elbows are chalky.

The same question of race becoming the thing that so easily divided us crossed my mind when I was 17 and applying to colleges. You see, they have added new boxes for race like “Asian/Pacific Islander,” “Native American” and “Other,” but I cannot squeeze so easily into any of the demographics listed. I cannot simply click one. I was never South Asian enough to press down on "Asian/Pacific Islander." My whiteness doesn’t show in my skin; only in the way I learned how to cook and celebrate birthdays. And why should I press down on the “other” button when strangers at the grocery store do that for me anyway?

Again, the same question recurred, stripping me down to only bone. A prickly-bearded boy walked up to me in the basement of some bar just to ask me where I came from. I politely responded with Sri Lanka and India in my soul and United States soil as my home. The boy smirked, his lips tightened. “Sri Lanka is just another part of India,” he announced selfishly. “You’re American.” Lately, I’ve been learning how to stand up for myself, to be more than docile and submissive. Tell me why I always have to prove where I am from. Tell me why my words are never enough.

Again, last summer, my plump professor bellowed, “So, are you Hindu or Muslim?” I told him I am Christian, my family is Christian, but he couldn’t comprehend how such tanned skin could be so “American.” Christianity is usually synonymous with white. But my whiteness is not what embodies my religious beliefs. My grandfather — a balding Indian man with thick skin and a love for spice so sizzling it burns your mouth — is the most devout Christian I know.

Yesterday, a white girl giggled a big bubbly laugh while stating, “How typical for an Indian family! after I described the hard work my family has persevered through. A family with a white mother, a Sri Lankan and Indian father, and three kids with mocha skin. I’ve started to learn that my family isn’t easy for people to gather. How could the same family who bakes chocolate chip cookies and makes sticky windowpane candy also stir a perfectly spiced chicken biryani?  I am not brown enough. I am not white enough. I am not American enough. I am not enough to navigate this perpetual negotiation of my soul and body, though I’ve tried so hard to fit in.

My parents didn’t see me for the slur of confusion that I am. My friends never understood the constant identity crisis of an entire culture expressed in my skin yet unfound in my heart. Who do you go to when being brown is meaningless and you want it to be meaningful? The desi community labeled me as white girl, and it hurts in places no mono-racial person could ever understand.

I can’t find my people so easily. I don’t even know who my people are. Are they the Americans who don’t understand their melting-pot country? Are they the ones who eat their grandmother's coriander shrimp curry swept into their mouths with their hands? Or are they the ones who always have “other” stamped on their brave hearts when they take surveys? Those people, though their skin is multi-dimensional, have never been from the same mix of lands that I am from. I have never met someone with identical white, Sri Lankan and Indian parallels. There has not been one day that I have mastered my mixed identity, but I refuse to hide from the grocery store any longer.