I was recently at an open mic night for LGBTQ folks to tell their coming out stories. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, for a predominately white institution like the University of Michigan, the speakers and audience were both of a surprisingly multiracial composition. This pleasant feeling was unfortunately soon to leave me. Speaker after speaker told their narratives, some of which were heart-wrenching, some of which were inspiring, most were both. I was transfixed by the sheer emotional weight of some of the stories, and by the bravery of the people who were willing to come up in front of an audience of at least a hundred to tell them.
This trance was soon broken. A white person walked up to the microphone to tell their story of coming out as nonbinary. A warning sign came when they described their boss only as “Indian,” with a sly wink to the audience, when what they meant to convey was that he was socially conservative, but instead chose to only showcase this by relying on misconceptions about Indian cultural values. I should mention this alone is a huge misconception about Indian notions of gender and sexuality — for one example among many, in pre-colonial India, hijras, as people identifying as neither male nor female are called, held important court positions, were considered religious authorities and often were sought after for blessings. It was only after the British imposed Western values on colonized India that they began to experience discrimination and criminalization, and the country is still in the process of decolonizing its cultural mindset.
This assumption about collective Indian ideas on gender and sexuality is offensive, but unfortunately it was not the worst thing in their monologue. I didn’t think much of it until a minute or two later, when, recounting an experience with their aforementioned Indian boss, they voiced him in a full-on racist stereotype Apu-style Indian accent. To make it worse, about halfway through their imitation they tapered off to a half-assed-but-still-derogatory accent, meaning they must have known that the accent was racist, performed it anyways, and then decided halfway through that maybe to do so was not the greatest idea.
To anyone who might dismiss imitating an accent as harmless: It’s not. To do so is a form of cultural imperialism that reduces the rich experiences of an entire group of people down to a singularity that is easy to mock, easy to other and easy to exclude. Being the only Indian kid in my grade in elementary school, middle school and one of two in high school, I can barely count the number of times another kid imitated an Indian accent in front of me, either as a way to try to make fun of my father (who doesn’t even have an accent), as a way to poke fun at my ethnic background or as a way to draw attention to my otherness. In each of these instances, I felt humiliated and often wished I didn’t have to be different — something no kid should ever have to feel.
There also seems to be a misconception among many people that holding one minority identity gives you a free pass to oppress others. The fact that this person was nonbinary absolutely does not give them a right to be racist. If anything, the fact that this occurred at an open mic night for LGBTQ folks makes it even worse — it was intended to be a safe space for marginalized people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, and their outright racism violated the sanctity of that space. The same holds for people of color who discriminate against other people of color. Even back in school, most of the kids who made fun of me were also nonwhite (but not Indian), but they were still propagating racist attitudes against another minority group, and that is not acceptable no matter your color. Every one of us holds multiple identities, be it race, gender, sexuality or any other; in any one aspect, I may be more privileged than you or you may be more privileged than me. Those of us who don’t belong to the majority, for any aspect of our identity, must be careful not to promulgate forms of oppression against other marginalized groups. Fighting for social justice is not about cherry picking which marginalized groups you care to empower and disregarding the rest. Regardless of if we are people of color, LGBTQ or any other group, we should show solidarity.