I’m not here to talk about all of the wonderful aspects of being biracial. That’s for another time. I’m not here to explain to you the entire world of a mixed kid in one essay. That’s impossible. I’m here to bring up one thing and all of its uncomfortable truth: the exclusivity of our dearly beloved South Asian-American community.
I have white-passing privilege. I don’t know what it’s like to be you. To have dark skin. To be tokenized as a brown South Asian. But you also don’t know what it’s like to be me.
Everyone who knows that I’m biracial also knows that I care very much about my Indian culture. The reason they know is because I need to continuously prove to the South Asian community that I’m good enough to be allowed in.
Before you get defensive, pause and reflect for a moment. Are you actually an inclusive community? I’m not referring to the gatekeeping that shuns non-South Asian people of color. I’m not really talking about the treatment of darker-skinned, ambiguous-looking multiracial people. I’m asking you, are you actually inclusive of me and people who look like me, or is it just because I force my way in?
You think I don’t have to prove my worth, but that’s because I’ve already proved myself to you. I’ve passed your tests. With every new Desi I meet, I have to prove myself all over again. I have to explain my personal and family history just so they’ll stop staring at me after I correctly pronounce their name — and tell them mine.
Why do I feel this pressure? Well, look at me. Some of my South Asian friends say that my big eyes, round face and curly hair make me look “ethnic.” “Exotic.” They say, “oh yeah, I can tell you’re not white.” But no, you can’t. You can’t tell because anyone I meet who doesn’t know anything about me beforehand cannot tell. You can’t tell because all of you had some clue that gave me away. And because I look so white, I’m forced to care. I’m forced to prove myself.
At my dancer teacher’s Bharatanatyam recitals — which I’ve been going to for 15 years — I still get looks as I walk around in my kurtha pajama. It’s only after I let it slip that I’ve done my own arangetram that the looks start to fade.
Strangers say to me, “Oh. So you’re half,” as if breaking my identity down into fractions justifies their skepticism. It doesn’t make a difference that I’ve spent my life engrossed in Indian culture and Hinduism, because I look white and their opinions are already formed. For someone who gets stares that last a millisecond too long when I kiss my mom’s cheek at a puja, when I dance at a wedding with my little cousins… I can tell you, there’s a reason I’m calling the South Asian community exclusive.
I could have chosen to ignore my Indian culture or only half-heartedly partake in it. The irony is, if I acted as “white” as some of my South Asian friends do, I know I wouldn’t be accepted in the South Asian community at all.
Want to know what I used to do when I was young and still think about doing at 20 years old? I used to work in the garden with my mom, so I could tan and be brown like her. I used to wish and wish that I would get dark and stay dark throughout the year, so I could be brown like her. It was a contest between me and my sisters: who can look the most like Mama? Everyone said I had the closest skin. Those fleeting moments of happiness I get when I am compared to my mom and her family mean so much to me.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this, for me, is that I don’t get to represent something that I find so meaningful. But you — as South Asians who look South Asian — have to represent our shared cultures, whether you like it or not. You have to answer questions about cultures and religions you might not even subscribe to!
Every time I hear you say your own names incorrectly when introducing yourselves, I get frustrated. When I hear you mispronounce sacred Sanskrit words, I feel ashamed. Logically, I know that there could be a dozen different reasons why you didn’t pronounce that word correctly — you never got the chance to learn the etymology, you forgot how it’s actually pronounced after years of hearing it butchered or you thought it was trivial. Emotionally, however, I’m hurt that you didn’t take the chance to say it correctly. To me, it’s much more than just a word. To me, a name is much more than just a name. My own name represents the connection I have to Indian culture. I can use it as proof that I actually am, in fact, half-Indian. If I were to mispronounce my own name — like you mispronounce yours — my connection to the culture I care most about would be severed.
It doesn’t work the same way for you, and that’s agonizing for me. You’re targeted for being too invested in the same community I’m not welcomed into. You can ridicule, push away or ignore the South Asian community and the consequence will not be the same for you as it is for me. After all is said and done, you can still claim our shared cultures, religions and people as your own. As your people.
After all, you look the part.
So now do you see? You’re not inclusive of people like me. Maybe it’s because you don’t want me to reap the rewards of a culture so great without dealing with the pains of having dark skin. I’ve stayed up so many nights wondering what my life would be like if I looked darker all the time. I’m sure it would make all the difference.
I will never quite understand how you feel, because I’m not you. But know that you won’t ever quite understand how I feel, the way that I have to experience our shared community, because you’re not me. Maybe one day, I won’t need to prove myself. I won’t need to force my way in. When that day comes, I’ll stop wishing for darker skin and more resemblance to my mom, but for now, that’s all I can think about.