When I was 10, I wanted to be a professional actress. Whether it was in Hollywood or on Broadway, I wanted to be a star. So I took acting, singing and dancing classes and rehearsed imaginary awards acceptance speeches alone in my bedroom. Then, in sixth grade, I auditioned for my first commercial. My mom drove me downtown and helped me fill out a series of forms as I stood in a line of hundreds of other middle schoolers practicing the line we had been given: “I’d rather eat a squirrel!” (The commercial was for an anti-smoking campaign.) I booked the job and took the initial steps to my first paycheck as a “professional” on-screen actor.
During one of the breaks on shooting day, I approached the director. His name was Sonny and he was an eccentric Chinese American who comically took at least 12 smoke breaks during the one-day shoot for a series of ads telling teens not to smoke. He was intimidating, the first director I’d ever worked with, but I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to know why I got the part and what I could do to continue booking jobs.
He laughed when I asked him what the casting directors were looking for at the auditions.
“You got the job because you’re ethnically ambiguous,” he said. “Commercials are about relatability. You want the consumer to see themselves reflected in the ad. You cover a lot of bases.”
So, what Sonny was telling me was I got the job because the casting director could tick off a bunch of boxes for me and conclude that their commercial would be representative. It was my first lesson in tokenization. Perhaps not by coincidence, it also was the last commercial gig I ever auditioned for.
What are you?
Those three little words form the question that, in my lifetime, I’ve received the most from people who first meet me. Even when asked innocuously, it sounds so aggressive. “What are you?” As if there’s something slightly off about me, something different, something the asker so desperately wants to solve or piece together.
What they mean, of course, is “what ethnicity are you?”
My dad immigrated with his two brothers and parents from Hatia, a rural village in Northern India when he was in middle school. My mom, the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant and my blue-eyed grandfather, was born and raised in northern Michigan. His milk chocolate skin blended with her Scandinavian snow-colored complexion results in my own brown-sugary hue.
Soon, the question turned inward, and I started to ask “what am I?” Sometimes, I still don’t really know how to answer. But plenty of other people have tried to answer for me.
“Yeah, but you’re not a real Indian,” a beautiful brown girl once told me when I explained the hard-to-place origins of my skin color.
I never had Indian friends growing up. For most of my life, the only other Indian kids I knew were my cousins. I was the only Indian at my 300-person high school, which was predominantly made up of white and Black students. Two of my best friends were first generation Iranians, and I was frequently mistaken as being Persian by association. Sometimes I didn’t even correct people. I was used to others deciding my identity for me.
In college, I started making Indian friends. But just as I had with the other Indians I had encountered growing up, I still felt like a bit of an outsider. I still had brown girls telling me I wasn’t a real Indian.
Am I a real Indian? I can’t tie a sari. I don’t understand what my grandparents are saying when they speak hushed Hindi in front of my sister and me. I sit in the back of my classes and don’t say a word when I hear white girls talk about their exhilarating and beauty-filled study abroad trips to India, because I don’t want them to know that I’ve never been myself. I’ve never seen the home my dad shared with dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles for the first phase of his life or the mango trees that surround it.
Even my name rejects my Indian identity. “Kelaa,” pronounced exactly as you would my first name, means “banana” in Hindi, something my mother didn’t know and my father neglected to point out until they informed my somewhat baffled grandparents the comical name of their first grandchild.
And then there’s my surname: Upadhyaya, a strong name signifying my family’s Brahmin roots. But whenever I say my name in front of people who I know understand Hindi, I’m embarrassed, and whether it’s imagined or not, I hear their snickers. Because I don’t pronounce it correctly. My own name. I say it in the Americanized way my mom invented when she married my dad and took his name: “you-pah-jah.” It’s not even the same Americanization as most Indian Americans use. While my full Indian friends have to constantly deal with white people butchering or poking fun at their hard-to-pronounce names, here I am, self-butchering my own name.
And it’s not just other Indians who question my authenticity. Here at school, I have white friends who laugh at my involvement with people of color organizations. “You’re basically white, though,” they tell me. “You look white.” When I recently started identifying strongly as a woman of color — a process that took much reflection on my identity and lived experiences — a friend joked that I’m really only half a woman of color.
To an extent, they’re right. I do pass as white in some settings. And I’m privileged because of that. I can get away with doing and saying things my darker skinned Indian friends can’t get away with, because the closer you are to white in this country, the more power you have.
But I know I’m not white. I can’t be white, because I’ve had experiences that I never would have had if I truly were. I’ve had white boys tell me they love how “ethnic” I am, which is just an insidious way of calling me exotic. I’ve had people make assumptions about my background, my culture, my narrative. Recently, when in a car full of girls talking about their old American Girl dolls, I held my tongue. “I never had one,” I told them, met with gasps of disbelief. I didn’t explain to them that the reason was because I hated that none of the dolls looked like me.
When I was in second grade, I wished for blonde hair. For a while, I rationalized it by telling myself it was because I just wanted to look more like my mom who I’ve always thought is beautiful. But now I know it’s because that even at that early age, normalized beauty ideals that value whiteness had already seeped deep into my subconscious. When I played Disney princesses with friends on the playground, I was told I could be Jasmine or Esmerelda or Pocahontas. I wasn’t allowed to be Cinderella or Belle or Snow White, because even though I wasn’t the same race as Jasmine or Esmerelda or Pocahontas, I also wasn’t white. And that’s all that mattered.
Yes, I wanted to look like my mom. Because I wanted to be white.
My racial identity feels like a constant negotiation. I don’t entirely understand the Indian-American experience, but I also don’t entirely understand the white American experience. And I have a hard time envisioning what a collective mixed-race experience would look like, since it’s such a nebulous identity to begin with. I could never pretend my experiences would look anything like those of someone who’s half Black and half white or half Latino and half white. Hell, even the experiences between my own sister and I are vastly different: She inherited almost all of my Norwegian grandmother’s features and attended an all-white high school where just about everyone assumed she, too, was white. For her, our shared last name was used to derive affectionate nicknames on the sports field, not to hint at her mixed identity. A few noticed the name’s seeming otherness and asked where it came from. When she told them her dad’s Indian, most assumed she meant Native American.
What I do know are my own experiences as a very confused half Indian, half white girl: that brief but panicky moment of not knowing which boxes to check when asked about my race/ethnicity, strangers asking if my mother is my stepmom, not knowing exactly what people are asking when they ask where I’m from (and later realizing they’re asking why I’m not white), that look of incredulity that passes over people’s faces when I tell them I’m Indian-Norwegian. “How does that happen?!” they ask, as if I’m the product of some cosmic phenomenon. Because it’s 2014, and interracial marriages are still considered an anomaly.
What am I? I guess I’m still figuring that out.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.