My mom always laughs when remembering how she was mistaken for an Irish nanny when taking me to the park as a baby. This was back when nannies were more likely to be Irish, when interracial marriages were less common, and long before I grew up to look like her in every way but my coloring. Sometimes I try to imagine how that conversation would go — “Excuse me, ma’am, I just wanted to inquire about your race and how it relates to the child you are holding” — and how dim you have to be to not realize a redhead can birth a brunette.
They were always mistaken, and it was our job to correct them; otherwise we’d be lying. She’s American, not Irish. I am biologically hers. My mother is white and I am not. Or I am, and not, at the same time. Other people’s false assumptions about what people can and should look like, about who could possibly exist, became our burden.
When I was growing up, my accepting family and liberal school, my diverse group of friends and light tan skin tone all made it easy to gloss over race issues in favor of a “we’re all one” mentality. I knew white people and Indian people, immigrants and fellow mixed-race kids, and it was so easy to see pieces of myself in everyone that the thought of meeting myself—a girl with a white mother and Indian father, New Yorker, punk, theater nerd, outcast—in another person or in actual media representation seemed both absurd and unnecessary. I knew who I was, and if I wasn’t exactly comfortable in it, I also never thought it was wrong.
In early 2004 I visited a friend at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, one I had been told would be perfect for me. I flew to the nearest city and rode a bus to campus, watching the gray horizon become flatter and flatter. It seemed like the sort of blank-slate America where you’re told you can build yourself in your own image, where no one else gets to define you. I felt the hope of that dream tingle, the hope every seventeen-year-old knows when they get their first taste of freedom from home and family.
I was toured around campus with other prospective students by chipper guides who talked about how accepting and radical the campus was, the kind of place where people listen and take your wildest dreams seriously. My biggest concern was that I’d be bored coming there from a big city (and without a driver’s license), but I was assured I’d be too busy with political thought and action to notice. After the tour, I sat with the guides and some other students, all friends of my friend, all white and mistakenly assuming I was, too. Someone asked about my name and I told them it was Hindi, which prompted the follow-up of my dad being from India, which opened the floodgates to the questions about it.
I tried to steer them back, to point to all the other things about me that felt more concrete than the country I had only visited once. I was flattered by their interest, but frustrated because I did not find that part of myself very interesting, or at least not compared to my weekends at punk clubs in Brooklyn or my interest in learning Italian. Someone compared me to Norah Jones. I knew I looked nothing like her. Someone else brought up “ identity politics. ” I hated them.
I thought the distaste I felt was because of the concept of identity politics: how tiresome it was that these first-year philosophy minors, who couldn’t stop arguing race and gender and sex into the ground, were so dull as to reduce everything to a matter of birth and genetics. I needed to correct them. And I continued to balk at the phrase “identity politics” for years after, insisting it was a reductive way to think of the world, ignoring my fear that I could be categorized without my own input—and that, to white people, my Indianness would always be the most exciting thing about me.
“Passing” is a sticky subject in America, primarily rooted in anti-blackness and Jim Crow and survival, and in trying to choose how you want to be seen. In Bengali Harlem, Vivek Bald writes about how the option of “passing” applied to America’s earliest Indian immigrant wave, men who arrived at the end of the nineteenth century to sell embroidered fabrics to white people having an “Oriental” craze, and who often married white, black, and Latina women and started American families.
The binary treatment of race in America left white people confused about what to do with Indians—they weren’t black, but they certainly weren’t white (which a court ruled on in 1923 ). They were more likely to be allowed in white spaces, exoticized and fawned over for their “Oriental” goods, but not permanently. According to Bald, some black men found that wearing turbans and adopting Muslim names allowed them to “move across the line between ‘Negro’ and ‘Hindoo,’ from a denigrated to an exotic otherness, from an unacceptable to a nominally acceptable blackness.” It wasn’t much, but for some, it made survival more likely.
However, passing is based on context — not just what you look like, but who you surround yourself with. The Indian immigrants’ dark skin meant they were more often accepted in black and Latino neighborhoods and social circles. When it came time to marry, many married black and Latino women; when the census taker came, confused as to what a “Hindu” was, he would mark both down as the wife’s race. (This would change a few years later with the 1907 Expatriation Act, which stated that “women assume the citizenship of their husbands regardless of residency.”)
My dad doesn’t speak much about what it was like moving to America three years before the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 lifted the national-origin quota system, and a decade before a new wave of Indian immigration would nearly quadruple the number of Indians in the US. When he does talk about it, he jokes about how his parents sent him to school in a suit, with a briefcase, and how his teachers gave him an American name, and how most of the time he was the first Indian anyone had met.
I don’t know what people thought of him, though I know that once the Beatles went to India he became “cool.” His father was a doctor, and lighter than I am. According to family lore, my grandfather was often mistaken for Jewish. I wonder if people asked him the same questions when he walked around with his darker wife and kids. Are they yours? Where are you from? Are you all together?
Context allows people to assume, and also determines whether or not someone is assuming in your favor. Despite a lifetime of people demanding to know “what” I am, I never actually know until someone else tells me.
To other white people, I am white until proven otherwise, and then I am excitedly reminded that I can still “pass.” On a pale winter’s day, I would at most be mistaken for French, I’ve been reassured. To other people of color, it’s generally obvious that there’s something non-white about me: the shape of my eyes or the blackness of my hair or something that no one wants to analyze too much lest we turn into phrenologists discussing “Mongoloid” bone structure. But even for people of color, I am a vaguely ethnic Rorschach test, frequently mistaken for whatever my observer hopes I am.
Like many reasonably well-off college grads, I spent a few months after graduation traveling by myself in an unfamiliar part of the world, assuring myself I was searching for meaning and purpose in my life while simultaneously running away from anything that would have actually provided it. An Israeli boy approached me at one hostel and began hitting on me in Hebrew, which I gathered from his face and hand gestures. In English, I told him Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew . He was shocked—“But you’re Jewish” he said, a fact he had already decided. This happened everywhere I went. In New Zealand, I was thought to have Maori blood. In Chile, I was assumed to be a local leading tourists around. In my Greek neighborhood, I am frequently taken for a second-generation brat who never learned Greek. And every time someone guesses wrong, I am the one to apologize.
No one has to know I am Indian. It is not a fact of my face or skin, my religion or my everyday habits. I could change my name to Victoria, the closest English translation, and become just another white girl who loves Indian food and bangles.
This would obviously be denying my family and heritage and all the unseen ways I am Indian, and it’s not something I would ever do. But there’s a privilege in being able to announce one’s racial identity rather than be immediately tied to it. You become a fun surprise and fascinating and cool to people who feel they are the default, and thus boring.
At a bar, I once introduced myself to a woman I was playing pool against. After the inevitable question about my name and my well-rehearsed response, she crowed with delight. “India is so beautiful,” she insisted, so cool and colorful and all the other things that one Coldplay video would have you believe. She asked me what I thought of Slumdog Millionaire , even though I never said I saw it. It was annoying, but at least I was the “exoticized other” instead of denigrated.
That announcement of self usually comes as a correction to a mistake, with the social awkwardness of letting someone know they are wrong. And that, in some way, you’re wrong. Your face, your mannerisms, your skin color, the world they know hid the truth, made them believe something they shouldn’t have, and now it feels like you’ve embarrassed them. Social niceties have a way of inverting blame like that.
When I announce who I am, what I am, anew in a tweet or an essay or conversation, I do so to never be caught in a half-truth. To never confirm the false assumptions of women in parks. I have learned to define myself at every opportunity, before anyone gets the chance to ask—to explain four hundred years of my family lineage so no one will be mistaken; so I won’t be a mistake.
The president-elect, with his threats of deportation and stoked fears of brown people, has brought these thoughts to the forefront of my life. I am not at risk of having a swastika painted on my apartment door by a stranger. Prejudiced members of the service industry might just assume my parents were hippies when they named me. My Jewish husband has experienced more race-based vitriol online than I ever have. No one can see the fear I have for my dad, who is not yet a citizen, or my grandma, who never wears western clothing, unless I show it to them.
I have three different racial identities—white, Indian, and multiracial. It is not that I present as one more than the others; they are all whole and complete, and I am all of them. I identify as white when people blame white people for racism and call for them to be better, and as the Indian person who needs them to speak up in places where they hold power, and as the multiracial person who reminds everyone that the racial structures some imagine to be rigid quickly break down under the slightest scrutiny.
Over the kitchen counter, watching my husband dangle string cheese into our cat’s mouth, I tried to explain all of this to him to see if it would make sense once written down.
“Does that sound right?” I asked him.
“Sorta?” he said.
I was hurt, assuming his inability to understand my thoughts stemmed from his monoracial identity, not from the fact that I was babbling a dozen jumbled thoughts at him while he was just trying to refill his coffee. Later, both of us on the verge of tears at the thought of there being this great a divide between us, I admitted I had thought he just didn’t get it. At this point, I’m never quite sure who sees me and who doesn’t, even my own husband. If someone gets it wrong, I just don’t want to be the one to blame.