Don’t ask me if I’m Indian

I should preface this by mentioning that what follows are not my reflections on what it is like to be a multiracial woman of color residing in a predominantly white city in the Northeast. Sadly, what follows are my reflections on being a multiracial woman of color residing in the Bay Area, a metropolitan area renown for its progressive politics and ethnic diversity.

As a multi-racial woman of color, I have been confused for a number of things, some of which are more or less correct. Whereas I am dark skinned, it is interesting to compare my experiences with those of my light skinned sister, who though sharing the same genetic make-up is often perceived as being a different race than I.

As my light skinned counterpart, she is most often confused with being Latina, which is at least peripherally correct since we are Hispanic, and insofar as all Latinas are Hispanic although all Hispanics are not Latinas. Being dark skinned, I am most often confused for being Indian, which some would argue is peripherally correct since I am non-Indian South Asian. Insofar as the population of India is ~1.3 billion, and the population of South Asia is ~1.7 billion, statistically speaking I am more likely to be Indian than to be from an ethnic group from another South Asian country, be it Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Nepal.

This has led people to inquire as to why I get offended when people assume I am Indian. Don’t misconstrue my criticism of implicit racism as racism itself. I am, after all, South Asian.  It’s not the fact that Indian society is notorious for colorism, which is as highly prevalent in Bollywood as racism is in Hollywood.  Nor is it the fact that the sanctified Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, was in fact relentlessly racist and unapologetically classist.

I get offended when people assume I am Indian, for the same reason that people of Korean, Japanese, and Southeast Asian descent get offended when people assume they’re Chinese. The same logic applies, the population of China is ~1.4 billion, and the population of East Asia is ~1.5 billion, so statistically speaking, being East Asian means that one is more likely to be Chinese, than to be Korean or Japanese (or Vietnamese). The difference is that for a long time, basically for at least my entire lifetime, it has been deemed, and rightly so, socially unacceptable to assume a person of Asian descent is Chinese. To approach an Asian appearing person and ask them if they are Chinese, is so unspeakably racist —save perhaps for some provincial cities in the US which are stuck in a different decade, and indeed, a different century altogether— that it is downright disgraceful.

Unfortunately, the same disdain does not apply to thinking which assumes all South Asians are Indian.  It is all the more frustrating when people, white and of color alike, tell me, “but it’s basically the same thing.”

Another reason why this is so troubling is because there is tremendous phenotypical and cultural heterogeneity even within India. So please, even if you insist on being a dumbass and continuing to assume that every South Asian appearing person you see is Indian, don’t also assume that they are Hindu and/or vegetarian.

As aforementioned, these are my reflections on being a multiracial woman of color growing up in the Bay Area. Which begs the question, how is that we can call ourselves “progressive,” while simultaneously remaining incredibly regressive when it comes to race? That, of course, is an entirely different discussion for another day. Don’t get me started on the issues of gentrification and racial segregation in the Bay Area…

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