Last summer, I wore a pink and yellow sari to my cousin’s wedding. As my Indian family lingered in the hotel lobby, dressed up and waiting for our shuttle, we received a few looks from other hotel patrons. Even in New York, it’s not every day you see a group of formally-dressed Indian people, so we didn’t pay the reaction much mind. To them, we looked like we belonged together, and if they noticed me I was just the lightest of the crowd.What makes racism racism is power and lived experience. A few months later, I went to another Indian wedding in Boston. This time, my then-fiance (a tall white guy with a red beard) and I traveled alone on the T, dressed in Indian finery as we’d been asked. The stares we got were different this time–they were wondering what these two white people were doing dressed up as Indians.
A common refrain when talking about racism is that it’s not about race. Or that it is and it isn’t. It is in that hundreds of years of built up context have given people of color the short end of the stick, but obviously there is nothing inherent about whiteness that means it deserves more (and if you think there is, kindly stop reading and find yourself a bog to suffocate in). What makes racism is power and lived experience. It’s that a white kid who shoots up a school is taken alive, while a black kid walking down the street is shot dead. It’s that resumes with “white” names are accepted over identical ones with “ethnic” names. And it’s why I really have no clue if I can call myself biracial.
A while ago I wrote this piece about growing up biracial, which is technically true. My mom is white and my dad is Indian. Though that technicality immediately got murky. As soon as the piece was published, some people argued with my definition of biracial. Indian didn’t count as another race, because they were Aryan, or maybe Caucasian (a classification with a weird, gross history). I could look it up right there on the internet, and with that newfound information, I should probably start calling myself “bicultural” to be more accurate, OK?
“Accurate” depends on who you ask, and even within America it’s a confusing story. The US Census Department has been Official documents can’t take away your everyday self-definition.posing questions about race since 1790, asking residents to differentiate between the “free white” residents and slaves in their households. 1850 was the debut of the “race” column, where you could fill out White, Black or Mulatto, and in 1870 you could put “Chinese,” which was actually used for all east Asians. By 1890, your choices were White, Black, Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or [American] Indian. In 1930 “Hindu” made its debut, though in 1970 “East Indian” counted as White. The options we have on paper influence how we think of ourselves. If there’s no space for you on a Census, it’s hard to imagine there’s space for you in the world. But, you know, screw the government if they don’t recognize you, right? Official documents can’t take away your everyday self-definition.
What does that experience look for someone who can check more than one thing, including “white”? It basically means confusing people, since the genetics lottery landed me in that “vaguely ethnic” category so many like to guess at. In winter when my skin pales I’m Greek or Italian, whereas summer brings the Dominican and Egyptian assumptions. Israeli is a perennial favorite. Hoop earrings have people speaking to me in Spanish.
Once I actually was called an “Octoroon,” and I was too surprised to realize I should be upset.
When people do discover I’m half-Indian, there’s no outright bias, just a series of microaggressions that wouldn’t have occured if I hadn’t volunteered any information (or that would have continued in the form of “no, where are you really from?”). In 2009 it was everyone asking me about the accuracy of Slumdog Millionaire; in 2001, on the whole Indian-themed show in Moulin Rouge; in 1994, it was about Gwen Stefani’s bindi or Apu on The Simpsons. I’m the recipient of everyone’s thoughts on the food, and possibly food poisoning, and somehow my name baffles even though it’s only four letters.
I do have opinions on these things, but I’m not sure if they are the opinions of an American who consumes pop culture and likes paneer, or if they hold more weight because of where my dad was born. I don’t know how much I When people do discover I’m half-Indian, there’s no outright bias, just a series of microaggressions that wouldn’t have occured if I hadn’t volunteered any information absorbed, or how much it defines me. And as much as I balk at the idea of being a Spokesperson Of My Culture, the truth is I’m afraid I’m only half qualified.
Currently, Americans have 12 races to choose from on the Census, more if you write in for “Other Asian,” “Other Pacific Islander” or just “Other Race.” There’s a separate section for those of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, and you can select as many as you want based solely on your own criteria. Of course, the opportunity to define yourself to The Man doesn’t end at the Census. Plenty of job applications, doctors offices, and other Houses of Bureaucracy ask you to check a box or two or fill in a line.
I’ve never worried about filling these forms out, because I’ve never been insulted or discriminated against due to being half-Indian (to my knowledge). If the extent of my lived racial experience is people mispronouncing my name, trying to touch my hair, and hitting on me by calling me “exotic,” I’ve gotten off pretty easy. My life would be similar if I had an oddly-spelled western name and a head of thick, blond curls. What does my experience let me claim? Am I too white to call myself Indian, or too Indian to be white?
This confusion at your own place is the essence of being biracial. You’re an intruder in either space, with no right to claim one or the other without a heavy caveat. Even though you owe no one an explanation, there’s a desire to explain, which comes from believing that just by being yourself you are a liar. You’re an intruder in either space, with no right to claim one or the other without a heavy caveat. You’re not really what you say you are, not “technically.” It’s my feeling the need to need to clarify at those weddings, to say “I’m not entirely part of this group” or “It’s ok that I’m wearing this because my dad is Indian,” before anyone could call me out on my trespass.
When you’re constantly being asked “what” and not “who” you are, this is a knee-jerk reaction. You’re ready for it before that puzzled look appears on a stranger’s face. Being biracial means having to justify why your skin is this color when your mom is that color, or why you know so much about Indian music because you don’t look like you should know about Indian music, or why you don’t know more because you look like you should be an expert.
And you’re told not to be mad, because these people are “just curious.” It’s still a rare thing! You’re making a big deal out of it, it’s just a joke. You should help them learn. Forgive them if they’re mad at you for wearing a bindi, they just thought you were appropriating. Understand when they see your name after your relatives’ “normal” names, they just want to know how you got there. They just want to explain to you that maybe you’re using the wrong words to describe yourself. It’s too much hassle to get mad, listen and answer their questions and save yourself the frustration.
I checked two boxes on the 2010 Census: White and Asian Indian. I do not know what your definition of me will be. I can only work on finding value in my own.The form doesn’t account for the people who don’t consider Asian Indian a race, or for the guy who called me an Octoroon, or the T commuters wondering why I was wearing a sari. It doesn’t ask where my parents were born like it used to, or care that my dad has been here for 52 years. It doesn’t even ask if I identify as “biracial,” but I’m not sure I’d be confident enough to write it. I checked two boxes not because I am both, but because I am made to feel that I am neither–not completely.
At both weddings, no one asked me to explain myself. No one in my family tells me I don’t belong, though I realize that’s another experience I’m lucky to have. It was easy in those moments to feel I was both and more, that I inhabited all spaces as exactly who I am. Any anxiety or frustration with my experiences is just me in my head too much. It’s something I do to myself, not something others to do me. Sometimes it’s too easy to convince myself that’s true, but I know it’s not. But they will call me what they want, whether it’s white or brown or not enough for either. They will always get the chance. So to you I am this, whatever this body and this skin look like, filtered through your own experiences, condensed into a word. I do not know what your definition of me will be. I can only work on finding value in my own.
Jaya Saxena is a writer living in Queens with her husband and two ungrateful cats. She writes for the likes of The Toast, The Hairpin, Serious Eats, Uncommon Courtesy, and more. Find her on Twitter at @jayasax.