Race Identity as accountability, not escape: reflections from a light-skinned anti-racist

I still feel a little silly when I get to the point in an anti-racism training where I say “I’m a victim of racism.” I think there’s two reasons for this:

1)      Most people of color shaped by American society have a pretty big stake in either “I made it on my own merits despite discrimination” or “I haven’t been affected by discrimination.”

2)      Look at me. I’m under no illusion that when I get on a plane people get nervous; they don’t. (Unless they’re sitting next to me. But that’s because they’re going to get less armrest space with me than with a supermodel.) These days I don’t even get searched by TSA all that much more frequently than the rest of you. I rarely get “you have almost no accent,” and even when I get “where are you from?” it’s out of curiosity rather than malice.

One of my best friends has recently raised with me his concern that I’m pretending to be something I’m not when I publicly proclaim my identity as a South Asian American*. After all, while I share a lot of the experiences of my darker skinned (and full-blooded) South Asian brothers and sisters and wrestle with the same identity issues of being South Asian and American, the way the world experiences me is as a White person unless they know me or see my name. (You can imagine the conversations I have to have with people when I show up not looking at all how they expected me to.)

I have worried over this conversation with my friend. I have been defensive. I have been hurt. I have been VERY self-righteous (this last one mostly behind his back with other friends of color; when we’re hurt, we tend to talk to people we know will agree with us on things, so I went to my race-conscious activist friends who assure me he’s a dick, which makes me feel way better even if it’s not true). And, FINALLY, I’ve found words for why I get his concerns, and that I’m also really comfortable with the identity I claim.

 

I felt even sillier about saying I’m a victim of racism 12 years ago when I went to my very first 2.5-day anti-racism training. I had been asked by NAPAD (the API, or Asian Pacific Islander, network in my denomination) to serve as one of their two representatives to our denomination’s anti-racism commission. I was really honored, especially when I had two strikes against me: I was half White, and I was South Asian. (In Britain, Asian means South Asian and also maybe East and Southeast Asian. In the US, Asian means East and Southeast Asian and only sometimes also South Asian.) It felt like a vote of confidence…until I learned they had actually wanted to put two Korean (male) pastors on the team and were told by the anti-racism staff that they couldn’t do that. So I still wasn’t sure I was the best representative, and I knew I hadn’t experienced the same marginalization as most of the people in my community, PLUS I wasn’t sure they saw me as a representative, PLUS most of them didn’t think anti-racism had much to do with them as immigrants who kept their head down and worked hard for what they had and didn’t worry too much about whether it was more or less than other people.

The co-trainer that weekend did little to reassure me when she walked into the room. She was a beautiful and lithe woman about my skin tone with long hair; I would probably have assumed she was White, although we learned later she is Native American. I’m pretty ashamed of this, but on an unconscious level, I looked at her and thought, “I needed a real person of color to help me navigate this.”

I wasn’t the only person a little unsettled by her presence (although for different reasons). About a day into the training, an African American participant asked her what she knew about oppression. And she said the thing that I wasn’t sure I bought at the time but is ultimately what has kept me in the anti-racism movement for twelve years. She said, “I could probably walk through this world passing for White. I could get the benefits and privileges of that. But my privilege stops when I open my mouth. It stops when I claim who I’m actually from. And I learned a long time ago that I couldn’t stand in both places, because I’m only privy to the privileges of Whiteness as long as I constantly pass for White, and that can still be taken away from me at any moment. That’s not a stable place to stand. But I will always be taken in and claimed by my Native community. And once I figured out where I needed to stand, that meant claiming that identity all the time.”

It’s taken me twelve years to first internalize what that meant to me and then to find my own language. When my own co-trainer (who went through that twelve years ago training with me) asked me how I self-identify, I responded, “I would say I’m South Asian American, and if the conversation has room, I usually say I’m South Asian of mixed race heritage or even more likely I’ll say my father is from India and my mother is from Scotland.” Here’s why:

There’s a bunch of White folks running around California with Indian names that yogis in India blessed them with, so when people ask where my name comes from and don’t attach it to my light brown skin, I sometimes just say “I’m South Asian” to mess with them a little, but usually I claim my full identity. I know the privilege that comes with it—in terms of language, skin color, my ability to navigate western colloquialisms and humor, and in terms of all sorts of access. I don’t want to pretend I’m more oppressed than I am.

And I think that’s where my friend’s frustration comes from: he sees people with all sorts of privilege he never had claiming that they are all sorts of oppressed. There’s a very popular article on how poor White folks need to acknowledge their own privilege even in relation to people of color who are not as poor or had more advantages; I’m linking it here, but I just don’t feel like having that argument, because I know I do have access to a ton of privilege. And I don’t want to use my identity as a means of pretending I don’t; I think that’s what my friend was cautioning me about.

But I also know that when I started to talk about the fact that I come from a community that experiences oppression, when I started articulating consistent concern about their wellbeing if not my own, that was when the ground under me within White society began to get shaky. That was also when I stopped pretending that racialization in America didn’t affect me, because it did, deeply. And I’ve only recently realized that I always talked about my racial identity with other people of color; my friend just didn’t realize that because I used to avoid talking about it with White people. Much like the co-trainer 12 years ago, I am now at a point where I realize that to be in accountability with my community, I have to intentionally claim that identity all the time. And in claiming my full identity consistently, my relationship with other people of color began to change, because they knew they could count on me and call me out and push me and I’d be there the next day. And ultimately, I’m more authentic with White people, too, because they get all of me, not just the part I think they can handle.

So I have to do a little more qualifying of my identity—I have to claim all of what I am all the time, and I try really hard to do that. Because I don’t want to pass for completely unprivileged and marginalized any more than I want to pass for White to access some privilege at the cost of my community. And the ground I stand on as a result is a lot more solid as a result.

 

So yesterday, I warned my co-trainer that I still feel silly standing in front of a room and saying “I’m a victim of oppression,” even if I follow it with “but I will be offended if you believe that’s all that I am.”

 

Nonetheless, I said it.

  • I said it because that first reason I listed at the very top of this post remains true: I actually have experienced marginalization because of my race because the laws and culture of America are designed to privilege White people, and I’ve been caught up in that because I’m not White, even if there is strong encouragement for me to pretend that’s not true.
  • I said it because my own community was thrown under the bus ten years ago and a lot of us still don’t recognize how it’s connected to the long history of how race was shaped in America.
  • And I said it because I’m part of a community of accountability—people of color—who get punished for acknowledging how they’ve experienced racism in constructive ways that could lead to meaningful discussion, who are usually told it’s in their head and that they’re oversensitive, and I wanted my community of accountability in the room that morning know that when they see and name racism, I’ll be there with them.

The best part was, one of my White colleagues actually jumped in to say “it’s true! When we did the privilege walk, I saw all the ways Sandhya got left behind as White people got to keep taking steps forward!” She said it because she knows there are lots of people who see me and think I don’t know any form of racism that has lasting impact, and they feel even more assured of that because of how far I’ve come. And she wanted everyone in the room to know I had come this far despite racism that is insidious and hidden. She was kind of defending me from my friend without knowing it.

 

But even if she hadn’t jumped in to affirm my lived experience, I said it because twelve years ago someone said to me, “your community needs you; figure out where you stand. And claim all of your experiences in order to stand there with integrity.”

 

And when I watched my courageous brothers and sisters of color say they would have each other’s backs as they named their own lived experiences, I felt a little less silly. I hope never to hide behind my race as an excuse for not acknowledging the many privileges I have. And if my good friend or any of the rest of you catch me pretending I’m oppressed in ways that I’m not, I hope I get called out on it. But I am also clear on who my community of accountability is. And it may continue to be awkward and uncomfortable to say I’m a victim of racism, but I definitely don’t feel silly when I say, “that’s not all that I am.”

 

*I use the term South Asian American rather than Indian American or, worse yet, East Indian, because in a country where we are all racialized, I think it is really important to claim a shared experience on this soil with Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Afghani Americans. This identity is one less enthusiastically embraced by first generation immigrants who still recognize what is distinctive and different—although my father recognizes a shared journey with Bangladeshis who speak the same language and eat the same food more than with Punjabi Indians. The second generation, shaped by the experience of being Brown in America, recognize our similar lived experience here. Vijay Prashad’s book “Uncle Swami” addresses this subject really well, but you might also want to skim this article on the same subject. 

Comments (8)

  1. Dave

    5am, huh? The wastebasket is fearful of the writing I started at that time. Thank you Sandhya for a reflection that matters!

  2. Heidi Towne Hillesheim

    Incredible Sandhya. You have given words to 12 years of observations in Far Northern California. Thank you.

  3. Laura Jean

    I thank God that you have “chosen the better part” and decided again and again to stand with and remain accountable to the communities of color you are part of — even when that is hard, even when people don’t know why you’re there (and maybe react to you initially the way you reacted to the Native American trainer). I also appreciate your honesty about all of who you are… even when that requires more explaining. 😉

  4. Sandhya (Post author)

    So grateful to get to train alongside the person with whom I started this journey, Dave. What a joy to do this work with you.

  5. Sandhya (Post author)

    Thank you, Heidi! I would LOVE to hear your reflections on the subject sometime!!!

  6. Sandhya (Post author)

    Thank you, Laura Jean! Still working towards getting it right (which is why I still believe in heaven; it’s not gonna happen in this lifetime 🙂 ) and am really grateful to get to do this work with you.

  7. Timothy Murphy

    I think it is high time for another LA anti-racism training event. We need your insights!

  8. Sandhya (Post author)

    And I need yours, Timothy! That’s why I’ll be with you all on April 11 and 12! 🙂

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