Indian Independence, a wandering Aramean and what makes up identity

“Jai Hind!” I greeted my Sikh neighbors in the elevator this morning.

“Jai Hind!” the husband laughed in response. “I told my co-workers yesterday that I should get today off because it’s my July 4th!”

I didn’t grow up celebrating Indian Independence. I knew when St. Andrew’s Day was when I was in Kindergarten, because my mother decided to make the political statement when I came home and asked her why she hadn’t dressed me in green for school. (The teacher kindly gave me a green sticker so I wouldn’t spend all morning getting pinched–she had known there was something odd about me ever since my mother had asked her at orientation what “Sneakers” were before finally figuring out they were “trainers.”) “You tell your teacher that when she makes the children wear blue on November 30, then you’ll wear green for St. Patrick.” Easy for Mum to say; she wasn’t the one getting pinched.

I did grow up in the Bengali community in Akron; many weekends were passed with the men in the dining room discussing politics, the women in the kitchen discussing jewelry and the children in the family room eating pizza and watching American football. And I did visit India when I was 8 and had a glorious summer being spoiled by my 13 older cousins. And as a result of that side of the family embracing us while the Scottish side hadn’t, I was raised very intentionally by a mother who wanted me to understand and appreciate and be proud of an identity that others would treat as less than. So I was shaped by a sense of pride in my culture, but certainly not by any particular nationalism.

A lot of second generation South Asians (straight-up South Asians, as opposed to Hapas like me) identify with what it means to navigate the culture they were raised with and how they are treated in the United States, which means they don’t identify as “Indian,” “Bangladeshi,” “Pakistani,” “Sri Lankan,” or “Afghan” exclusively. They identify across a shared identity–South Asian. (This is why east Indian, although not offensive to a lot of people from India, is not a cool phrase since it erases a whole host of other countries that in the collective conscience of America are one place.)

Identity is some tricky stuff. In the anti-racism community we talk a lot about the privileges that come with Whiteness (and even as a person of color I benefit from a fair number of those because of education and skin color), but I’m also very aware of the costs of Whiteness. The reason I said “Jai Hind” to my neighbor wasn’t out of a sense of shared nationalism (although I am really proud of parts of India’s independence movement). It was out of a sense of belonging. It was some sense of being a part of something. More than anything, that’s what identity provides.

 

I was struck by this last week when I was at the North American Pacific Asian Disciples biennial gathering. We were quite the hodgepodge of cultures and generations lived in the US and understandings of what it means to be API (Asian Pacific Islander) in America. And at the same time for many of us it was a safe space–it was a space for some of us where we didn’t have to represent the whole community in a 90% White church because for a brief period of time we WERE the majority. For others who are in monocultural churches, it was a time we got to experience not being isolated but of being something bigger than ourselves that understood itself to be connected to us (as opposed to the dominant culture around us that treats us unconsciously as perpetual foreigners or as not connected to them, or connected to them very conditionally).

And yet, I know there were some second generation folks at NAPAD who didn’t experience it the same way I do. I know at least one or two people who said they don’t experience racism because they are accepted into White society due to their education and tastes and interests being the same as that of the dominant culture. And therefore they don’t see themselves as connected to conversations about anti-racism. Some of them claim that Christianity is their culture, and they are praised for being faithful and post-racial and oriented towards unity.

And yet my post on Wednesday about Michael Brown was also about how post-racial Christianity can be profoundly hurtful to non-dominant culture Christians in times of crisis.

Arthur Chu explains eloquently in “Men Without a Country: Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, My Father and Me” why even totally acculturated Asian Pacific Islanders should care about racism even when we don’t think we experience racism. You need to read his op-ed; it’s better than anything I could have written. But our point is the same.

We have been taught very subtly that we can trade identity for privilege. And when we access privilege, we forget what our forebears’ culture cost them in the society we benefit from. It has happened in painful ways in the Italian, Irish, and sometimes Jewish communities that have become White and lost a sense of their heritage and also their sense of solidarity.

I don’t claim my South Asian identity just because I am oppressed–I benefit from lots of privilege on lots of fronts. As complicated as my identity is, I claim my South Asian identity for the same reason that every year at Passover, my Jewish brothers and sisters remember that

A wandering Aramean was my father,
he went down to Egypt and sojourned there,
he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon
they became a great nation, mighty and many.
The Egyptians abused and battered us,
in a cruel and savage slavery.
We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers:
He listened to our voice, he saw
our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight.
And God took us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great,
with signs and miracle-wonders.
And he brought us to this place,
gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
So here I am. I’ve brought the firstfruits
of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.

And then Deuteronomy 26 tells them to celebrate liberation with their family and with the priests and with the foreigners living in their midst, lest they treat those foreigners with the same contempt they were treated with thousands of years ago.

And so this light-skinned Scottish Indian girl wishes you Jai Hind.

 

 

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