I’m South Asian-American.
But here’s the catch — I don’t look like it at first glance.
When people first meet me they assume I am racially white because of my blond hair, hazel eyes, and rather pale skin. If they see me with my family – all of whom are darker than I am, with black hair and dark eyes — they wonder if I’m adopted.
I’m not. I have albinism.
Genes don’t play the same game of categorizing people as our minds do.
As someone who can pass as white, I undoubtedly benefit from white privilege.
Sometimes the privilege manifests in the smallest of ways; those “flesh colored” band-aids don’t stand out against my complexion.
Other times that privilege manifests in larger ways; I’m not followed around while shopping. A friend once described the experience of her classmate telling her that her skin was the color of poo. No one will probably ever say such markedly unfavorable things about my skin color.
And I’m seldom asked the probing question ‘where are you from?’
I’m sure I receive many other perks that I’m not even aware of – they are probably so normalized I’m unable to identify them as privileges.
These are benefits – but they fill me with shame. There are experiences my South Asian peers and family have gone through that I will never truly understand. In minority communities, the experience of being ‘othered’ — while horrible and undesirable — can act as a glue, connecting people. I’ll never be part of that connection because I haven’t undergone nearly as much discrimination as my parents and peers who are more obviously people of color.
Victor Varnado – an African American comedian with albinism once said that seeing someone who looks like you inspires an immediate camaraderie, a nonverbal understanding of similar shared experiences.
I envy that camaraderie.
For me, it’s a one way mirror. I watch through the window while knowing I share at least some things in common with the other South Asian students walking through the dining hall at my college. But they’ll never know that about me. And when I see someone with the same skin tone as mine, it’s not quite the same feeling because beneath the color there is still a breadth of cultural differences.
Even though I’ve been a recipient of white privilege, I’m not a stranger to being judged on the basis of color.
People have already decided who I am by looking at the color of my skin. It used to bother me because their judgments weren’t accurate. Now I recognize inaccuracy isn’t the problem: their deciding that I am white – without knowing the full backstory — subtly denies me the freedom to define myself.
I remember attending a temple ceremony in Bothell when I was eight. A younger girl approached me to ask why an American was at the temple. I corrected her — but she challenged me to count to ten in Telegu (one of India’s regional languages). When I told her I didn’t know Telegu but can speak Tamil, she told me that I was not Indian.
On other occasions while visiting India I’ve had security guards at tourist sites question my parents, asking multiple times if I am actually their daughter. People commented about me in Tamil while taking the elevator in a Chennai department store, thinking I couldn’t understand. A foreign tour guide in a Tamil Nadu town once thought I was “pulling a fast one” when I explained I was visiting family. He strongly suggested I had some British blood and when I finally explained my albinism, he didn’t quite buy it.
In spite of some of these unpleasant experiences, I have grown up strongly rooted in Indian culture — it is my home base. At the end of the day, Tamil is the most mellifluous language to my ears. I like listening to Carnatic music from South India while eating breakfast, especially on Sunday mornings. There’s a certain unparalleled warmth in being offered chai and murrukku. My culture is my upbringing, my home, and my family, in no way am I ashamed of it.
Unlike some other immigrants, I have never wanted to oppose my cultural upbringing to fit into American society — maybe it’s because by virtue of my physical appearance, I already do fit in.
As a result, the identity I’ve created for myself is not in opposition to my South Asian background — which is the common story you hear in the mainstream media (in books like “Born Confused” for instance). Instead my identity is in opposition to being mistaken as white.
There are things I do to make up for my outward lack of Indian-ness. And as much as I enjoy them, I think I’ve been doing them for the wrong reasons. Watching Hindi and regional films, dressing in kurta tops over jeans and oxidized silver earrings, which in India would be called indo-western fashion, but here seems rather out of place and could even be called ‘fobby’ — these are all things I genuinely love.
Yet there have been moments where I’ve forced myself to wear the flashy blue kurta top instead of my favorite coral boatneck blouse to school. I tell my friends that I prefer Hindi films to Hollywood ones.
I don’t know what I’m trying to prove, nor to whom. I often wonder why I’m always leaning to one side, and why I force my preferences on myself.
In order to not be stuffed into the box that people categorize me in based on my skin color, I’m trying to stuff myself into yet another box – neither box truly gives me the room to be myself.
This is the realization I’m growing into. It isn’t the mismatch of my cultural identity and my physical appearance that has been so complicated and confusing. It’s the fact that I have limited my identity to that experience, thereby denying myself the freedom to just be me.
In that way my story isn’t all that different from anyone else’s. Aren’t we all struggling to move though the world on our own terms and to be ourselves beyond the limitations of our identities, even as the world tries to decide who we are without asking?