Who Am I? Where do I belong?

In this blog post, I’m writing about where I come from, so you, as the reader, can get a better sense of who I am. I grew up in a very small town in Georgia; it is a predominantly white and Christian community. The place where I grew up is nice, but it exists in a bubble. People there tend to believe in the same thing, act similarly, and when others are different, are slow to accept them fully. Many families in this community have lived there for generations, and reflecting back, there are definitely “in” groups and “out” groups. People rarely talked about race. My hometown is place where people have huge trucks emblazoned with the Confederate Flag, but for the most part, my friends and their families accepted me warmly. The religious differences in this community had more to do with what church people attended, rather than if a person practiced their faith in a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque or if they practiced any faith traditions at all. In my hometown, people are friendly and nice, but I don’t think I ever really fit in as a person of color, as an immigrant, as a non-Christian, and as an outspoken liberal. I was acceptable to people in my hometown because I was a high-achieving, hardworking student; I fit the myth of the model minority.

I’m brown, an immigrant, an American-raised desi, queer, feminist, and a whole host of other things. As an immigrant from India, I am subject to the “model minority” or “model immigrant” myth. Part of this myth is the idea that we (I mean Asians-Americans and more broadly, any others who are also subject to this myth) fit in with the dominant culture, that we’ve assimilated, that we can almost pass for white. However, while the myth perpetuates the idea that we can benefit from whiteness; it also simultaneously points out that we are no more than “honorary citizens” to quote Fanon. In Fanon’s essay, “The Negro and Language” from Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon states:

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Rather more than a year ago in Lyon, I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between the Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, ‘At the bottom you are a white man.’ The fact that I had been able to investigate so interesting a problem through the white man’s language gave me honorary citizenship” (38).

Fanon is talking about language and race here, but we can apply this idea to the “model minority” myth. As much as we assimilate and take on the cultural norms of whiteness or “American-ness,” we will never fully be more than “honorary citizens”. The “model minority” myth perpetuates the idea that the “American dream” is accessible to anyone who works hard enough for it, but this is clearly not true. Figures like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley have embraced the “model minority” myth, but in doing so, they perpetuate white supremacy. I always get the question, “Where are you from?” When I get this question, I am interpellated as a foreigner, as an outsider, as someone who is not from here, and no matter how much I assimilate, I will always get this question so long we live in a white supremacist society.

I reject being a model minority, but I must also negotiate the complexities of my cultural identity. While I was growing up in this small Southern town, I was also being raised by my conservative Hindu parents. My parents hate that I don’t really have many desi friends, and only recently, they’ve opened up and said, “If your husband is white, that’s okay; we just want you to get married.” Growing up, my parents hated that I embraced “American-ness;” they would say, “You’re not American. You’re Indian! Start acting like it!” They really struggled with the fact that I didn’t really speak Gujarati, that I didn’t embrace Hinduism, and that I sometimes didn’t enjoy the Gujarati food my mother made everyday.  Part of the reason I don’t have many desi friends is because I’m afraid of not being desi enough. From my parents’ perspectives, I don’t do the “Indian” things; I don’t really cook the my mother’s foods, dress the way my mother dresses, or embrace my mother’s religious traditions. From my parents’ perspectives, I dress “American,” eat “American” food, consume “American” media, and have “American” friends.

In this press conference, Junot Diaz gets a question about people not liking his use of the n***** word. He talks about how there’s an idea of “imperial blackness” which he defines as “a blackness where one person has the keys to what blackness means”. We are constantly putting each other in check; we are constantly judging others for not fitting into the model of blackness, brownness, “American-ness”, or whateverness. As a brown person, I judge Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal for not being “Indian” enough while being judged by others for not being “Indian” enough. To try to boil down Indianness into things you check off on a list does disservice to all of us because there is so much diversity to group of people who call themselves Indian or “desi”. There are social, racial, historical, material, etc. realities that have contributed us having some shared experiences, traditions, history, etc. but we should not be so loyal to the idea of being “Indian” or “American” such that we seek to exclude people who do not fit neatly into these categories.

Where does all of that lead us now? To go to the title of this blog post “Who Am I? Where Do I Belong?”, I am Bhumika, and it doesn’t really matter where I belong because all of these identity categories are socially constructed.

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