I came to the US in late August 1980. In early September, my pocket was picked while I waited for a bus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was distressed for all the obvious reasons, and even more so because I was in the US and I’d never had my pocket picked in India! Most of the people around me looked uninterestedly sympathetic. Someone suggested I call the police. When the police came, they were large men, one light-skinned and one dark-skinned. One of them, I don’t remember which, asked me if I had caught sight of the pickpocket. I said I thought it was a tall man who had been right behind me in the throng, who walked away in the moments before I noticed my wallet was gone. The policeman asked, “What color was he?” I gaped at him, thinking green and blue. He looked at me. This was a college town. I was clearly a foreign student, fresh off the boat. “Black or white?” he asked.
That was my first direct encounter with the peculiar taxonomy of colored people – white or black – in the United States. Others, at least in the very late 20th century and early 21st century, don’t have color: they are either Native Americans or immigrants with some ethnic identity. I knew the term “Red Indians” from movies and novels, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a real person use that color designation about another person; nor have I ever directly heard a person described as a “yellow”(-colored) man or woman. In the early weeks of that fall, I sat at the dining hall table that had only dark-skinned young women around it, several of whom were lighter than me; and I discovered that I couldn’t affiliate simply because they and I shared the same color range. FOB and young that I was, I didn’t understand that color was the superficial indicator for a much more deeply alienating taxonomy.
After 35 years in this country, and now American myself, I am still learning.
Today I, fuzzily and somewhat fearfully (because every word on color in the US is potentially hurtful), see “white or black” as the division between a category of people who have held the standard for voice and authority in the US, whether used poetically, violently, patronizingly, or just nicely, and another category of people who have struggled for authority, whether over their lives, relationships, or words.* This is not about individuals, whether black or white, who may struggle more, or less, depending to a very significant degree on their class background and access to the educational resources and habits of the upper classes. This is about a pernicious typology that makes the experience of one profoundly different from the experience of the other, such that the same words spoken by one and the other have cultural and emotional referents that are different.
I was stimulated to write this post by a chance thought: what if Macklemore, with his White Privilege II, and Morgan Parker, with her poem “If You Are Over Staying Woke” were to chat. I’d hazard that no other white American could listen more carefully than Macklemore, and, yet, I would speculate that some core of Morgan Parker would not feel heard. I would guess that Parker would appreciate Macklemore’s honest speaking out as a powerful ally, and I wonder if she would hear patronage, regardless of his self-conscious intention to avoid being patronizing. As I write this, I’m deciding that just leaving the song and the poem side by side may be more effective than a direct conversation. Placing them side by side allows more space around each as well as space between, in which meaning can be heard, said, felt, witnessed, and created without being narrowed by the potential politenesses and pedantry of a conversation.
These thoughts are at the surface of a messy confusion in my mind, the mind of a minority brown woman in the US who lived her formative years as a class-privileged member of the majority community in India, and therefore, to a significant degree, has a majoritarian mindset (i.e. oblivious to its own fundamental assumption of standard). I find myself both assimilating to the majoritarian mindset of white America, and spitting it out as I find it resonating with current and deep histories of injustice and cruelty. It’s easy for me to spit it out because I am a brown woman, I’m not white. But am I simply using my brownness as an alibi, pretending my majoritarian equanimity is brown Indian equanimity? Of course, there are surely instances when the majoritarian mindset of white America spits me out, but my own majoritarian mindset, along with class privilege, allows me to be oblivious. These thoughts, questions, my confusion, have increased in recent years as #blacklivesmatter raps insistently on my eyes and ears for attention; as I’ve developed deeper friendships with African-Americans; and as I’ve found and read more African-American writing.
So where is my increased awareness, which is the other side of my confusion, taking me? In general, to curiosity, to dialogue, to protests, to expressions of solidarity, to Twitter and FB activism, to voting choices. In this blog post, it takes me to revealing my naiveté and confusion. I’m still learning. I care, and learning is one way to make that caring count.
* As African-Americans have struggled for authority and voice, they have suffered violation and loss, but they have also produced great beauty (writing, art, music, performance) and extraordinary moral leadership, not just for Americans, but for all humans.