The holidays are a trying time for my family. As an inter-racial, inter-faith, bi-national, same-sex couple, we have to choose between having a quiet holiday with Chinese food and a Netflix movie, or visiting my in-laws in Michigan for 12 unending days of a truly white Christmas.
My partner and in-laws are your typical well-intentioned white people. I actually love them dearly as my adopted family. It is when I come face to face with their friends or extended family members that the trouble starts. Should I tolerate and keep the peace, or should I speak up for myself?
I tried both tactics last week. At one gathering where my in-laws were trying to show me off to their friends, a white gentleman came up to me and asked me directly, before any other pleasantries: “What part of India are you from?” As someone who is perceived as South Asian, I am quite used to hearing “Where are you from?” or “Where are you really from?” at social gatherings but this was a golden nugget. To assume that I was “foreign” before ever talking to me was rather presumptuous and indicative of what people really meant all those times when they asked me generically where I was from. Brown bodies are inherently labeled as foreign, and castaway. To keep the peace, I stated nicely that I wasn’t from India. In fact, neither my parents nor I have ever set foot in India.
Then, I had to listen to him talk about his recent trip to India, and pretend to be interested in what he had to say about all the palaces he lived in on his “exotic” adventure. I found myself accommodating to his white desire to share what he knew about the part of the world he assumed I came from as a way to make conversation. I felt trapped into needing to keep the peace, and play the good daughter-in-law, in order to appease my family. I wonder how many other people of color simply conform and stay silent during such conversations. Even if we asked for help in an all-white setting, who would come to our aid?
However, two days later, during my Christmas eve dinner hosted by my partner’s cousin aunt, the same question popped out of the blue while I was mid-way through chewing my food. I almost choked. Is it something in the air or food in the suburbs of Michigan that makes people say stupid things as pleasantries?
“What part of India are you from?”
I weighed my options. I took a few more bites before responding, “Actually, I’m not from India. That is like asking black people what part of Africa they are from.”
My mother-in-law chimed in defensively, “Well, some black people can trace their roots to Africa.”
I took a deep breath and prayed silently for divine intervention, alas the Hindu lords were probably also on Christmas vacation.
It is nobody’s business, but my parents and I are originally from Fiji, and have lived in the United States for most of my life. After the purported end of slavery, the British devised a system of Indentured Servitude, whereby cheap Asian laborers were taken from their homes and sent to faraway colonies to work in brutal conditions. The Indentured Servitude system brought 60,000 Indians to Fiji, setting them on sugar cane plantations to work for meager wages. The workers were abused, physically and sexually, on many occasions. Many remained in Fiji after the end of their indenture, because they no longer had a place they could call home. My parents, who are grandchildren of the indentured laborers, were forced to migrate because they were still not viewed as equal citizens in their own home.
So when someone asks me about where I am from, it is a loaded question, requiring an uncomfortable conversation about colonialism, indentured servitude and forced migration that they do not necessarily want to have next to a humus bowl or at a holiday dinner conversation.
Questions about where brown people are from and all incarnations of it should be retired as an acceptable conversation starter from our social lexicon. It is one thing to arrive to it after you have had a long conversation with someone, but certainly rude, inappropriate, and oftentimes racist to lead with it as a way to get to know someone. Because, lets be honest, where I am from tells you nothing about me besides confirming that brown bodies are perpetually foreign.
Or perhaps next time, I will just stay home with Chinese food and Netflix.
4 replies on “My Big, Fat White Xmas”
As you note, the question is racist and insensitive. However, the problem may be (as you note in your article) more ignorance than animosity. Many Americans live in a bubble of comfort and safety. They cannot or will not see that most of the world faces danger on a daily basis. I am an African American. My family on both sides have been in this country for more than four generations. However, many people continue to ask me if I am from India. I would like to go to India and meet these people who share features with me. I sympathize with your feelings and can only say that at more than 60 years of age, that these attitudes have improved with time. I hope they continue to improve in the future.
When first meeting a person in a social situation you don’t know if they are travelled, well read, talented, funny, intelligent, open minded, etc. All you know is what you see. Something like “you have really nice brown skin color” may be perceived as obnoxious so those two people resorted to an unfortunate presumptuous opening gambit based on visual clues and your name. They were trying to engage you in conversation through which they could then get to know you better. During the conversation you can then correct their assumptions. To take offense serves no purpose. To determine their unstated intentions (what they really meant) is presumptuous of you and being a “castaway” is your own issue. Try not to be so judgmental and stop taking yourself so seriously. You sound like you have a good partner and every reason to be happy; stop looking for problems.
To have the privileged of not being asked about my identity “where I’m from” with the assumption that I am from somewhere else, to be able to engage in conversation someone new without that question as a basis for “placing” me, is a privilege that I have as a white woman.
I very much appreciated Prerna Lal writing about her experience of rude and racist questioning by white folks. Her sharing this experience is an opportunity for me to learn and to think about ways in which I can change my behavior and support people of color in my life when I have an opportunity to speak up, as a white person, in this type of situation.
I found your comment to be judgmental and and demeaning – “stop taking yourself so seriously”. Really? Your first statement about first meeting someone – I agree – you don’t know if they are talented, funny, etc… that’s why it’s an opportunity to find out. And, from my experience that has little to do with race.
I can personally attest that Prerna neither looks for problems (usually) nor takes herself too seriously. There are hundreds of introductory questions you can ask someone that do not make offensive, inaccurate assumptions about that person’s background, and that do not exoticize that person. Not being forced to think about the impacts of one’s racist, ignorant, or rude questions on people of color who have lived with institutionalized racism for their entire lives is just one result of white privilege.
If you truly want to get to know someone, ask them about their interests, their passions, or how they spend their days. The fact that you apparently think the only problem with saying to someone, “you have really nice brown skin color,” is that it “may be perceived as obnoxious” is telling. Too often, the question “where are you from” is simply used by the questioner to place someone in a box based on racist stereotypes.
I think this video is helpful for those of us with white privilege to understand how truly ridiculous this line of questioning is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWynJkN5HbQ (bonus: it’s hilarious!)