A Few Thoughts on Race and Being a Hyphenated American

(There are probably a lot of errors here. I'm not too worried about it, though.)

I have generally not discussed race much throughout my life but I think it should have been something I spent more time thinking about over the years. My situation though, as an Indian-American (a term I really despise, I should add), is an odd one (at least to me) but ultimately, I should spend more time and effort considering my place (and everyone else's place) within modern America.

I realize by posting this on my blog that I am keeping people, in a way, from reading it. It is publicly available, yes, but there is not much traffic here. No matter. I want to use this piece and this space to think through these issues and that is hard to do when considering publication. This has nothing to do with the many wonderful editors I have worked with but more to do with what is the malleable nature of these thoughts.

A quick background: my parents were born in India pre-independence and moved to America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My brother was born after my father moved to America in September of 1969 but before he and my mother arrived from India in December of 1971. I was born eleven years later in Decatur, GA at Dekalb General Hospital.

This part is hazy, but I will do my best. My family is part of the Brahmin caste in India, otherwise known as the priestly caste. This is, by all accounts, the highest caste one can be born into. Beyond that, my family is from a sub-caste known as “Nagar.” I have no idea what this means or what distinctions there are to define the sub-caste but, again from what I have been told, this is one of the highest statures one can be born into. Beyond that, it breaks down by town and it seems our family was based out of Visnagar at least at some point down the line. I have heard talk of how people are descended from people in other towns and that, once again, Visnagar is a very high status town. Of course, all this could be propaganda that we continue to pass down the generations (sorry, Mom).

So when we discuss privilege, it is perhaps wisest to admit early on that I, a minority in America, am basically the very definition of privilege in India. For generations, Nagars ran Gujarati (my parents are from the West coast state of Gujarat, which I should have mentioned) society, filling its government, banks, schools and all other elite institutions with their family members. Nagars specifically had the power, the prestige and, for much of history, the money.

(It's funny: if I travel to India, I don't quite fit in there either as I'm too "Americanized.")

However, as often happens, things change. The British, by all accounts, loved the caste system. It was a built-in way of managing society and of figuring out the best way to exploit the resources that the British showed up for in the first place. What changed, of course, was independence in 1947. When the British left, not only was there a type of vacuum but there was a desire to dismantle the old structures. Things should be based on merit in a new society and not on the hierarchies created by history. Numbers were, of course, against Brahmins, and the lower castes moved into the various seats of power throughout the country and, ultimately, the backlash of the system that had oppressed so many was felt in turn by those at the top.

My father’s generation of Indians were systematically kept from better jobs, better schools, government and other institutions. As a result, many did the only thing they could do: leave. My father and his older brother came to America. Others went to England, Switzerland, and a variety of other countries. As this has continued the last forty years, upper caste Indians have moved into every corner of the Earth. They moved for economic reasons, yes, but they also moved in the hopes of fulfilling the privilege they grew up with, becoming professionals in nearly every strata of society they could manage.  Many are doctors, others are engineers or other professionals. Of course, members of other castes also came to America and other countries and, finding themselves free of the system in India, got wonderful educations and did what they wanted to do, which was lead comfortable lives with assets they could pass down to their children.

(I should say that I do feel that this backlash was inevitable and, in my ways, necessary. No system of oppression can maintain itself and obviously in the 1950s there was a lot of influence from the Soviet Union. I feel that the caste system should be dismantled, that you should not be born with privilege and that everyone should have mobility within society.)

When we studied the caste system of India in middle school, my classmates laughed. “We don’t have that here,” they’d say, looking at me and laughing.

“You do,” I’d say under my breath, but not because I understood it, but out of spite. How right I was then.

A Washington Post article on June 24, 2015 discusses GOP Presidential candidate Bobby Jindal and his “denial” of his Indian heritage. This is where I come to despise the term “Indian-American” for myself and (gulp) must admit I agree with Governor Jindal. I am, whatever people look at me and see, an American. My parents are from India, yes, but I am from Stone Mountain, GA. We want to draw lines in society because it makes it easier to oppress based on those lines. However, in the hyphenated American realm, I can see the benefit of defining one’s self by background. However, it should be up to each individual to develop and define an identity versus having one placed upon you. For me, I do not like being known as an Indian-American, not because I am in denial of where my parents are from, but because I know where I am from. The systems that applied to my parents do not apply to me in the same way and, as such, I have chosen to define myself the way I want to, not the way others may see me.

Binaries are a tool of oppression inherent in our societal system. If it is not A, then it must be B. We use this in race, sexuality, gender, wealth and everything else we can get our hands on. It is how we work as humans (two of nearly everything on the surface, at least) as thus we seem to have used that to define our society. It is, however, like most things, bullshit. We accept that there is not merely light and dark, that there is a light spectrum, but we seem incapable of understanding that human aspects have a spectrum as well.

I do think, though, that things are changing for the better. We have come to understand better than people are not merely gay or straight, white or black, rich or poor, but there are always those that wish to maintain that system as it allows them to maintain their trajectories in life.

What is clear is that America has its own caste systems. I say systems because there are several Venn diagrams by which we draw lines throughout our society in order to separate ourselves. But these are not separate fights. Race and class and gender and wealth and identity and privilege are all part of one discussion, one monster with many heads. These are all tools to draw lines through society that ought to be erased.

All of this, however, is easier for me to say because my family has always been the ones that had the advantages throughout time. Even though things are changing in Indian society, Nagar Brahmins still enjoy the prestige they have always had. Once, in New England, when someone heard my last name, they asked me to come to dinner at their house. I asked my Mom why this happened and she told me it is a blessing on the houses of the lower castes when a Brahmin eats a meal with them. We were, as it turns out, the ones doing the oppressing, keeping society stratified for our own benefit.

What I mean to say is that it is difficult for me to write about race because, well, in terms of race, we as upper caste Indians are just about as privileged as we can be. Even in the new world, we are not subject to the same levels of oppression and racism that others have been subject to. Yes, there are ethnic slurs, jokes about names and dots and Slurpee machines, but I have very rarely mentioned being Indian and not been met with “My cardiologist is Indian!”

However, Amy King really changed my mind on this. It is up to me to understand my privilege and for me to use that privilege to help others who are being oppressed by the structures of society. Some might argue that one who is privileged using that privilege to help others is in itself an act of oppression. I am not sure how to work around that, but I will do my best.

Of course, like the Nagar Brahmins of India, conservatives in America are hoping to hold onto the system which keeps them in power, allowing them to maintain their lifestyles with no consideration for the lives of others until the desires of those they believe are beneath them come into conflict with their own status quo. This applies not only to gender equality (“women want equal pay and the ability to control their own bodies? But I have that! They can’t have that!”) but pay equity and race. Ultimately, there is some fear inherent in all societies that manifests in allowing others to have rights, as though there are a finite number rights available to society. By fighting for equal rights, people are really hoping to oppress those that did the oppressing for so long.

For me, though, it remains difficult. I have had, despite the color of my skin and funny name, so much more than we allow others to have in this country. My father is a professional who was more or less always able to pay for things in his life, despite nearly a decade without work during the Roaring (19)90s. That, to me, is the very definition of privilege: having a system to fall back on when things go wrong. We (and I lump all of us in, even if we are working to fix it) have maintained a system of oppression that has to go away. It is difficult to change the entrenchments of society, but it should be difficult because there will be a new entrenchment that we want to be as difficult to remove, though we hope no one will want to tear down the newer structures.

My hope for me, though, is to spend more time thinking about race and gender and wealth and privilege. This begins with acknowledging my own but also understanding that I can do good by using that privilege (and my understanding of it) to help others who are oppressed in society.

On a side note, the picture at the top of this post is from the video for Fatlip’s “What’s up, Fatlip?” which includes the rather wonderful line “Yeah, I’m a brother but sometimes I don’t feel black,” a sentiment I understand and resemble in my own way.

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