During the last six months, we have seen an increase in racial violence. After what seems like endless shootings and subsequent riots, the uncomfortable truth about American’s current racial climate is unfolding and growing deeper.
Black people have solidified their sentiments and have been righteously vocalizing their concerns and incremental fears. White people, in response, have acknowledged their burdens, and are tuning out due to their own discomfort, or have outright rejected the presence of racism. The more I keep up with this conversation, the more I begin to wonder if my identity prescribes me to feel a certain way.
While I definitely recognize the pervasiveness of racism—and have even felt it to a degree myself—I can’t help but feel I should not touch certain topics because as a South Asian, do I even have a right to vocalize opinions or solidarity on the topic of today’s racism? Is it a conversation that is—no pun intended—strictly black and white?
My self-probing started two months ago in a quaint Brooklyn performance venue that held a lecture series so aptly titled, “Do white people deserve Kanye West?”
I was into my second week of interning with a digital magazine championing the presence of diversity, and I was hungry to pitch stories that broadened the realm of conventional tactics against racism. I didn’t want news; I wanted narratives. So I hopped out of bed early on a Saturday morning and got on the subway to Brooklyn.
The venue was filled primarily with white and black people, actually there was an even presence of both. It took place within a few days of the Charleston shooting and I felt cognizant of a divide between the races, even before the show started.
A few minutes later, a white comedian opened the show and warmed up the crowd by gushing his love for Kanye, he introduced the first speaker, a black journalist. When the journalist took the stage, I immediately noticed a stark difference in both speeches. The white comic’s love for Kanye didn’t stretch beyond appreciation for his music, whereas the black journalist’s possessed more of an aching solidarity with the artist.
To him, Kanye was more than music; he was a symbol of racial triumph. He was a black man who had started with the meager opportunities tragically afforded to this country’s black population, but he fought the odds with rigor and vigor, and through his power, music and courage he elevated to a state of holiness—above all people of all races—Yeezus. The narratives between the white and black men were startlingly different. Yet, Kanye was the great equalizer.
I found that paradoxically, discussions and debates surrounding modern American racism have created an even larger divide between the country’s black and white population.
The black journalist was addressing Kanye’s “Graduation” album when he asked the crowd if there were any college graduates seated amongst them. Several people raised their hand, then he asked, who OF COLOR in the audience is a college graduate. Several white hands shot down while a few black hands remained proudly in the air. My hand instinctively begin to lower, because I’m not black.
But, I’m also not white. Am I a “person of color?” Am I “non-white?”
I’ve been spending the past few days figuring out how to—as an Indian—absorb America’s current racial climate. My inquiries don’t center on a motive to detour the conversations to my race, rather I want to know where I stand. It’s a travesty how rampant racism continues to be, but an unintended byproduct of this conversation is how conscious I’ve become of races altogether.
My friends who are black have become my “black friends.” Our conversations are lately not without an elephant in the room making me think twice about anything I say, out of fear the white frame of reference that’s so prevalent in our lives might invoke something that accidentally harms.
So where exactly do we, as South Asians, stand? And with whom?
Something that has always befuddled me is how prevalent black culture is among Indian-Americans. I have Indian friends who primarily listen to hip-hop and have effortlessly absorbed black vernacular—even to the point where men greet each other with the N-word. (Sorry guys, I’m going to rat you out. It’s weird and you know it.) Men consistently dress in baggy clothing and worship snapbacks and hip-hop like they own it.
And, if you happen to be an Indian whose colloquialisms aren’t riddled with “sup” and “bitches,” and substituting “I be” for “I am;” or if you happen to listen to Modest Mouse or Coldplay; or if you think Ezra Koenig is hotter than Trey Songz, you’re automatically labeled as white.
“Your music is so white, and you dress so white.” Funny enough, these Indians don’t identify themselves as black. It’s ingrained in their upbringing. And I have a theory on why this inexplicable solidarity exists. I think it’s somewhat akin to the one the black journalist felt with Kanye.
When we Indians or our parents moved to America, we were immediately ostracized. I remember outright lying in elementary school about being half white because I thought I’d make more friends that way. Living in a country where we were quickly shunned by an overbearingly dominant culture, we felt small. We ditched our customs, abandoned our culture out of childish embarrassment, and latched onto developing different identities. And for many of us, we latched on to the other minority: black people.
Black people are everywhere in mainstream media. They dominate the entertainment industry when films and music were our primary outlet to assimilation in America. At a time in our impressionable childhood lives, Aaliyah was ruling the airwaves, Eddie Murphy was starring in movies with humor able to transcend racial bounds, and Beyonce was as omnipotent as she continues to be today. We saw black people kicking ass at being a minority, so we thought, let’s do it like they do.
Again, just a theory. Now back to the racism.
The divide between blacks and whites forces us to pick sides all over again. And their dominance has many of us questioning our own identities. In our rush to pick sides, we’re feeling forgotten.
In an essence, we’re losing grasp of our own identities and categorizing ourselves and our friends as “acting black” or “acting white.” Without knowing it, we’re a part of the divide.
We are all affected by this. And we should all be aware of it.
We should be aware because even though South Asians are not part of the current racial conversation, we’ve faced levels of racism all our lives. It’s there, when we, a nation of one billion, are stereotyped as collectively stinky. It’s there when a kid starves himself in a cafeteria out of fear that someone will laugh at his food. It’s there when a student hates herself for an average GPA because we’re “supposed to be” the smart ones.
Racism forces us to remove our turbans and hijabs because “we shouldn’t bring attention to ourselves.” It’s there when we get random checks at the airport because our darker pigmentation supposedly makes us prone to blow up a plane.
Our struggles are very, very different. But they exist.
And we are not alone. Asian-Americans, Latinos, and various other races are prey to the seemingly immortal beast that is American institutionalized racism. I think many of us are afraid to speak up because we are not the ones who have been mercilessly murdered in churches or manhandled by the police. But racism doesn’t discriminate—all minorities have faced their share of hate, though on a different battleground.
In terms of how to absorb all of this, I say it isn’t a matter of us versus them.
Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose, and the various other black victims are not “black problems.” It’s all of our battles, whether we’re Indian or black or white. This is acknowledging and fighting a culture that breeds hatred— the same hatred that inspired Dylann Roof. Black people shouldn’t be the only ones voicing justice for their rights and your skin pigmentation definitely isn’t directly correlated with your responsibilities.
I’ve heard black artists such as Kanye wonder time and again of their race’s fate, but if only we lived in a world white people loved black people as much as they loved their culture.
And for many us South Asians who have integrated so much of the black culture into our own, we should not stand idly as the tragedies keep piling.
This is not an “us vs. them” nor is it antagonizing white people—both stances would completely miss the goal of not just assimilation, but appreciation.
Post as much as possible on social media, engage in activism, and tell a friend we all stand together in integration. The conversation isn’t black and white, and neither are the people affected by it.
Nikita Redkar is a freelance writer in New York City who currently interns for Fusion Network where she writes about diversity in pop culture and how it’s shifting the current landscape of racial and gender politics. When she’s not writing, she is taking classes in sketch comedy and reading bizarre astronomy theories. She likes cute animal gifs and dislikes long walks on the beach, plagues, and other cliches.
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, being the only brown face in a room has never fazed me. I was always the little brown girl in the corner with waist-length hair and a name that made every teacher pause, but the feeling of “otherness” captured in this line was something I knew all too well.
This feeling isn’t unique. It’s the same experience of many immigrants and first-generation South Asian Americans, and that of the main character of “The East Indian”as well.
While a work of fiction set in the 1630s, the novel paints a very real picture of immigration and race in the United States today and the human need to belong.
It is the story of Tony East Indian, inspired by a real person documented in the country’s archives as the first known East Indian in the American colonies, but who is otherwise a work of the author’s imagination and research.
The son of a courtesan from the Coromandel coast of India, Tony unwittingly finds himself as an indentured servant in the plantations of Jamestown, Virginia at just 11 years old.
He accepts “Tony” as his first name — though he doesn’t care for it — because a fellow Tamil once suggested others in the world would find his real name “too hard to utter.” Then he adopts the surname “East Indian” simply because it is thrust upon him when he arrived in Jamestown. The protagonist can no longer even recall his birth name, but soon, he accepts it as a thing of his past.
Over the course of the novel, Tony lands at the center of scandal as he works to establish a new identity as a physician. All the while, he also struggles with isolation, prejudice and the challenges of trying to maintain pieces of the culture he carried with him from abroad.
He is confused as to why Native Americans are also called “Indians” and many colonists simply label him a “moor,” a term used for North Africans or anyone with darker skin, with no context for India or its people in this new world.
He, feeling disloyal to his “many Gods,” converts from Hinduism to Christianity, believing it will give him more credibility and a sense of connection to his peers. He begins to eat meat and spend time at taverns, all in hopes of belonging, and assimilating with colonist ways.
As he comes of age and furthers his physician’s apprenticeship, Tony also begins to ponder questions of race and social class to no avail. He reflects:
“I would talk to Doctor Herman and try to understand the reason behind white skin and black and brown and, more important, what greater distinctions of wit, sensibility, and soul the differences in hue signified. I read and was taught by my master the new ideas put forth by men of learning in England and Europe on the workings of the bowels, the brain, the blood; the causes of migraines, melancholy, and madness, but I never got closer to understanding the real meaning behind what they called different races of men, and if such difference exists in any profound sense that really matters.”
Overall, in “The East Indian,” Tony becomes a man. He learns of the world’s cruelty and its kindness. He learns to work, play, love, hate, scheme, grieve and care for himself and others. But, like most immigrants, he still longs for home.
“For home is singular and unique. Everywhere else is but a stopping place, a bed in a stranger’s house, eating off plates not one’s own, an unfamiliar view from a casement,” Tony said.
When attempts to head West and find an ocean back to India fail, Tony accepts that returning to his motherland is unlikely and resolves that he must learn to adapt.
He worries his love interest, born in the colonies, will not relate to him, for “her heart did not ache for another place beyond the sea” and also wonders what the future of his children will be. Nevertheless, he is never defeated.
“I would thrive wherever the wind laid me,” says Tony. “[I] will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me.”
Leaving or even kidnapped from their homes with little to no hope of return, thousands of Indians faced journeys fraught with violence, condemnation and injustice trying to create new lives and identities away from their homeland in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, and Jamaica. However, like Tony, they also found the strength and courage to survive and establish their own cultures and communities.
While no details are known about the real Tony East Indian, Charry weaves a compelling coming-of-age tale that takes him as well as readers across three continents.
The novel, like life itself, has fast and slow moments, but it is filled with vivid, historically accurate depictions of the colonial world and moving moments that keep you rooting for the main character’s triumph.
It is this authenticity and compassion that makes “The East Indian” an invaluable modern work. There are no known first-hand accounts of the indentured or South Asian colonists in America. The only proof of the mere existence of many are the generations that have come after them.
With several years of research put into it, Charry’s “The East Indian” serves as a rare realistic portrayal of what life may have been for these individuals; the hardships they endured, and the strength they embodied. South Asian or not, it is a rich history not only worth reading but sharing and celebrating.
To learn more about Brinda Charry and her professional work visit her website. The East Indian is now available in print and audiobooks from all major book retailers.
Featured Image: Author Brinda Charry was born and raised in India before moving to the United States for graduate school two decades ago. She considers herself “a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist | Photo Credit: Lisa Arnold Photography
Culture, in the broadest sense, is a shared set of norms, values and beliefs. We pass down our culture to our children based on our own lived experiences, and what we believe in. The decisions we make for our families reflect the values that we want to prioritize. We also hope that our children will want to pass them down to their own children.
As parents, it’s important to reflect on our cultural values: Where did they come from? Why do we believe in them today? Also, what values seem outdated or irrelevant in modern times and for our own children? By reflecting on these, parents will consciously be aware of the values that they believe are relevant, meaningful, and important to articulate to their children before they leave the nest and fly off into the world.
Our South Asian-American culture is constantly shifting and adapting to reflect changes of the modern times. Today, we are continuing to hold on to the celebrations that bring us the most joy and meaning in our lives. For example, I am attending a family wedding, this October, where the bride is Gujarati and the groom is Tamilian. They have decided to have a Sangeet which is traditionally a Punjabi custom, but they wanted to celebrate both cultures in this new way with their families because they both love music and dancing to Bollywood songs. They are also honoring their individual cultures during the ceremony by having a mangalsutra (the most important piece of the Tamilian ceremony) and the sindoor (the most important part of the Gujarati ceremony).
As we approach Rakhi this year, I think back to how I used to celebrate Bhai Phota, which is a Bengali version of Rakhi celebrated during Diwali. Today, I have chosen to celebrate Rakhi with my brother and with my Bengali-Gujrati family as a separate celebration, that takes place in August, because this way we can spend more quality time celebrating this sibling bond.
Post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha puts forth how when cultures mix together, we often open up a hybrid, third space, which forms new ways of being and living in the world. This idea of hybridity acknowledges the space in-between cultures which is filled with contradictions and indeterminate spaces. By negotiating between these differences, we are able to create new forms of culture and identity.
“hybridity… is the ‘third space’ which enables other positions to emerge.” – Homi Bhabha
Today, South Asian American children are forming new ways of connecting to their cultural identities. This summer, I launched my new children’s book, Shanti and The Knot of Protection: A Rakhi Story, to provide more context to children about the historical origins of Rakhi, while also capturing the new and unique ways Rakhi is being celebrated in contemporary times. In contemporary times, we don’t just celebrate with our immediate siblings, but also with our network of family and friends that we have created in our communities.
We celebrate individuals in our lives (boys or girls) who provide us with a sense of protection and security. This could mean siblings that are both girls, siblings that are both boys, only children, or children who identify as LGBTQIA+ and don’t identify with traditional gender norms. I wanted this story to highlight images of inclusivity and to represent and validate the experiences of all children who are celebrating this festival in the modern day and age. Through this story, children learn the importance of creating a community and feeling secure with not just their siblings but with their friends and other caring adults.
Shanti and the Knot of Protection also helps parents open up the conversation about what values they want their children to prioritize in our post-pandemic world and how to live a balanced life. In this story, Shanti’s parents die and she decides to rule her queendom based on the four values that her parents taught her: strength, curiosity, community, and security. In addition to highlighting the importance of relationships, this book also highlights the importance of balancing one’s life with the four domains of well-being: physical domain (strength), cognitive domain (curiosity), social domain (community), and emotional domain (security). These domains are all connected to one another and influence our overall well-being and happiness in life.
As parents, we want to be the North Star for our children and provide them with an inner compass to know what values are important and why. We also want them to know how to be resilient during difficult times. As Ann Landers states, “It’s not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” Through this story, I hope parents can have important conversations with their children about prioritizing values that will contribute to their overall well-being, happiness, and resilience in their lives.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.