Feb 8, 2007

Which Caucus Should I Go To: Affirmative Identity, Passing, and Challenging Brownness

All my friends are Indians,
All my friends are brown and red.
-Soundgarden - "Spoonman"

Most of my friends are people of color. It's just the way things work out, I guess. At this point, law school has been good because at least I'm meeting cool white people women. But I have my most interesting conversations about race and identity with people who are double- or triple-marginalized. While questions of being "of color" + "woman", or "of color" + "queer" have come up in the literature and the movements of the past 40 years, there are very interesting issues that are still not addressed in many progressive spaces. More and more of the people I speak with are not as gung-ho about one identity or another, especially when the identity is race-based.

I don't have the same sense of ambivalence about categories, though I'm not particularly thrilled to be lumped into the 1.2 billion Indians from India either. For some of us, trying to stand out or cut away from the sameness of belonging to a group is important - I identify as who I am affirmatively, to stop the immediate sizing up, classification, and generalization that you get as "one of the same." As part of an outsider group in the United States, I feel more conscious of this insider/outsider dynamic, and much resent being relegated to that outsider status unless I conform to a particular vision of what "American" means. On the other end, I'm striving to be the outsider in my specific community, unhappy to be lumped with everyone else, and still hanging on to some ideal of American individualism (I guess). The dynamic is one that I create for myself - I could just go with the flow like most of drones.

However, that's not true for everyone. And as folks resist being boxed into one group or another, there's a natural instinct to want to belong, or at least to be able to choose where you belong. In the midst of all of this, for desis, and I guess most other groups, where do folks with diasporic roots fit in? For desis specifically, while the North America/UK/South Asia connections seem more and more fluid in this transnational age, large multi-generational populations in places like the Caribbean, Africa, Fiji, etc are not really part of the mix. Is the perceived cultural divide the issue? Is there a casual exclusion? Is this primarily a throwback to a pre-Technological Age, when the links between the diaspora and the sending lands were much more difficult to maintain?

One of my closest friends, C, and I talk about this question of belonging, of fitting in, as multiple-migrants and members of our particular micro-generation. As an Indo-Caribean she often feels on the margins, and while I'm sure she feels comfortable with that most of the time - it's still difficult to not have a bunch of people in the same space as you. And as someone whose ancestry is probably 100% of Indian origin, she doesn't have to confront issues of racial identification, though diasporic communities really push and pull at American constructs of race in a way far more sophisticated than most Americans know how to deal with. For example, 9 out of ten times, people probably peg her as "Indian," but that's only a race grouping, which deletes or ignores a rich cultural history of more than a hundred years of migration and survival in the Western Hemisphere.

C also resented being asked these questions by strangers - the "where are you from" question is an annoyance for me, but represents so much more for her because it feels like her place is questioned in different circles and spaces. Culture, nationality, ethnicity, and race are not synonymous, and American citizenship does nothing to address or reconcile any of these things. It doesn't help that most Americans are clueless about the patterns of migration, or even the whereabouts of many of the countries we mention. Trinidad and Bangladesh may as well be neighbors in the myopic world-view of typical Americans. That includes people of color, by the way. The education system doesn't do much to counter prevalent ignorance about the world around us.


Then I think about another close friend of mine, B, who has one parent from the subcontinent, and another parent from a different part of the non-Western world, and her experiences illuminate another part of this conundrum. For her, racial category and grouping sometimes seem to be imputed upon her by the person she's speaking with, which doesn't work well, given how clueless most people are about identity and respect. In the past, I think I imagined that I knew what it was like to be questioned in this way, but then I saw it in progress and realized that I'd only considered the tip of the iceberg.

We were at a reception together, speaking with someone who worked at an Asian American organization. So this woman says that she's been invited to join a working group that my friend B was a part of, because they need an "Asian" face. B immediately responded "I'm Asian." As an aside, I'm usually annoyed when East/Southeast Asians talk about "Asians" and forget that the political identity includes some South Asians still (though the number continues to dwindle, in my estimation). But get this - the woman actually contested her personal affirmation of group identity. I couldn't believe it - how clueless do you have to be? I tend to stay away from telling people what group they belong to, but if someone says "I am" - well, that should indicate to you what group the person identifies as belonging to.

So why do folks who are bi- or multi-racial, have to choose one group or another? And why do we take it upon ourselves to question people about where they are and how they align themselves? And it's just funny, because we seem to do that more than the white folk question the straggler folks of color who tag along and mimic their Abercrombie ways. I think white folk just assume that everyone wants to join their tribe, and if they don't make sport of you, let it slide. Why don't we just let it slide - if you're hanging with a group, and you're not a creepy -phile of some kind, why do we have to get all into questioning it all the time?

But thinking back, I don't think that this is rare at all, and I think that it is particularly difficult for people who don't fit the "phenotype" of the group that is excluding them. It's just interesting - because people write and talk about passing - especially in the context of being "white" or close enough to white to not be questioned as a member of a so-called minority group. But we don't talk about "passing" in the context of groups of color. And we've created little in-groups all over the place that exclude people who don't "fit" or can't pass with questions. If this is the way that we create community, then who needs it?

To be honest, some of these thoughts are prompted by a recent reading of White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race this week for a class. While I didn't follow all of his arguments, Lopez raised a few very interesting points about the conceptualization and investment in "White identity" for White Americans. It seems that while all the rest of us keep trying to become white, White folk don't really think about it much, or see it as a defining feature. Until they do, and actively deconstruct that identity of Whiteness (a positional construction related to "not being non-White" even in the early court rulings when it was a lot easier (though they kept changing their mind) to identify who wasn't white than who was), we're not going to see a truly equitable society.

By this argument, is there a concept of "Brownness" that we should be exposing, exploring, and expunging from progressive and radical thinkings about community? Are we sticking ourselves into boxes which, though of our own naming, are still arbitrary boxes? Insider and outsider, belonging and not belonging... are we, in effect, writing another master narrative that marginalizes folks who don't fit the lowest common denominator of classification (or commonalities that we can rally around as a function of building an identity on something less than radical politics)?

I mean, I don't know how to bhangra: does that make me less passionate about being brown, and asserting a positive desi identity in the states? We don't speak Hindi/Urdu - does that make us less committed or genuine? And if I can identify the edges past which my marginalization begins, what about folks simply do not fit into the pre-packaged identity boxes? Are they to be double-marginalized - from the mainstream "whiteness/blackness" discussion, as well as this gradual coalescence of some concept of "brownness"?

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