A few weeks ago, I ran into an old high school friend in Toronto’s PATH, a winding underground community of interconnected shopping malls, food courts and subway platforms. The PATH’s lighting is all sharp fluorescents, and we couldn’t hide how we had aged in the decade since we’d last seen each other. We sat down to chat over coffee, and it only took a few minutes before she said to me, “You have such a White personality!”
I was stunned, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. This type of provocation was typical from the other Brown people I grew up with in North York, the ones who moved onto careers in IT, business, or the generally nebulous designation of “professional.” I asked her if it was because I was dating a White girl, and she said no, she’s used to that, her brother is doing that. I pressed—what was it that made me “White”? I speak Urdu, my parents are Indians, and were working in Saudi Arabia when I was born. She couldn’t articulate a clear answer. My career choice, my traveling—that “reading on your lunch break” thing—it was all just considered “White.” I tilted the book so that she could read the spine: How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position by Tabish Khair. It seemed like a fairly Brown choice.
Later, she performed a spectacle I’m used to from White people: she asked me if I knew the Urdu word for “mango.” I was used to White people’s casual barrage of basic ethnicity-related questions, but not from a Bengali. I was nervous being interrogated; Urdu does not come quickly to me unless I’m in India and have been speaking it regularly. I couldn’t recall the word.
What was missing from the conversation was the usual menacing tone I get when Brown people try to tease out how Brown I am. She spoke of my traveling and writing with admiration, that it was unusual for “us.” That type of Whiteness was good in me. Brownness has become a regular part of Western interrogation—what is a good Brown? What is enough Brown? Is it the kind that resembles Whiteness with just a bit of color thrown in? Republican governor Bobby Jindal is a perfect example for many: he has assimilated deeply into White, American, conservative culture, and makes continuous, painful attempts to isolate his darkness from himself. In his quest for power he has rejected the “Indian-American” tag, saying, “My dad and mom told my brother and me that we came to America to be Americans. Not Indian-Americans, simply Americans … If we wanted to be Indians, we would have stayed in India.” The core tenet of this type of assimilation is that Brownness is foreign and will never belong in the West, past the occasionally chic set of thick eyebrows and appreciation for our spicy foods. Our Brownness does not belong here, we’re told over and over again, until it is bleached enough to resemble everyone else’s version of acceptable Whiteness.
I remember being 12 and staring into a floor-to-ceiling mirror when I first realized there was a glitch between my inner and outer self. This can’t be me, I thought, This must be a dream. In the real world I must be blonde and blue-eyed, not dark-skinned and bushy-haired. My eyelashes—long—were already renowned by old White ladies, but I was willing to trade them for what I assumed had to be my real alabaster appearance.
Back then, it seemed as if Brown culture would not be given a present tense in the West. There was the pressing crush of White culture and what felt like the subversive relief of Black identity. You had to take one or the other, or mingle them, to find a way of being. The closest we came to a current sense of self was made simple with bad language—either you were a FOB (Fresh of the Boat, a recent immigrant who adheres to old-world practices) or a Coconut, (Brown on the outside, White on the inside) with little room to navigate between.
If they were being gentle, the perpetrator might call you an ABCD, American Born Confused Desi, a term that writer Vijay Prashad says is utilized to “emphasize to the accidental Americans that they are confused. The homeland is wielded by all these people against the next generation, who are forced to feel culturally inadequate and unfinished.” There is also the potent White Washed, somehow stronger than Coconut, and now often lobbed at targets like the political jinns Bobby “Piyash” Jindal and Dinesh D’Souza, evoking images of a cleanse, and suggesting a total transformation away from Indianness.
The laziness of these terms leaves a confusing sting, especially since they’re used almost exclusively within Asian communities. An uncle called me a Coconut last year (a month later I was stopped at the airport for a random search—too FOB to fly). In middle school I was called “wigger” by a classmate because of my sweet white Nikes. The kid, Persian, conflated my non-existing whiteness with my apparent love for blackness and meant to hurt me; but I was elated—who doesn’t want to be black? Snapping onto “Blackness” in a sea of White culture was a common trait I noticed. In an interview with Marc Maron, Indian-Canadian comedian Russell Peters talks about calling friends back home in Brampton and dropping into Patois to speak to them. It’s not in his repertoire of comedic accents, nor does he have any direct Jamaican heritage, but in his private conversation with friends, he code-switches with ease.
I grew up in a multicultural Toronto suburb, where I barely knew any White people besides a handful of classmates and a few teachers. I had no racial cognition but knew already that my skin color would preclude me from moving freely through the world. I didn’t yet know about skin whitening cream or the Partition of India, colonialism, or code-switching. I could tell that something was off, and it was odder still, that the community that Othered us the most here in the West, was the one whose identity I transposed onto myself. Though I didn’t have many Indian cultural touchstones around me, I had already picked up that my identity wasn’t going to be as malleable as White identity. Being Brown, Male, and Western had locked me into a set of expectations and codes that I would rumble against. This friction is not particular to me—it defines Taiwanese-American writer Eddie Huang, the Indian-American rapper Heems, and countless people of colour trying to exist in the White West.
My parents were eager for us to assimilate and there was no surplus of Indian affectations around the house—Bollywood tapes were played on the DL and we never joined a mosque or came into regular contact with other Muslim Indians. Memories of family were left unopened and ignored. I learned nothing about the cousins, uncles, and aunties who remained on the subcontinent. My mother missed India silently but my father hated the country. She visited her family occasionally, but nearly 14 years passed before my father went. When my mother wanted to send me back for a month in Grade 10, my father asked, “What’s the point?” They grew up as the first generation after Partition, during a time of chaos and uncertainty. He didn’t look back because there was nothing to look at.
My high school, meanwhile, was so multicultural that post-9/11 racism barely made it flinch. One of my oldest friends, Korean, called me a terrorist in my grade nine yearbook, and I still think of him with abiding affection. Another kid who’d casually lob the word at me was so Muslim that his last name was Islam. But I felt there was a deep shame at being Indian, some of which came from my father, who spoke badly of the country whenever he could, and some from the “smelly Indian” legacy that trails us: our body odor, our stinky food, our houses marked by a mash of unknown spices. I tried to pass as Arab. Since I was born in Saudi Arabia, I thought I could latch onto that, even though we were like mercenaries in the country, living in an isolated compound and only there for work opportunities India didn’t have. I couldn’t escape my brown skin, but at least I could be rich like an Arab. The distinction between Arab and Indian was messy, but I didn’t know that—I was only looking for a way out. This fell apart when an Egyptian asked if I could speak Arabic and I replied, no, Urdu. To be Indian meant nothing good. I had picked up enough from stray White culture to understand that the “smelly Indian” stereotype had real world implications and that we were somewhere near the bottom of a structurally explicit hierarchy.
Even though I couldn’t say why I was imagining myself as White, adopting Black culture, pretending to be Arab, I could sense that there wasn’t a clear role for me. Life was cleaved neatly: white identity (Korn), black identity (Ma$e), and brown identity (Amitabh Bachchan movies in the background, the dull dishoom-dishoom sound of our noble protagonist punching out the bad guys). I didn’t fit into any of these, so I borrowed from all. This kaleidoscope identity made it hard for me to locate myself in the world, and I felt for a long time, an ache for definition.
Being Brown in the West can feel impossible when you’re not echoed somewhere. When Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was released in 2004, I saw something that looked like a similar shade of Brown to my own. Harold and Kumar, two minorities, having just entered the working world after graduating university, are struggling. The movie is simple: they get high, have the munchies, and on the way to buy a white paper bag of sliders, they have increasingly bizarre adventures. I was 17, Kumar was a few years older, a stoner, a bro, uncouth: I wasn’t any of these things, but just the presence of a Brown guy in this kind of movie told me I could be. Before this, there was nothing for me to emulate except convenience store clerks, terrorists, and longhaired yogis. The closest I had gotten was Babu on Seinfeld.
Kumar was a brash entry into identity art. The movie, not created by Indians, showed a slightly skewered path and its possibilities of existence. The hamburgers, the genial bristling under his obligation to his parents—the movie took enormous steps to flesh out Brown identity in the West. I cannot think of a single other mainstream instance before this in which a Brown man is simple allowed to Be in a movie—to smoke pot, to hang out with friends, to chase women, and act like a moron.
Writing for BuzzFeed last year, Ayesha Siddiqi, Durga Chew-Bose, and Heben Nigatu articulated this sense of loss in relation to Mindy Kaling and The Mindy Project. They captured the obligation Kaling has towards the question of being Brown, but also the ambivalence and uncertainty that both viewers and performers, may have for its answers. How Brown Should A Brown Person Be is highly contested. It’s only very recently that the volume of Brown entertainers have started adding dimension to the question. The responsibility still can seem simple—how much should Mindy Kaling make Mindy Lahiri talk about Brownness?
Within this framework, Kumar wasn’t very Brown because he never really discussed his Brownness. The power of Kumar comes from this lack of a statement. While I was struck by the image of a Brown man smoking pot, part of me still felt that something about the character was missing. The opposite representation, like in the film The Namesake, released a few years later and also starring Kal Penn, felt too obvious: too banal in its attempt to answer these questions that followed me. Kumar largely succeeds because he doesn’t indulge in a very White idea of Brownness: curry eating heavily accented mama’s boy. He succeeds by acting out privileges only previously afforded to White boys, but he still wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.
This identity fuzziness—appropriate or not—comes from a culture thirsty for belonging. If you don’t see yourself, you find yourself. The recent mainstreaming of rap culture and a reluctance to embrace the model minority stereotype has South Asians rushing towards an idea of Blackness. The edges of early Black thought have been smoothed down over time (’90s rap in every new restaurant, White people in Timberlands) and while this new “safeness” certainly plays a role in the South Asian community’s embrace of Blackness, hip hop’s vitality as a culture of resistance is appealing to a people looking for space.
Blackness is integral to America; the country was built on Black labor. It exists as a cultural force in a way that Brownness—still on the outside—does not. Pre-9/11, it seemed like we existed in the American imagination with little presence. Since then, the very particular depiction of us as terrorists as has exploded forward. Even the Harold and Kumar sequel, Escape from Guantanamo Bay, acknowledged this. Black culture—viewed equally as unsafe, “cool,” and transgressive by the South Asian community—has served as bridge inward to the heart of the West, even if its members, just like the White community, are all too willing to pick and choose which aspects to indulge in.
For some Brown kids, it doesn’t go beyond wearing Wu-Tang shirts to school, but as Vivek Bald explains in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, there’s a long-standing relationship between Brown and Black communities that stretches earlier than the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which saw the first wave of professional South Asian immigrants we most closely associate with the Diaspora. Bald writes, “beginning sometime in the 1880s, Muslim peddlers from a cluster of villages just north of Calcutta began traveling to the United States to sell ‘Oriental goods’” thus reorganizing our perception of history and belonging to stretch it back past the last few decades.
They made it in America, settling in places as diverse as Harlem and New Orleans, despite exclusion. “Denied official belonging, they became part of another nation, a nation beneath the nation, in working-class neighborhoods of color from New York to Baltimore to Detroit,” mixing with Puerto Rican, Black, and Caribbean communities. New Orleans, for example, became an important area as a “core group of Bengali Muslims” married local women and integrated into the community in a way that even the most ardent of today’s anti-multiculturalists would be proud of. With the assistance of local Black women, they joined into the community and reaped profit.
Naturalization was still a racially charged process. Abba Dolla, likely a member of an early shipping network, was granted citizenship in 1910, at a time when, “people of only two ‘races’ were allowed to become U.S. citizens—‘white persons’ and ‘persons of African ancestry’—and like a handful of other East Indians in the years immediately before and after him, Dolla applied for and was granted citizenship as a ‘white person.’” Even though Dolla, like all South Asians, would have heavily relied on the established structures of the Black community in America to survive, in order to fully arrive, they would have to “claim whiteness.” Still, Bald writes, “there is enough evidence to suggest that for many, naturalization was a strategic move to give greater stability to their business pursuits rather than an identification with white supremacy and a disavowal of African American and Creole neighbors, acquaintances, and extended families.”
The irony of this community building is a long-standing anti-Black sentiment in large swaths of the South Asian community. As Jeet Heer writes for The New Republic in “Making It In (Right-Wing) America,” anti-Black racism is “one of the more unwholesome manifestations of assimilation.” The impetus behind this racism is a desire to differentiate from other racial groups in America, and Blacks, already at the “bottom” of the racial organization of America, serve as a convenient target. It’s the same thinking that regulates the model minority myth—if these minorities are successful, why can’t Blacks be as well? Racism must not exist. Heer breaks down political commentator Dinesh D’Souza and the ways he has used this peculiar racism to advance his own career within the American conservative community. Where one might expect solidarity there is none. Heer’s dismantling of D’Souza’s racial treachery shows the complex ways communities of colour interact and the kind of allure white privilege holds; one that forces different racial groups to use each other as stepping stones towards whiteness.
D’Souza is not alone in his bitter attacks against American Blacks. Mindy Kaling’s brother, Vijay Chokal-Ingam, a resume coach, recently began a long, lazy attack on affirmative action, by way of stunt. Chokal-Ingam revealed to the New York Post that over a decade ago he was accepted to medical school by pretending to be a Black candidate—shaving his head, trimming his eyelashes, changing his name, and checking the “African-American” box on application forms. What kind of insidious nature does it take to prey on a program created to support a historically attacked community? Chokal-Ingam, who brought the stunt to light after learning that UCLA has decided to strengthen its affirmative action policies, is similar to D’Souza in this way—eager to be embraced by the conservative community and to promote himself.
What are our options to locate ourselves in the present? Bald suggests that the idea of belonging in the West isn’t something that needs to be earned from Whites, or even from the generation preceding us, but that it was earned a long time ago when the West was young. He reveals the fluid nature of our identity and the way it was shaped and pulled through migration and interaction with POC communities. Notable South Asian-American figures like Jindal and D’Souza strain towards the idea of whiteness for mainstream acceptance, but Bald shows us an alternate, cohesive, path that nourishes and can be held as a progressive standard moving forward. Rather than just snapbacks and sweatshirts, there was no wholesale appropriation of Black content, but communities under an oppressive thumb that worked together to survive, spiritually and physically.
Himanshu Suri, also known as Heems, formerly of Das Racist, has always been cognizant of the space between white and black identity. On “Shut Up, Man” off the last Das Racist album, Relax, he raps, “They say I act white, but sound black, but act black, but sound white, but what’s my sound bite supposed to sound like?” He has also publically expressed a reluctance to rap, feeling he’s appropriating a culture that doesn’t belong to him and that his recent solo effort Eat Pray Thug will be his last rap album. “I lived, at once, in and between two spaces and outside them as well,” he told Pitchfork. “I also often felt like in America I lived in the space between black and white.”
When we talk about South Asians, or being Brown, we talk about collected traits and the obligations that come with it. Does Suri have to rap about 9/11 to be Brown? Is the logic that dictates this the same one that allows Gwen Stefani to wear a bindi and yet lose none of her essential Whiteness? This same logic pulses in my life—I hate eating at Indian restaurants with White people I don’t know very well because there’s a real sense of obligation towards knowledge: “Hey, is butter chicken really from India?” or, apropos of nothing, “What’s the deal with minarets?” It’s in these small palatable tests of expectation that I feel like I lose or gain points, that I accumulate either towards Brownness or away from it. Brownness in this context is flexible—it’s good to know about chicken vindaloo, but bad to articulate sympathy towards youth in Pakistan toting Kalashnikovs.
Eat Pray Thug, has received generally positive reviews, but what’s noticeable is that the works I feel are the strongest—the love songs—have received criticism for being “out of place.” Heems has succeeded in eliciting empathy for his political struggles, a known part of being Brown out here, but when trying to add another dimension—that Brown people can fuck and love—he’s been rebuffed, by Brown and White critics alike.
The popularity of terms like Coconut and FOB reveal a group stuck in time. An essential idea of identity is that it’s fluid. Its ability to morph, and remain the same, and for these two opposite strands to remain intertwined is what makes a person recognizable. Coconut and FOB strip that and, like any slur, turn the individual into a caricature. It’s also the primary way that so many Brown kids view identity—either they are on this side or on that side. With the ties to the “homeland” cut off, and a dominant White culture violent towards any attempts at fringe identity, we’re left to rot or escape into the shelter of other groups.
Suri owes as much to Biggie as he does to M.I.A., to Punjabi songs, and to Urdu poetry. He moves from songs about the Patriot Act, to Partition, to a verse on “So New York” where he spits, “I’m so New York I still don’t bump Tupac.” While Suri talks publicly about struggling with duality, that difficulty is not present here; instead, we’re given a unified statement of a sort of Brown Male who has been run through the gamut of a post-9/11 American reality of suppression, ignorance, and racism. It knows its Americanness and Indianness and manages to hold them together without allowing one to overwhelm the balance.
Bald and Suri’s disparate works—historical research and a rap album—work together, like the two strides of identity, to weave together a phantom image of what life might be like. The power of Bald and Suri is that they both cut to the question of identity: where do I belong? Bald pries apart history to give us deep roots on this continent, while Suri recasts West and East—what we’re told are two contradictory ideas—as a cohesive whole.
Kumar helped set the stage all those years ago. Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Mindy Kaling—the list of Brown actors engaging with Brownness in a variety of ways has been growing. Pop music too, in the 2000s, began opening up as I got old—the influence of M.I.A. on new artists Ben Khan, Jai Paul, and Future Brown is monumental. The chain of influence is difficult to parse, but what’s notable about the early figures is their willingness to take ownership of spaces previously denied to them. Just like the early Muslim peddlers who saw a way to take advantage of the American capitalist enterprise, these artists made established Whiteness work for them. There’s never a right time to ask for space—these artists are taking it.
The disastrous adventure of being out here in the West is levelling out. What was revelatory to me about my friend’s comments about my “Whiteness,” tucked away underground in the Financial District, was not its content, but that I wasn’t bothered. I moved past it. I claimed an existence of my own.