My Journey in Understanding Race
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
I know there are a lot of TCKs out there along with lots of folks from many places traveling all over the world. It's a global place, but there are still some stereotypes. This post is in advance of a post planned for later, that will discuss navigating race as an inter-cultural couple upon your return home. This post however, speaks specifically to my journey so far.
I’m a hyphenated American – Indian-American – to be exact. But until I was eight years old, I was just American. I remained Indian-American until right after college, when the identity roller coaster really started, but it wasn’t the first time I’d taken the ride, just a more advanced version of it. Coming back and going overseas as a hyphenated American has been a race evolution for me. Understanding what people react to, what that means for my own relationship with my identity, etc.
I was raised in a military family. While I was born and spent the first five years in a few U.S. cities, I moved overseas with my family at the age of six. This was critical because it was when I really was in grade school (as opposed to pre-school/kindergarten) and because I lived on an airbase. Living on an American base overseas means you are American. Also, the military, especially in that era was a strange mix of America, as is the case today, far from representative of what America’s diversity actually looks like. That is not to say that it is not diverse, just that the percentages are different than many U.S. cities. So, growing up overseas, seen as an American, in a fairly diverse school, I dealt with the same things any nerdy grade schooler does.
After we returned to the States, I moved to a FAR less diverse town, where my Dad had more or less grown up and considered home. Honestly, I do too now. But, I had just spent the last three formative years thinking that what mattered was what rank your officer/enlisted military member was…I was in for a serious civilian shock. My adjustment was difficult to say the least – I found navigating life in the U.S. to be confusing. I hadn’t really been raised with the slow seep of race consciousness and what it means. I still wasn’t told that it meant anything in the U.S. – I just remember looking in the mirror as an eight-year-old and thinking, “huh, so brown means something here…” But I still wasn’t sure what.
As I grew up and tried to navigate puberty *shudder* and school life, the issue continued to nag at me, but I responded by being defiantly un-hyphenated. It didn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the other parts of my identity. I learned to read, write, and speak Hindi (which still comes in useful today). I learned classical dance, and truly enjoyed music and Hindi cinema. I LOVE Indian food and like a good Indian daughter learned to make it. But much of that was at home; I segregated my private life from my public one. In French, they call this “secularism” laicité – it has a stronger connotation than secularism does in American English.
I went abroad during University for a few study abroad programs. The most striking was that in the UK I was actually far less of an outlier than I ever had been at home – I suppose that is what a diverse city looks like! In France, I genuinely think they thought I was Hispanic…I was spoken to in Spanish far more than in French. Ironically enough, I still face this issue today at my local farmer’s market in the city. Being ethnically vague would quite come to be an advantage, but I didn’t know this yet. For my last study abroad experience, I spent some time in Egypt, where I was not harassed, and most folks asked if I were from a variety of other regional countries and considered me like a sister. This was novel. I had never been in a place where the majority of the population was brown – it was a revelation. I was also happy to not be accosted by hawkers :D
But the real fun started after University. I headed to India to participate in a one year volunteer partnership with a program called Indicorps. The identity issues I would struggle with until truly coming into my own really started here - where my assumptions about being Indian-American were truly called into question. In India, I was again just American. But now, I had really started to appreciate my hyphen, I was proud of my Indian and American identities, and yet, here I was all of a sudden just one. Imagine my surprise when I returned after a year to once again be hyphenated, and no longer understand what the hyphen meant. My relationship with India had changed, my relationship with my Indianess and my Americaness had changed – and frankly, I was a bit lost as to what it all meant for me anymore.
I felt like I didn’t really belong in either place. In India I wasn’t really American, because I didn’t come off as the stereotypical American – blond, blue-eyed – at least in the perspective I was normally privy to. But I also wasn’t really Indian – I spoke differently, dressed differently, and thought differently – and in all fairness this was true. I was something different. But in the U.S. you are rarely just American – everyone is from somewhere in America and wears it – whether it is a religious identity or an ethnic one or a racial one. India was also the one place I’ve lived that I wasn’t ever considered an expat. For some reason, perhaps because of the way we chose to explore India and our relationship with it, I never felt like I could be separated out of it, and yet was never really part of it either.
Still, being surrounded by people who more or less looked like me and being part of the “majority” and coming back to being a “minority” was eye-opening. For all of the United States’ claimed progressiveness coming back it felt like there were some things missing. It’s not because the U.S. had changed or India was somehow more liberal, but rather because I had romanticized certain things about home and had forgotten the racial undertones that I would occasionally face and be surprised by. It was usually casual ignorance, as if you didn’t matter – but what you don’t acknowledge is often so much more painful than we expect.
Fast forward five years. I finally was settled, had found a great group of Indian-American friends, but also a huge range of multi-cultural friends and found a settling in my identity again – focused on the things that I appreciated about each culture and brought together in my own life.
In 2012, I moved to West Africa for work. For those who remember, this was in the midst of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. I had always been “normal” – heck, I had been volunteering in India, living like the emerging middle class. I moved to a country that was facing significant instability and suddenly found myself as one of very few foreigners left in what had formerly been a vibrant expat community and most certainly amongst the one percent. I suddenly was dealing with far more than being just “American,” beyond racial identity I was now looking at a whole new class structure that I had taken for granted until then. The identity issues of no longer having easy access to other Indians, the lack of hearing the language, of being spoken to in Hindi, of watching movies or listening to music made me reprioritize it. I missed being me – I missed the part of me that was more than what blended in to the guys at the office. Being just “American” wasn’t enough. And yet, I loved being ethnically vague, I enjoyed seeing where people would guess I was from – Spain, Argentina, Cuba!
I did not enjoy feeling privileged. It is an absurd thing to say. It’s a ridiculously entitled thing to say, but it was in fact how I felt. I was acutely aware of where I stood in the class hierarchy and it was not comfortable. I had never been there, I didn’t understand what was expected of me. Yet, I also recognized that the class that I was posing as was what gave me access to the levels of government to whom I needed access in order to do my job, that it was recognized as being an expat. I had never truly lived separated both physically and culturally from the folks with whom I worked and engaged. I had never been differentiated in this way – before I had access to have the conversation about how I was perceived or what I perceived of the host nation, in ways that all of a sudden I was no longer privy to.
Over the course of the tour, I began to cement what eventually became the identity I continue to identify with today. I created space for Hindi in my life (to this day I listen to BBC Hindi Radio in the mornings as I get ready). I added Indian dance to my workout routine. I would dress up for no reason and I would host Diwali for all my friends annually (including a fireworks incident that we’ll save for another story). I was also American – I hosted brunches, I listened to the Top 40 chart (AFN is a special beast on the weekends), and always helped for a huge Thanksgiving dinner. I recommitted myself to regular volunteering and developing relationships with my host community that would allow me access to the conversations that mattered to me about race, gender, and identity. And I slowly began to get rid of labels – yes, I’m a hyphenated American to most people – but I’m so much more than that to myself. Why confine myself to the smaller world of race possibilities, when there are so many more to explore, discover, and embrace?
I'm the one in green - in a sari during my second tour at the Marine Corps Ball - fully hyphenated at a diplomatic event.
Please note that this article has an addendum that can be found here