As I walked past them in a restaurant, a couple, on what must have been a first or second date, flagged me down from their table. From their broad, eager smiles, I already knew what they wanted.
“We have a bet,” the woman explained. “He thinks you’re from South America,” she said, gesturing to her date. Her money was on Pakistan.
I am a dulce de leche-colored woman, browner still in the summer. Tallish, with large eyes the color of Coca-Cola. My hair winds into curls at the hint of rain clouds. My lips are brown. “Like the president’s,” someone noted once, trying somehow to square Barack Obama’s multiculti look with my own.
My ancestors hail from the southern part of India, on the Bay of Bengal, which I mention only because the sea once had a way of washing up all varieties of conquerors and marauders on our shores. Lineage is messy.
But in 2017 America, my particular jambalaya of “features” frequently has me mistaken for Ethiopian. Trinidadian. Colombian. African American. It depends on which city I’m in, what I am wearing and, more often than not, who is doing the asking.
Now here was this couple, both white, asking the question I increasingly stumble over.
What am I?
Just another dark-featured, dark-haired woman in a vast sea of immigrants’ kids, I want to tell them.
Or more simply, I am brown. Because the more brown America gets, the more mutable ethnicity — mine, others — is becoming.
In “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates describes defining oneself as black as like joining “a tribe — on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.”
As the number of brown-skinned Americans grows, will we forge our own tribe?
That would be just as much an invention, an embrace among disparate people whose common ground is mostly being a generation or two removed from an immigration story. But in finding bits of shared experience, there could be a feeling of unsiloing oneself, of belonging to something larger.
I’m not, of course, the only one aware of a change in the winds, away from the notion of a post-racial America, toward understanding that Americans are acutely aware of race and also content defying its cold categorizations. Asked at his last news conference whether there would be another black president, Obama joked, “I suspect we’ll have a whole bunch of mixed-up presidents at some point that nobody really knows what to call them.”
That future may not be far off. Whatever forces are working to erect walls and negate travel documents may be too late to change what is underway: Immigration and birthrate trends suggest that by 2046, the United States will be made up of more non-whites than whites. And the change will be fueled in part by immigrants from Latin and South America, from Asia and Mideast nations, but also by their American-born children and grandchildren.
Together, recent immigrants and their children will account for a third of the U.S. population by 2050, according to projections from the Pew Research Center. Already more babies of color are being born in America each year than white babies.
What am I? When my parents filled out my birth certificate more than 35 years ago, the county didn’t bother asking. My mother recently dusted off my paperwork and gave it a once-over to be sure. “There’s no blank for race,” she marveled. If there had been a box to check, we joked, the choices probably would have been just black or white.
No box, no easy categorization even then.
Instead, I’ve spent much of my life awkwardly knocking around the middle, dancing to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” with the black girls in middle school, banging my body into white boys in the mosh pit at Lollapalooza, reading books by biracial British author Zadie Smith and Dominican American writer Junot Díaz, and holding hands with a Vietnamese man who I was sure understood me.
In the schoolyard, in the cafeteria, on the streets or in temple, there are always slurs. Coconut, the kids say. Oreo. Banana. All these food metaphors for one insidious observation: Your skin isn’t white, but inside you are.
“When you have folks calling each other coconuts and Oreos, on the one hand, it’s saying, here’s a legit way to be Asian American,” says Jeff Chang, a scholar on race and author of “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation.”
“Clearly, what’s at work there is there’s a distinctive sense that we’re not white. It creates this dialogue in your head: Who am I in relation to blackness?”
It sounds delusional: choosing blackness or whiteness. But for those of us who are neither, a mercenary sort of angling to be viewed as more like one or the other has been the norm for generations.
When U.S. law allowed only whites, African Americans and those hailing from Africa to become naturalized citizens, Bhagat Singh Thind, a tall, handsome Indian native, argued before the Supreme Court in 1923 that he was descended from Aryans — and so, technically was white, even if his skin wasn’t. (He lost, shutting the door on many immigrants who’d hoped to similarly argue their way through.)
These days, immigrants often move into communities of color, and their children benefit from social programs that aim to undo generations of institutional racism against African Americans, Chang says. And as the schoolyard taunts suggest, they are less inclined to identify with whiteness than they might have been a hundred years ago.
Ahmed Mohamed, the Sudanese American teenager whose arrest at a Texas high school over a homemade clock made him a poster child for anti-Muslim sentiment, says he is black. Obama, whose mother was white and whose father was Kenyan, checked black on his U.S. Census form. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is Indian and African American, identifies herself as both.
The choices aren’t always about how we identify, but whom we identify with.
Some brown people have found aspects of themselves in the existential discontent of hip-hop, like Taiwanese American chef and author Eddie Huang or Indian American rapper Himanshu Suri. South Asians often find themselves ignored in discussions about race, forever stuck between black and white, Suri says by phone from New York: “We are an invisible player among the races in America, raceless characters.”
And so, he says, “There’s an impulse for me and for other South Asians to adopt the culture of African Americans.”
Suri is a rapper, best known for his former rap group Das Racist and now Swet Shop Boys (with “The Night Of” actor Riz Ahmed). When the duo stormed the intimate underground quarters of U Street Music Hall in Washington recently, the audience was a cross-section of the city: black, white and shades in between.
“I knew from a young age where my solidarity lies and where I felt more comfortable,” he tells me.
He doesn’t ask me which groups I feel comfortable among; he doesn’t need to.
“What are you?”
The first time I recall being asked, I was encircled by kids at my suburban Maryland elementary school, where most students fell neatly into the categories of black or white. When I replied confidently that I was Indian, the other children started chanting and doing a mock Native American rain dance. I was more puzzled than offended. I didn’t yet know that the question would be a running theme in my life.
But I have learned that while the words stay exactly the same, their intention has shape-shifted as we’ve entered into wars, as the country’s demographics have changed, as a stigma has become attached to the brown-skinned. Sometimes the question is posed with curiosity, sometimes with darker intent. Sometimes it’s hard to know.
For those who don’t understand a person of color’s obsessions with race and identity, I want to point this out: For the past five years, whole cities across the country have been roiled by police shootings of unarmed men and women targeted, some believe, for their skin color. White nationalists have poured into basketball arenas to profess allegiance to a candidate — now president — who promises to build a wall that would keep out those whose mother tongue isn’t like theirs, whose skin is darker, who don’t resemble them.
Not long ago, I was in New York for an interview with a curator at a renowned museum. I had pulled on a suit jacket, pleated skirt and black pumps and was waiting in the hotel lobby for my car when an employee looked at me and came over, smiling. “Are you here for the maid position?” he asked affably.
I was too humiliated to shoot him a glare, too polite to ignore him. And so I stammered, “No.” A true but toothless answer.
I saw the realization flicker across his face as he began to take in all of me, a professional in a blazer, a guest in his hotel. He was mortified.
As I turned away from him, my ears filled with a dull ringing.
Such instances of racism have shaped my life as much as my upbringing and skin color. That’s why I feel a tenuous solidarity with African Americans and other people of color.
“All of these other groups have faced their own ‘isms,’ their own discrimination, on different levels,” Joanne Hyppolite, a curator at the African American History and Culture Museum in Washington, says of the relationship between immigrants and African Americans.
Black immigrants in particular were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, she notes. They chose the tribe.
In ways I’ve found mine. I’m bold here in Washington, where I moved more than a decade ago and quickly pronounced myself home. The District was once “Chocolate City” — 70 percent African American at its peak in 1970 — and though the percentage of black residents is slipping precipitously, it is still a place I have been the most comfortable in my dark skin. I’ve spent the bulk of my grown-up years here, never feeling squeezed to be whiter or blacker.
“African,” murmured some teenagers hanging out on a street corner here on a recent night as I passed them.
“Nahhh,” I yelled back, not bothering to look over my shoulder, but I knew I had surprised them with my accentless English, my big hoop earrings, my brown lips.
If my features make me a chameleon, Suri reminds me that South Asians still have privilege: “The difference is, with Indians, because the institutions aren’t leaned against me, I can change the way I speak, change the way I dress, get a job at a bank and become an entirely different person.”
He urges “acknowledging that wiggle room that we’re granted.”
And I do. I have been pushed forward by affirmative action, riding a wave of goodwill into programs for minority journalists. I work at a major newspaper because it hired me, in part, for the perspective I might bring. But it also occurs to me that my parents might not have come here in the early 1970s if not for the civil rights movement. Would they have bothered to raise children here if schools remained segregated? Would they have been able to secure apartments or home loans or any of the privileges so clearly fought for and won by African Americans?
“All the immigrants benefited from the civil rights movement. Absolutely,” my mom says when I ask her. “Especially the Indians, the Pakistanis. The Sri Lankans.” They were the immigrants, she explains, who were not white.
She remembers seeing the vestiges of segregation when she first arrived in the United States, the unfairness of a young black woman she worked with at a Philadelphia university making less money than she did, doing the same job.
I remind her what happened to me at the New York hotel, and I press her again. Why stay, why have children? “They treated me differently,” she says, her voice cracking. “I was thinking my kids would not have that.”
I tell her this is why I’m reticent to say that I’m just Indian. It differentiates me from others. And these days, that doesn’t seem to do us any good.
All of this is on my mind every time I’m asked the question. Would it please the asker more if I were Indian, than, say, Arab or Ethiopian or African American?
For the wagering couple at the restaurant, waiting so expectantly, I could only laugh uncomfortably.
“Close,” I told them, before revealing the answer.
They slapped the table, laughing at themselves for not guessing what should have been so obvious.
“What does it matter?” I wanted to ask them. “I’m American and I’m brown.”
Instead I said nothing and headed for the door.
Lavanya Ramanathan is a Washington Post staff writer.
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