The title of this essay is extracted from a poem by Langston Hughes. This essay was originally presented in an Original Oratory competition and has been adjusted for publication on The Eye.
I walk into the room and my friends look me up and down. They look at my Lululemon leggings, my Brandy Melville top, my white sneakers, the trendy hydro flask…and they go “you’re so white.”
I leave feeling as though I’ve met some hidden criteria. By being “white.”
Later I realized that my skin color was clashing with my American identity. If I was exhibiting any trait remotely American, I was “white.” Being mislabelled as a “white” American of color, as if to try and cancel out any color, made sense to me. A history of white people being the most accepted in my home country made sense.
My dad walks through the metro in Washington D.C., on his way to work. It is early; he is in that uncomfortable transition in the morning when one’s eyes are open, but they have yet to mentally awaken. He looks professional in his work suit, with his turban wrapped neatly around his head and his beard flowing down his chest. A young man approaches him, face contorting, eyes filling with hate. He yells “OSAMA!” at my dad’s face. My dad proceeds as though nothing has happened. As though no racist shots have been fired.
According to Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, race is “a power construct of collected or merged difference that lives socially.” Ethnicity is another important term here, defined as “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.” Ethnicity is factual; race is not. Race is an imaginary, problematic construct that some people — sadly including myself, continue to uplift. As Kendi says, we apply racialized thinking to one’s ethnicity in order to label them.
I am “white.” My dad is “OSAMA!”
When I realized that my skin color was problematic for some, I noticed the only individuals articulating this to me were fellow American-Indians. By calling me “white” upon noticing me exhibiting characteristics of an American, they had accused me of assimilating into white American culture. I feel now that I might be an assimilationist. I behave and dress and talk in certain ways that I felt were products of me — but now I’m confused. I’m not sure anymore of what is me and what is “white.” The boundary between ethnicity and race and culture blurs. As a result, some people of color feel that the terms “white” and “American” are adjoined.
It is, for me and some of my fellow Americans of color, so incomprehensible to be American and a person of color simultaneously. No. To wear clothes and talk like an American, we’ve got to be “white.” Instead, people of color remain perpetual foreigners in America.
I grew up in the states as a person of color. I can recall feeling culturally ingenuine because I grew distant from my Punjabi culture and embraced American culture. This felt natural, but slightly conflicting. I didn’t grow up in Punjab — yet still naturally wearing what the white American girls wear, or naturally talking how the white American girls talk leaves me feeling fake.
I begin to hate on my Indian culture. I see loud Indians and then quiet white tourists passing and feel embarrassed for them. I refuse to wear Punjabi clothes outside of Punjabi events. I abhor the way Punjabi masala pervades those Punjabi clothes. And of course, I look in the mirror and feel confused to the point of hatred without due reasoning– the same hatred that came from that thoughtless man in the metro. Over time, the label “white” has conditioned me to loathe my race and how it conflicts with my Americanness.
One day I was talking to a friend of mine about my mom’s cooking, specifically her salmon and quinoa. With only this information to contextualize my mother, my friend responded, “Is it bad that every time I picture your mom, I see a blonde, white lady?”
I didn’t think it was in the moment. I laughed with her.
Ironically, my mom experienced her own racial conflict as a kid. Growing up in a majority white school in Miami, she used to go to bed praying to God that one day, she would wake up with blonde hair and blue eyes. I imagine a scrawny, nine-year-old, sitting crisscross, her hands folded. In prayer. In my mom’s little-innocent-girl head, the pinnacle of beauty and comfort in her body meant she needed to become white.
So, after reflecting on the perceived clash of race and Americanness from stories within my life, I get it. It’s easier for people to shove me into one word. It’s easier for them and for me if I am just “white.” When the self-work hasn’t been done by white individuals and individuals of color alike, what else should I expect?
My journey to understanding race and culture and the societally-imposed overlap started with simple things. I immersed myself in literature regarding minorities in America, such as Sikh women in Meeta Kaur’s collection of short stories titled Her Name Is Kaur. I read up on the construction behind racism in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. I read a case study about Asian-American teenagers who called white Americans “real Americans” or “American Americans,” confirming how I feel; my Americanness is invalid.
I try to apply what I learn. I attempt to see color but not use it as a means to judge.
Then I hear people say things like “ha I’m so cultured,” or “bruh, get woke” or I hear “I’m not a racist. I am the least racist person that you have ever met.” And I think, as writer Ijeoma Oluo scrutinizes in her book titled So You Want to Talk About Race, “it is easy to get caught in the talk and think you are doing so much more than just that — talk.” It is easy to post something on an Instagram story and feel good. Oluo constantly receives requests to discuss race and explains people “want to feel better, but they don’t want to do better.” This conversation is not solely about self-validation. It’s about self-reconciliation; whereby, one can gradually earn an open mind through strenuous self-awareness.
Luckily, life grants me some breaks from being an American-Punjabi woman. I am revived by a rainbow palette of aerie models, I see Lily Singh, a bisexual Canadian-Punjabi woman claiming a spot in the white-male dominated field of late-night entertainment, I see Mindy Kaling playing lead roles in blockbuster Hollywood movies… and in stories like these, I finally see me. Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated that conversing and reflecting on race and culture is worthwhile — but also that it’s a journey. White’s a nice color — I love my white sneakers — but I need more than just white. I’m refreshed by the few individuals of color who have achieved a publicly recognized cultural authenticity. It took me long enough to realize: I, too, am America.