On passing, identity politics and how college took all the fun out of being Indian

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 | Smith’s South Asian Student Association celebrates holi.

Photo by Carolyn Brown ’16 | Smith’s South Asian Student Association celebrates holi.


Mitali Desai ’19
Contributing Writer

I considered going to the caucus for white and white-passing students that took place last March 29. I know the importance of working to unlearn bias and confront racism, but something about the caucus made me uneasy. Before I came to Smith, being a multicultural person had never bothered me. Being Indian, Jewish, light-skinned and green-eyed did not feel like a contradiction. When I arrived at college, though, I suddenly felt a desperation to define myself, to position myself in the world in a way that felt authentic to my experiences. I felt pressured to both claim my identity as well as to disclaim it: to constantly acknowledge all the ways in which I did not really understand the “Indian experience” because of my (relative) privilege.

I did not go to the caucus because, while I know I have a responsibility to continue to unlearn my bias, it felt like I was being erased. “Looking white,” whatever that means exactly, is not the same thing as being white. To conflate the two makes a statement that one’s true identity is not so important as how one relates to whiteness or is viewed by the white gaze. “Passing” is not the same as belonging to the in-group. This piece is not a criticism of the organizers as so much as a criticism of the general discourse on identity politics when it comes to white-passing people.

I am not arguing that white-passing people of color do not have more privilege than other people of color. I know in many cases I do. But to measure identity itself in terms of oppression, in my mind, is imperialistic. I’ve had well-meaning white friends, in an effort to showcase their social awareness, tell me I’m not “reallyyyy” Indian because I “haven’t been oppressed.” This way of thinking — that oppression is the cornerstone of identity and that the identities of people belonging in some way to the global majority are born out of interaction with the white or Western world — seems so white-centric. However well-intentioned, looking at the world through the lens of systematically enforced hierarchy sometimes becomes another way to dehumanize and invalidate the other. To broadly understand someone’s experience from a sociological perspective is not to truly know their story. Furthermore, these stories are not always tragic. Coming to an environment where race and ethnicity are primarily discussed in terms of suffering and injustice made me wish I could erase the brown in my body. Then, I remembered that for me at least, being Indian has always been something that makes me proud and happy.

I have experienced racism, in the form of Kama Sutra-related come-ons, sati jokes and awkward encounters at the airport. I’ve also experienced privilege at the expense of other Indians — my light features allowing me to be called “exotic” instead of ugly, “interesting” instead of an outsider. All of these experiences have shaped me, but neither type of experience is my identity itself. My Indian identity lies in my values: deference to elders, charity work, appreciation of sacrifice, thoughtfulness, nonviolence. It lies in my experiences: the music, food, holidays and rituals that bring me joy.

So, to white activists and allies, I am not asking that you abandon your understanding of institutionalized racism and privilege. Rather, I’m suggesting that we all consider the ways in which identity is more nuanced than we make it out to be. Understanding the forces that work against or in favor of someone is not the same thing as knowing them.

Moreover, let’s all work to think about identity in ways other than how it pertains to suffering. We are more than capable of having both conversations at once. Go watch people dance to the music they grew up with, try their foods and listen to their voices when you have been offered the opportunity to do so. Support people celebrating themselves. It would be a loss to allow our identities to become mere categorizations of the pain and obstacles we face. Identity is who we are, not how we are externally defined. Will this celebration dismantle white supremacy? Not by itself, but to embrace the joy of each other’s worlds is radical in its own way. If anything, it frees us from the notion that we are defined by where we fall on a social hierarchy. In doing so, we allow ourselves and each other to be more nuanced and to embrace the full experience of who we are.

One Comment

  1. Cindy Krug says:

    Hi, Mitali – Ilana forwarded your article to me – and I completely love it. If only more of us who tend to polarize complex issues – identity and otherwise – were so nuanced. Thank you for writing it! Cindy Krug (Ilana Brandes-Krug’s mom)

Leave a Comment