Note: This is the first in a series of four short posts in which the author explores the experience of being a Person of Colour in America from her perspective as someone new to the country. Keep an eye out in the coming weeks for the next installments in the series!
It was 2 a.m. on a Friday night. My friend Isue and I sat waiting for a bus outside a club in West Hollywood, trying our best to ignore the drunk guy draped on a lamp-post next to us, professing his eternal love to a girl he had apparently met minutes ago.
“Jian!” The guy yelled all of a sudden, pointing animatedly at Isue. “Anita!”, he yelled again, gesticulating at me now.
We rolled our eyes.
“There were these girls in my class last year”, he garbled, while the embarrassed object of his affections tried to shut him down, “who looked exactly like you.” And then he continued to yell those names at us, in spite of our aggressive eye rolling.
“Okay, you need to shut up”, said Isue finally. “You’re being kinda racist.”
Aggravated now, he yelled, “Whatever… you’re Asian and you’re Asian… you’re both the same, okay?”
Two years ago, I became a Person of Colour.
No, I am not the next Rachel Dolezal. I have, of course, always been a person of colour – a small, brown-skinned, brown-eyed Indian. However, growing up in India in a somewhat racially homogenous milieu, I never thought of race as integral to my identity – or thought about race much, in general. Class, caste and gender: these were social categories of which I was highly aware; born into the more privileged end of the former two spectra, and the not-so-privileged end of the latter, I was reminded constantly of the ways in which they affected my everyday social life. Not that I was completely oblivious to race and its implications in the big, bad world – children of post-colonial countries are not afforded that privilege. But race and its politics neither influenced the lens through which I (and others around me) viewed myself, nor did I have to confront it in my day-to-day social interactions.
All of which changed when I moved to the racially diverse and fraught melting pot of the United States. Thrust into a social world organized by rules foreign to me, in the last two years, I’ve had to reconfigure my sense of identity to accommodate the new labels that define my social place: “minority”, “model minority”, “Asian”. And importantly, I’ve had to learn how to live not just as a person of colour, but a Person of Colour – the capital P and C evoking the particular social, political and cultural experience of being a non-white person in a predominantly white culture.
I’ve had to get used to the fact that an attribute of mine that for the first eighteen years of my life had little significance in how others perceived me is now the first, and sometimes the only thing people see when they see me – as I was harshly reminded that night in West Hollywood. Unlike class or caste, there is no passing or hiding when it comes to race; it is an Otherness I literally wear on my skin. Living as a Person of Colour, I’ve learnt, is to live with the knowledge that when people approach me, they have already boxed me into a set of assumptions based solely on my appearance; random strangers in malls and buses often start conversations with, “So, you’re going to be a doctor, huh?”
(to be continued)