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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Brown White Black

An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion

Nishta J. Mehra

Picador

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

All-American Ethnic Girl



It’s a choice each time I stand in front of a Sharpie-wielding barista: “What’s the name for the order?” It should be a simple enough question, one that generates an automatic response. Except I always pause. Giving my actual name tends to result in puzzled looks (as if I’ve somehow said my own name incorrectly), name butchering (everything from “Nisheeta” to “Natasha”), and additional questions (Where does that come from? What does it mean?), when all I want is a cappuccino. So I can give my name or I can just make one up and be done with it.

But as tempting as it is to invent a name or use my wife’s—Jill—I love my given name too much to pretend that it’s something else. I’m one of the few people I know who has always liked her name. Nishta Jaya Mehra. It’s assonant, rhythmic, melodic, and, yes, unique: even among Indian kids, there aren’t many Nishtas. Because I love my name, I refuse to not use it. I refuse to have it be ignored, to have it go unsaid, to let people call me “Nina” or “whatever you said your name was.”

My mom says she first heard the name—traditionally transliterated from Sanskrit as “Nishtha”—as a teenager and decided, If I have a daughter, that will be her name. It translates to something like “dedication” or “intense devotion,” which is what it took for my parents to conceive and my mother to successfully carry me to term after three miscarriages and many years of expensive, exhausting fertility treatments. To some, that may feel like a lot of weight to carry, but I don’t mind having a name tied to a character trait like dedication. It suits me, though it’s hard to say which came first, the name or the temperament. My name also dovetails with the sense of destiny that my mother believed I was fated for. It would seem my name is the origin for my belief in the power of narrative frameworks.

* * *

Now that I wear a bindi, people tend to connect me to India right away, but that wasn’t always the case. My skin tone lends itself to speculation, like a parlor game people think is fun (not to mention appropriate) to play. I’ve had a lot of Spanish spoken, presumptively, at me; I don’t speak any Spanish. Like many women of color, I’ve been asked, “Do you work here?” at Gap and the grocery store; I’ve never worked retail. “Are you his nanny?” white children will ask when seeing me with my son; the brown women they know are nannies and babysitters.

I was born brown in a city divided into black and white. Throughout my childhood, Memphis was a shockingly segregated place, a city full of shorthand codes about who belonged where. The rules were never explicitly stated, but I grew up with an internal map where boundaries were clearly delineated. Barbecue joints, grocery stores, churches, parks, debutante balls—there were black ones, and there were white ones, and that was it.

As a brown girl, I had a hard time knowing how to navigate my hometown. My parents could not advise me; they were themselves relative strangers to Memphis and its racial codes. They had immigrated to the United States in the late sixties from India and settled in Memphis in the early eighties. They moved into a lily-white suburb, on a block where we were the only brown faces, and sent me to an elite private all-girls’ school within city limits, rendering my world almost exclusively white, black only around the periphery.

Because of the way Memphis is set up, it was possible in my girlhood (and still is, though harder now) to spend my time interacting only with white people, in predominantly or exclusively white spaces, despite the city being majority black. I was a resident of a white world, but I never felt as if I belonged in it, nor was I sure that I wanted to. I came of age not feeling fully at home in either black or white spaces. I had no comfort zone, no set of known or boundaried territory, no institutions or precedents related to my life, no mentors or public figures who looked like me, no mirror. Instead, I received funny looks that I tried in vain to convince myself were my imagination whenever I left my house and endured such a regular rotation of casually racist assumptions, questions, and insults that I still vaguely dread interacting with strangers in public. Even though Memphis’s strange racial dynamics didn’t apply directly to me, I got tangled up in them. When you are the anomaly, everyone feels free to comment.

People in my hometown often assumed I was mixed race, since my mom is fair skinned and my father had dark skin and I fall somewhere in between. Depending on the person and how they learned the truth—that my parents were both Indian immigrants and I was their biological child—they would seem either disappointed that I wasn’t the product of a mixed-race marriage or pleased that I belonged to a category they considered to be “better” than the one they had previously assumed I belonged to. Both of these reactions were problematic in their own way, though at the time I couldn’t have articulated why. Still, I was clear on one thing: no one knew what to do with me.

When I was about seven or eight years old, my mom and I were buying shoes for me at the Stride Rite inside Oak Court Mall, at the time considered a “nice” place to shop (read: mainly white, with some black employees). I was standing in the aisle when a white boy, maybe a year or two younger than me, pointed me out to his mother and used the word “nigger.” My own mother was out of earshot, so when she returned and saw me crying, I had to explain why. My immediate feeling was a visceral, white-hot shame—I’d never heard anyone speak that word aloud before, let alone at me. I knew it was a very, very bad thing to say, and I felt ashamed for having triggered the saying of it. It was also clear that this word did not belong or apply to me; I’d been insulted, but not properly. I remember covering my face with my hands while my mom insisted we continue to try on shoes, trying to move past the incident. As I recall, no words were spoken between my mother and the boy’s mother—though I seem to remember his mother shushing him in mild embarrassment and alarm—and this made me angry. I resented being made to act as though nothing had happened and was indignant that my mother hadn’t confronted the boy’s mother and made some kind of impassioned, dramatic speech about equality before whisking me off in the style of all the 1980s-era books and PSAs about Standing Up to Injustice! I’d been exposed to.

When you’re a kid, your ability to comment or reflect on your own experience is limited. You take things at face value; your experience feels inevitable, not subject to critique, question, or comparison. Still, you learn quickly that your otherness will never be forgotten, even if you manage to forget from time to time what it is that people see when they look at you. Though by many measures I thrived in a white world, I also clearly saw the disconnect between the stated values of American society and its actions in a way only an outsider can. Even if I didn’t have the language for what privilege was or what it might mean, I could see that my white classmates moved through the world differently from the way I did. They were raised not to see color, so they didn’t think about the fact that when they invited me to their country club birthday party, I would be the only non-white guest and the only non-white person there who wasn’t an employee. Even if it did occur to them, they had no way to appreciate what kind of position that would put me in because they’d never been in the minority in any public space, not once in their entire lives.

The white, upper-class Memphis that I knew existed inside its own bubble, its own self-sustaining world with its own set of rules. Preppy was the only acceptable way to dress, and the popular girls all got David Yurman bracelets for their sixteenth birthdays and had boyfriends who wore deck shoes and popped-collar polos. There were a handful of acceptable college football loyalties, and two or three acceptable places to register for wedding gifts, but a wedding reception at the University Club was basically a no-brainer. Memphis money is old and big on tradition: white-dress debutante balls, the Cotton Carnival, the whole nine yards. Concern for or about the “rest of” Memphis arose only when the bubble was threatened, say with the issue of school redistricting or a perception of “unsavory elements” suddenly appearing in neighborhoods previously considered safe.

Most of the rich white people I knew had at least one important black person in their lives: their housekeeper. The love and devotion to these individuals was real but did not extend to a broader demographic concern. And all too often, a relationship that was inherently imbalanced (employer to employee) was considered a shining example of one’s own tolerance and open-mindedness.

* * *

My alma mater, St. Mary’s Episcopal School, now boasts a minority enrollment of twenty-nine percent, but growing up, I was one of a few handfuls of brown or black girls. Over the course of twelve years, all of the classroom teachers I had were white; the adults of color I remember encountering on campus were maintenance or cafeteria staff.

My counterpoint to this white world was the rich soil of chosen family where everyone was brown like me. Before my birth, my parents had built a community of fellow Indian immigrants all transplanted to Memphis, where they began to raise families. My “uncles” and “aunties” (as I called them) and their children were—and still are—who come to mind when I think about my family, even though I’m not related to a single one of them. This chosen family constituted my other life, my evening-and-weekend self, the girl who ate food with her hands and wore salwar khameezes to temple and didn’t eat meat on Tuesdays as part of her religious observance. I did not show up as that girl at school because it didn’t seem wise to do so. Compartmentalizing became my coping mechanism, one that I would again employ as a young adult, when I realized that I was queer. I didn’t know the term “code-switching” back then, but I sure was doing a lot of it, moving back and forth between various behaviors: identity as assimilation, identity as flag-waving, identity as shame, identity as shield, identity as weapon.

As a nerdy brown girl with thick glasses and frizzy hair, I didn’t have many models for how to be brown inside my particular social context—I had to serve as my own guide. There were no Indian cultural icons to speak of and barely any Asian ones; what did exist landed firmly in the category of stereotype. Sixteen Candles ranked high in the rotation of beloved films for high school girls of my generation, but the character Long Duk Dong made me profoundly uncomfortable, as I feared that I would somehow be implicated by his cringeworthy accent and behavior. Other movies that featured prominently at weekend sleepovers—Steel Magnolias, The Cutting Edge, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Dangerous Liaisons, The Princess Bride—featured no characters of color whatsoever. This meant lots of improvisation on my part and a fair amount of guessing—could I dress up as Cher from Clueless, or would everyone automatically assume I should go as Dionne, who was black? Did I have to model my outfit after one of the nameless Asian girls who appeared in the background of the film?

I discovered quickly that friends and even many teachers would adopt whatever tone I set in regard to my difference: Was it a big deal? Not that big of a deal? Could we joke about it? I had to offer instructions but do so in a way that wouldn’t offend anybody. Many immigrant kids are made explicitly aware of this context and its attendant responsibilities—what you do reflects on all of us, so you have to represent us well. To do so requires constantly checking yourself against the standards of two cultures, neither of which you belong to completely. This is a form of the double consciousness that so many people of color naturally adopt, and it is exhausting, even as it becomes second nature. And when you live inside of a social matrix where you are one of the few (if not only) members of your tribe that the mainstream will encounter, it becomes even more necessary for you to show up, in your brown skin, a certain way.

For nearly all of my years at St. Mary’s, I took that responsibility seriously—working “twice as hard,” as my mom had instructed, to prove that I was “just as good.” Because I was eager to learn, conflict averse, and self-motivated, school worked for me; I was good at it. Those same traits made it tricky for me socially, when I took at face value the need to explain or contextualize myself for others, to cheerfully say, “That’s okay!” when fellow students, or even faculty members, did things like mistakenly assume my family worshipped idols or that I would have an arranged marriage. I cultivated my identity as Very Helpful Girl, always willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, always happy to share about my culture even as I started to resent being treated as a one-woman diversity show. I learned to anticipate implications that I might have received something—a spot on the mock trial team, an end-of-the-year award, admission to a competitive college—because of the color of my skin. As deeply as I resented the notion that I had not fairly earned the academic success I worked so hard to achieve, I learned quickly that to question these judgments, to object or draw attention to them in any way, would be viewed as unforgivable ingratitude. “Ugh, you’re so lucky,” a classmate said as we discussed our college applications. “They’re going to see your name and let you in.”

* * *

I have long had a complicated relationship with my Indianness. As a young girl, I was proud to be brown, proud to share my culture with anyone who expressed curiosity about it. I liked having something that set me apart, that made me interesting by association. Of course, “interesting” is not the same as “cool,” and in middle school I learned how “interesting” could quickly translate to “different” and become a liability. As an only child, I didn’t have any trailblazing older sibling to look to for wisdom or a younger one to advise or navigate these complexities with.

Because I was a kid who fiercely loved her parents, I didn’t want to feel ashamed of or embarrassed by anything associated with them, but I still did. It felt cowardly and disloyal to wish that my mom would pack sandwiches or Lunchables instead of leftover tomato rice for lunch or to be annoyed when my dad sang Hindi songs while taking long baths on Sunday afternoons instead of playing golf. On some level, I loved those things about my parents; I found them endearing. But I was also always thinking about how their quirks looked to others, how they came across to my white classmates. I stuck out in all the wrong ways, and my brownness was one part of that. My parents were older than almost everyone else’s; my mom worked outside of our house (while the vast majority of my classmates’ mothers didn’t); I was not even a little bit athletic and never played a school sport; I genuinely liked school; I was one of very few only children I knew; I seemed to connect better with teachers than I did with my peers. But while some of those things shifted—whenever my classmates got to know my parents, they found them as endearing as I did—my brownness was immutable and impossible to hide. In second-grade art, we were tasked with making clay angels that were put on display in the cafeteria, and mine was the only one, out of dozens and dozens of angels, that wasn’t blond. She had long black hair, just like me.

There were no modes of representation other than the ones I created for myself, pieces I would collage from the broader culture and rework to make them fit. There were no Indians anywhere—not in books, on TV, or in magazines. Not being represented occurred as a complete inevitability, but I didn’t seek out representation in traditional Indian culture because it felt even more foreign to me than the white American culture I wanted so desperately to see myself in.

The first mainstream movie that felt even remotely connected to my own life was Bend It Like Beckham, which was released when I was twenty-one years old. Though I’m not British, Sikh, or a soccer player, it was still the closest thing I’d ever come to seeing someone on a big screen who vaguely resembled me, and the experience was so moving that I cried. I saw how I missed out on so much of the rich inner lives of my parents and my friends’ parents, because I saw them the same way the white broader culture did, discounting them because of their accents and otherness. How shameful that I had never considered my own story to be movieworthy, to discover as an adult that the uncles I’d thought were goofy and uncool performed complicated brain surgeries and lectured internationally, or to realize that I’d underestimated my gossipy, talkative aunties, only to learn about the multiple degrees they held (because American universities wouldn’t accept their “foreign” master’s degrees when they’d immigrated) and the three or four or five languages they spoke. It’s a raw deal to internalize the stereotypes of the very culture that never embraced you fully.

When I graduated from high school, my yearbook superlative was “All-American Ethnic Girl.” And the worst part is, I’m the one who came up with it. None of my white classmates felt the need to designate themselves the “All-American Girl” in contrast, or by way of complement, which is what makes it so interesting to me that no one said anything about my choice or encouraged me to drop the “ethnic” and simply go with “All-American.” Adding “Ethnic” was a preemptive qualifier, a way to prevent anyone from questioning my worthiness to the title. Claim it before someone can attack you with it or use it against you; that was my strategy. I was still operating under the assumption that I could construct my own identity and make my own place in the mainstream, that this was something I both should want and could somehow achieve. I’d get people to see me for who I really was. I’d be the one to single-handedly hammer nuance into a lexicon of extremes.

My generation was told we could be anything we wanted to be. We came of age singing along to Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, watching Murphy Brown and Designing Women, witnessing a woman fly into space and being appointed to the Supreme Court. The message of independence was driven home especially hard at my all-girls’ school, where we were empowered in ways that made feminism a posture so obvious we hardly ever spoke its name aloud. But this conscious move toward giving girls the tools to succeed and break glass ceilings focused solely on gender. There was no talk about how things might work differently for us non-white girls. Race very rarely entered the conversation when it came to girl power.

* * *

As with race and culture, I also straddled two worlds when it came to religion; I like to tell people that I was born into Hinduism but raised in the Episcopal Church. My parents brought me up with a religious identity that included an openness to other faiths. They themselves were the product of tolerant, pluralistic environments, and my mother had attended and taught at Catholic schools in India. They had no fear or hesitation in sending me to St. Mary’s, especially because we continued to practice our cultural traditions at home.

It was within the religious context of my childhood that I worked through what it meant to navigate an insider-outsider dynamic. I visited India twice as a child—once when I was so young that I could not remember the trip—but never felt entirely comfortable being tethered by proxy to the country and its culture at large. Hinduism, though, I’ve always felt deeply connected to. The Hinduism of my childhood was visceral, immersive, and filled with sensory detail; I loved its emphasis on ritual and practice, the lush aesthetics of its sacred spaces and depictions of the divine. When I was growing up, we had a prayer room in our house and my mother would get up early each morning to read scripture and sing hymns before breakfast. I often woke to the sound of her voice, rising and falling in the curve of a familiar melody, sometimes slipping in to join her before getting dressed for school.

Because there was no Hindu temple in Memphis until I was in middle school, my parents and extended family were my primary source of knowledge about our traditions, explaining rituals and holidays, encouraging my spiritual interest. At school, I was also encouraged; I was the most enthusiastic student in Bible class, where I learned about Jesus through Mrs. Williams’s felt-board depictions of his life. I loved chapel, took pleasure in the quiet time for reflection we were given each morning, but I went back and forth about whether it was okay to say the “in Jesus’s name” part of the school prayer.

Though I felt drawn to Jesus and his kindliness, I was keenly aware that he wasn’t mine. I didn’t want to stop being Hindu, but sometimes I thought it would be easier if I were a Christian instead, if I could wear a cross and go to youth group on Sunday afternoons and not have to explain to anyone what I believed. I felt most acutely out of place on the few days a year communion was offered during chapel. Though I looked on with a conflicted sense of longing as my classmates walked up to the altar, I staunchly refused when friends—even our chaplain—suggested that it might be okay for me to take communion, too. “But I don’t believe,” I said incredulously. “That would be disrespectful.” Everyone seemed to like the idea of my being both, but no one could explain to me how I might go about doing it.

Sometimes I coped by exaggerating my “Indianness,” placing emphasis on what felt like the most exotic and potentially attention-attracting aspects of my identity. I struggled to figure out what level of visibility made sense. When was I sharing my heritage, and when was I flaunting it? For every teenager, adolescence is a delicate balancing act of demonstrating one’s uniqueness while trying also to fit in with the crowd. For me, the “uniqueness” part was easier than for most of the other girls, the “fitting in” much harder. It was with half mortification and half exhilaration that I got dressed in Indian clothes to perform Bharatanatyam with three or four of my fellow brown-girl classmates in chapel; I had the same set of feelings when I was forced to reveal to friends that I was skipping lunch because I was fasting for a Hindu holiday. “We have a calculus test today! You should have asked to take it tomorrow instead!”

But I was accustomed to being in the minority, to the world being inconvenient and not revolving around me. Unlike my classmates, who only knew a world that catered to them, I did not feel entitled to any special treatment. I never once had the day off from school for the religious holidays my family observed; our celebrations were invisible to my classmates and neighbors. There were no stores selling Diwali decorations or cards, no mention of it in the news, nobody wishing me “Happy Diwali” at school. We celebrated, but the parties never took place on the actual holy day, because there’s no way my parents were going to pull me out of school or take off work.

Learning to make allowances for my family’s traditions pushed me to appreciate my heritage more, to understand that I had to make room for it in my life, to experience firsthand how assimilation can become such an appealing option for immigrants; almost everything in the dominant white culture is set up to have you conform, instead of keeping your odd, inconvenient traditions alive. At times I struggled with the fact that I often identified more with the traditions that weren’t mine, such as our school hymn sings, where we’d spend an entire chapel period requesting and singing songs that I found just as beautiful but more personally resonant than the Sanskrit ones from Hinduism, which I could sing but not understand.

* * *

India always seemed remote and foreign to me. As a child of immigrants, I was careful never to claim the country outright: “My parents are from India, but I was born here.” My attachment to India was by proxy, and while I was proud of the paths my parents had taken to bring my hyphenated self into being, India never felt like mine. The attendant trappings of its culture existed as a kind of grab bag that encompassed several categories: genuine attachment, inconvenient association, fashionable accessory. My mom says I used to complain about eating Indian food once a week as a kid. (I both love to eat and know how to cook that same food now.) Coming back from winter break in fifth grade with mehndi on my hands was pretty cool, but white classmates asking for bindis after Gwen Stefani started wearing them on the red carpet in 1998 was stressful. None of us knew what “cultural appropriation” was yet, but I could feel the specter of it pulsing around the edge of my life.

I struggled with being defined by or limited to my Indianness. Perhaps my least favorite demonstration of this was when white people, upon correctly determining or establishing that my family was Indian, would respond with something along the lines of “We know [insert name of Indian people] in [insert name of faraway state]! Do you know them?” Not kidding. It happened dozens and dozens of times—my parents and I used to joke that one day we were going to respond with “I know these white people in Minnesota! Are they your cousins?”

I was raised to be a good sport—when you’re different, you always have to be a good sport. Being annoyed or offended is part of your daily experience, and you don’t always realize that this isn’t necessarily true for everyone else. My parents, immigrants to this country, were clear on the messaging: we would not complain or draw attention to unfair treatment, even if we were sure it was purposeful and somehow motivated by our skin color. They staunchly refused to interfere or swoop in; I had to figure out how to navigate those scenarios on my own, because they knew I’d be doing it my whole life. Though I didn’t realize it until later, I was socialized as a brown girl to notice when and how my presence made others uncomfortable—by the time I was ten or twelve, my own discomfort in social situations seemed inevitable.

Likewise, I understood when my presence was being deliberately orchestrated for a certain message or effect. I wasn’t ignorant of the visual asset my brown skin provided—I never had to guess why I was routinely selected to be photographed for promotional materials for any school or summer program I attended. But to a second grader, being on the cover of St. Mary’s Magazine felt like the special attention I craved. Even in high school, I didn’t mind being the “diversity card” in my group of friends or realize that I should cringe when a college roommate told me that they’d deliberately revealed to their parents that I liked girls just to freak them out.

The line between appreciation and appropriation is fuzzy, and as a brown person, I often feel like an unwitting Border Patrol agent, never sure which side of the line I’m protecting. Growing up, I found that many of my white friends seemed hungry for pieces of my culture because they did not feel that they had a satisfactory culture of their own. Their identities were convenient but boring. They wanted something to help them stand out or to offer more texture to their identity. I was lucky to have friends, classmates, and teachers who were curious about my religion and culture, and I waffled between eagerly sharing what I knew (at times exaggerating how much I actually knew) and feeling paranoid that my background was the only interesting thing about me.

No doubt it was at least a partial draw for my friends. It became a point of pride when they no longer had to ask for utensils when eating Indian food with my family; my mom gave one of my best friends the nickname “Sangeeta” because of her musical talent and arranged to have a langa (ankle-length skirt) sent from India for the graduation gift of another classmate. Only later did I wonder if this was sharing or selling out, granting easy access to the “fun” aspects of my heritage without any of the attendant work.

* * *

One of the most beloved traditions at St. Mary’s is the annual Christmas pageant, in which seniors who’ve attended the school since first grade or longer enact a series of scenes from famous paintings of the Nativity, Annunciation, Adoration, and so on. It’s old-fashioned and strange and treated with enormous respect by the student body. As a senior, I was selected by classmates to be one of the six Marys—the first but not the last non-white, not-Jewish-or-Christian girl to do so. Everyone called me “Brown Mary,” and the church ladies who volunteered for the pageant paired me with another Indian student, Amrita, who served as my Joseph; we threatened to bring in a brown doll to be our baby Jesus but ultimately dared not. As our humanities teacher pointed out, we were probably the most historically accurate-looking couple up there, though not what Fra Angelico had in mind.

I was sick as a dog in the days leading up to the pageant; the day before, I was running such a bad fever that my mom took me to see a doctor at the critical care clinic. My fever had to break, he insisted, or I could not go into school the next day. (I think I was the first high school patient he’d ever seen weep upon being told not to return to school.)

I spent the morning of the pageant in my bed, wrapped up in blankets and shivering, begging my body to be well. Down the hall, my mom performed her daily puja (worship ceremony) and I took comfort in the sound of her voice. Singing with her, I felt truly desperate, appealing to the Divine Female on both sides of my personal equation—Durga and Mary—to give me this opportunity to make Christmas pageant history. An hour before the cutoff window for school attendance required to participate in extracurricular events, my fever broke.

The rest of the experience is a rush of feeling and sensation—my beautiful classmates cheering my arrival, embracing me, feeding me soup, doing my hair and makeup, sneaking ginger ale up onto the altar for me to sip as we waited our turns. The collective breath of the younger girls as they paused inside their “Gloooooooooria in excelsis Deo,” the heat of the lights inside the tableau box, a sense that the line between reality and something transcendent was blurring, the way Hinduism speaks of: being offered a window into the beyond of our own human experience.

I’d wanted so badly to participate in the pageant because it was a tradition I’d witnessed and looked forward to for years; I did not know that it would also be a rare moment of feeling comfortable inside myself, an opportunity to have the two worlds of my childhood merge, and to be celebrated and embraced, not in spite of any contradiction but alongside of it.

* * *

Though I am fifteen years removed from my time at St. Mary’s, my compliant, All-American Ethnic Girl self still returns almost as an involuntary reflex. I now teach in a majority-white (though coeducational) school, similar to the one I attended, where I bring many of my previous navigational tricks to bear. I learned long ago that even if you don’t know more about India than anyone else, you still become the default expert. Nowadays, I feel much less guilty about saying, “You know what? I have no idea,” when asked a question that assumes some kind of intrinsic knowledge of a culture based on the color of my skin.

I find myself looking back and wishing that instead of seeking to make my differences seem smaller, I’d pushed them further in the other direction. I wish I’d known how to make my classmates’ cultural biases visible to them, though they were invisible to me as well. I came of age in an environment that emphasized sameness, focused on what we had in common, and refused to speak about—or even acknowledge—anything that was different. Celebrations of diversity involved obliging but distant consumption of other people’s cultures and messaging about how we were all “more alike than different.” Some would suggest that I should better appreciate the matrix of excruciating politeness and determination not to offend that imbued my formative years, but the net result of that matrix was a sense of liberal, progressive smugness. My white peers got the benefit of feeling enlightened and tolerant without actually having to be so; I was allowed access into their world so long as I didn’t force them to give up anything or challenge their perceptions of their own inclusivity.

I was well trained to accommodate the majority, and it is with conscious effort that I now try to interrogate and interrupt those default patterns. One practice I’ve taken up is the deliberate use of my name, the name my mother chose for me long before I was even born. I don’t use a “Starbucks name,” something more “typical” or “mainstream” to substitute when ordering a coffee or making a dinner reservation. This is a small act, but for me it has meaning. My name is my signifier, my sign; even the Old English etymology of the word “name” can be traced back to a word that means “to call, nominate, appoint.” Names have power—think of how creepy it feels when someone who hasn’t earned the right of intimacy calls you by your nickname—and answering to something other than the name I was given, the name that claims me, feels like a compromise.

I’m aware that I might not feel so righteously entrenched in my “no Starbucks name” positionality if my name were more multisyllabic, consonant laden, or at the further reaches of American English pronunciation abilities. Not only does it feel like erasure to forgo one’s true name, the same feeling can be achieved when hearing it said incorrectly, over and over and over again. But apologizing for or hiding your name can also be part of a broader posture of trying to take up less space to make things easier on those who’ve never had to stretch beyond the boundaries of their knowledge and experience. We don’t heat up our leftovers at work, because they “smell funny” to our colleagues. It feels conspicuous to talk to our compatriots in our native languages in public, so we don’t. I wonder what would happen if we stopped worrying so much about whether we’re making those in the majority uncomfortable? It’s not from nowhere that white people developed the idea that they are entitled to be comfortable all of the time; they demand or expect it, sure, but we are often the ones who comply.


Copyright © 2019 by Nishta J. Mehra

Afterword and Q&A copyright © 2020 by Nishta J. Mehra